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Great staff meetings: Pointers from the principals who lead them

Stuck for ideas for effective staff meetings? Looking for ways to make sure everybody is present and interested? Education World's "Principal Files" team has some ideas for you!

Staff meetings can be the most important and productive professional development opportunities of the school year; on the other hand, they can be the most dreaded and squandered time a teacher will spend. So, what makes the difference between wonderful and wasteful meetings? That's the question we posed to Education World's Principal Files team. We asked team members to tell us about their best-ever staff meetings.

According to Ed World's P-Files team, successful staff meetings are a function of the purpose, the planning, and the pace of those meetings.

"For me, the best staff meetings are those in which there is active participation, a lot of give and take, and a consensus," said Debbie Levitz, principal at West Elementary School in Stoughton, Massachusetts.

"I love staff meetings because I try to go into each staff meeting as a student -- a student of administration and leadership," added Uwe C. Gordon, principal at Hennessey (Oklahoma) High School. "I don't have many staff meetings, but I try to make the most of each one. I try to keep an open mind and open ears to the messages that my faculty is sending."

Getting the year off to a great start

"The best staff meeting is always the first staff meeting of the new school year," said veteran principal Tony Pallija. Pallija is principal at North Canton Hoover High School in North Canton, Ohio. "The first staff meeting sets the tone for the whole school year. It is a time to share and be social. It is a time to establish the goals for the year."

The goals for the year are usually very straightforward, added Pallija, who is entering his first year as principal at North Canton Hoover High. Those goals probably involve raising test scores or graduation rates, and that cannot be done unless the staff members work as a team. "Working as a team -- as corny as it might sound -- is the leadership theme for the opening meeting. ... You don't have too many opportunities to let the staff know what you expect of them and what they can expect from you. I let them know that they can expect me to be here every day to support them wherever and in whatever ways needed."

Having a plan and a purpose

Establishing a plan and an agenda for a meeting is essential to its success.

Principals Share Favorite Activities for Staff Meetings

Laura Guggino, principal at Rhame Avenue Elementary School in East Rockaway, New York, has a favorite staff meeting activity. "Beside the usual ritual of upcoming dates and reminders, I asked each teacher to bring 'a favorite _____,'" she told Education World. "For example, I might ask each teacher to make 30 copies of a favorite graphic organizer. At the meeting, we share them and discuss the merits of using graphic organizers. Everybody leaves the meeting with a package of graphic organizers to incorporate into their daily lesson plans."


Larry Davis, principal at Doctors Inlet Elementary School in Middleburg, Florida, seldom has trouble getting staff meetings to start on time and keeping them upbeat. Everybody is there on time, Davis said, because "the first item of business is always the door prize. We draw the name of a staff member out of a hat. The one selected gets a free meal at Outback Steakhouse."

The next item on the agenda is the Golden Apple Award, which is presented by a teacher to another teacher. This award recognizes a fun accomplishment or character trait of a staff member, Davis explained. "The award might be given one month to 'the teacher most likely to be at school after hours' or 'the teacher who will probably win the Nobel Peace Prize.' Another month it might go to 'the teacher who is like a mother hen to others,' 'the teacher with the most school spirit,' or 'the teacher who is the hostess with the mostest.'" The recipient of the award becomes the presenter the next month.

"Staff meetings are a time for 'pats on the back,'" said Uwe C. Gordon, principal at Hennessey (Oklahoma) High School. "I try to find the less significant things to reward. The big things are easy and seen by most, but to reward my custodian for surviving five days of rain goes a long way with everyone and shows due appreciation. I also like activities that inform my staff about their colleagues' outside-of-school lives. Scavenger hunts about the faculty or a Web page of pictures of staff members from their junior high days can bring people together as a team. As a result of those activities, the science teacher and the basketball coach might learn of their mutual love of The Partridge Family or travels to Alaska and bond into a stronger team as a result."

Debbie Levitz has a few standard procedures that help set a positive tone for meetings at West Elementary. First, she e-mails an agenda to all staff members in advance of the meeting. She always invites anybody who has a topic that should be added to the agenda to let her know. There is also a part of every meeting that Levitz calls "Your Turn" -- it is a time when the meeting is opened up to anybody who has something to bring up.

"Finally," Levitz said, "teachers love to leave a meeting just like they leave a conference -- with something valuable they can take home. I look for great ideas and lesson plans on the Internet, and I make copies to distribute at the end of each staff meeting."

Larry Davis has a process for setting the agenda for staff meetings at Doctors Inlet Elementary School in Middleburg, Florida. "We have a file where teachers and staff members can let us know what they would like to have presented," Davis explained. An agenda is completed before the meeting and handed out, and that agenda is closely followed. Each presenter must work within the time assigned to him or her. By the end of the school year, Davis said, he can look back at the agendas and see that everybody has been involved and everybody has learned many new things.

Bill Myers recently was appointed director of pupil family services in the school district of Sterling, Illinois. While principal at Sterling's Lincoln Elementary School, Myers always set an agenda in order to keep staff meetings on track. "Teachers are parents too," said Myers, "so I always designated one staff member as the clock watcher." On the agenda, more time was devoted to the most pressing school issues, but no agenda item was allowed to extend into the time of the next item.

Myers's plan was not quite as simple as it appeared -- and it was much more fun! You see, Myers and the appointed clock watcher agreed ahead of time on a secret "time up" signal such as a tug on the earlobe. When the clock watcher signaled, Myers would move the focus of the meeting to the next agenda item. But who was the signaler, and what was the signal? That was all part of the fun! "As staff members entered the meeting, each was given a heart with their name on it," Myers told Education World. "I explained that I had a secret clock watcher with a secret signal. When the meeting was over, they would write on their heart the name of the clock watcher and what the secret signal was. The hearts went into a bag and were drawn until a winner was found.

"I did not expect the hilarious ideas I got about the secret signal," Myers said. "Among the guesses were 'when Diana fluffed her hair' or 'when Gail played with her skirt.'"

The important thing was that "when the meeting ended, the agenda was complete, people were still laughing, and our collegiality was even more solidified," added Myers.

Outside guests can excite the troops!

Staff meetings need not always be led by the principal. Outside guests might be just what's needed in some situations; in others, inviting a member of the "inside" staff to take control of a meeting is an ideal approach.

"The best staff meeting I ever organized was for the first day of school last year," said Sherri Goffman, principal at West Haverstraw (New York) Elementary School. "We worked with consultant Renee Rodriguez. She was charming, inspiring, and funny. That motivated everybody and got us off to an enthusiastic beginning. We really connected as a staff, and we laughed a lot!"

Among the activities that Rodriguez led was one in which everybody tried to fold their arms in the opposite way they were accustomed to folding them. That activity emphasized how difficult change can be, explained Goffman. "Rodriguez also led the staff in chants that reinforced why we are teachers," she added. "We were all engaged around the same topics and themes -- making learning meaningful and fun."

Inside guests too!

Staff meetings led by "inside guests" -- members of a school's staff -- can also be great fun and terrific learning experiences. Giving teachers, individually or in groups, an opportunity to shine can help develop school leaders and build staff morale.

At Reed Middle School in Hubbard, Ohio, principal Jim DeGenova recalled his favorite staff meeting. It was one led by one of his teachers -- a second-grade teacher who shared what she had learned in a graduate level course she had taken. "She presented Mazlow and Bloom to a staff of experienced teachers who respected her abilities," said DeGenova. "The goal was to simply present a new idea and to provide enough knowledge to pique interest in furthering the learning.

"I believe the success of that meeting came from the idea that a teacher led the meeting and that I participated in the session as a learner," DeGenova added. "The staff became so interested in sharing new learning that that type of meeting soon became standard practice in the building. Everyone learned from each other, which helped to develop staff morale and raise the level of expertise of the entire staff."

Principal Brian Hazeltime agreed that teacher-led staff sessions can be among the most effective. "The best staff meeting I have ever experienced was one where one of the teachers led us through a simplified form of the DISC personality inventory," Hazeltine, principal at Airdrie Koinonia Christian School in Airdrie, Alberta, Canada, told Education World. "Each teacher was given four pictures -- a lion, an otter, a golden retriever, and a beaver. They had to choose which of those animals most accurately depicted themselves. Before each teacher revealed the 'self-assessment,' the rest of us made our own assessments of how we perceived them. Then staff members showed their choices.

"It was a lot of fun getting to know one another better," said Hazeltine.

Hazeltine continues to use the DISC survey. Before hiring a new teacher, he has each prospect complete the survey as part of the interview process. "We discuss how their personality will fit into the organization," Hazeltine explained. "It helps me understand how to work most effectively with each staff member."

Working together toward a common goal

Often, successful staff meetings stem from having all members of a school team work together toward a common goal. Every teacher serves as an expert and adds something to the final product. "The best staff meeting I ever experienced was actually several meetings over a two-week-long intensive reading initiative workshop," said Teri Stokes, principal at Weatherly Heights Elementary School in Huntsville, Alabama. The entire staff came up with a plan for implementing the new reading initiative, Stokes explained. "We came up with lots of school-wide, cross-grade-level, valuable activities and teaching strategies.

"Best of all, a new level of bonding, collegiality, and professional growth came about because of our efforts," Stokes added.

The P-File Archives

Have you read other articles in the P-Files series? Check out the archive of more than two dozen practical articles!

The best staff meeting principal Les Potter recalls took place last year when a new school opened and his school -- Silver Sands Middle School in Port Orange, Florida -- went from a school of more than 2,000 students to one of 1,200. "Decisions did not come from the top -- they came from the staff," Potter told Education World. "We had to reorganize and redo our teams, planning periods, facilities, master schedule. ... We went from five to six teaching periods a day."

During a series of meetings, everybody on the staff played a role in the change process, said Potter. "Everyone knew what was going on at all times. The end result was very important, but probably more important was the learning process that has changed our staff's thinking about leadership and meetings forever."

Feedback . . . and food!

Earlier in this article we shared Debbie Levitz's ideas for good staff meetings. We mentioned how she sends out an agenda via e-mail and how she always reserves part of the meeting for a "Your Turn" session. But we didn't mention one other part of Levitz's formula for successful meetings. The third key to successful meetings, Levitz told Education World, is food! "We always plan some kind of refreshments," Levitz told Education World.

Uwe Gordon made special mention of food too! "I've read the book by Neila Conners, , which describes a number of methods to lighten up staff meetings -- but I took the title literally and try to feed my staff whenever we meet.

"I am a principal at a high school, and it is difficult to meet with all of my faculty, so we meet at lunch, and I feed them," said Gordon. "This deviates from the norm of cafeteria food. ... I have found that local eateries are more than will to donate food or charge a reduced rate for teachers."