Adventures in Administration: Flip Your Department Meetings

Here is almost every department meeting I’ve ever been in:

  • The meeting starts with participants signing in and taking a copy of the agenda. There is a 5–10 minute period of time spent waiting for as many department members as possible to assemble in the room prior to starting the actual meeting.
  • The person running the meeting (the “boss”) boots a slide deck to support the information that he/she is going to deliver. The deck is guaranteed to be almost entirely text-on-a-screen. It is going to have more details about the items that are on the agenda that participants took when they walked in.
  • The boss goes over each item as they show up on the slides. Participants ask questions. Many of the questions are individual issues that don’t actually need to be addressed in a whole-group setting.
  • If there is time/energy remaining at the end of the slide deck discussion, some minor professional development will be deployed. Usually there won’t be any time, or mental energy among the group for such a thing, so the meeting ends with the presentation.

This is the structure of almost every department meeting that I’ve been a part of. It’s also the structure of almost every building-level faculty meeting, and seemingly (based on the first three months of my administrative career) almost every cabinet or curriculum team meeting. I’m reasonably sure it’s the dominant professional “team” meeting structure more broadly, across multiple industries and professions. Given that it’s so dominant, it really deserves an archetypal name: I call it the “Laundry List”.

In most circumstances in which it is deployed, the Laundry List meeting sucks. It’s boring, and it treats the most important gift any colleague can give to another (their time and attention) disrespectfully. What’s particularly galling about the misuse of the Laundry List in education is that it is exactly opposite to the way we do the work of teaching children. You don’t want your child to be in a class that is run like the Laundry List. If I observed a classroom that employed the Laundry List, I’d be having a private conversation with the teacher afterward. But still, even though it is anti-pedagogical, the Laundry List dominates the form of teacher meetings.

In almost every circumstance, I can’t change that. Here in the new job, the only meetings that I plan are my department meetings. But since those are fully half of the meetings that my staff has to attend, I can do a lot of good by them by doing everything in my power to never run a Laundry List ever again. Which is what I’ve decided to do.

So far, I’ve employed two main structures to kill the department Laundry List. The first is just to move as much as possible to other modes of communication, primarily email. The second is to take a page from my major focus as a teacher for the past few years, and flip the Department Meeting. If flipping is anything, it’s an approach to time management that maximizes the amount of time that can be spent doing useful, interesting things during in-person contexts, so it should be a great solution to the problem of the Laundry List.

Here is how I flip my Department Meetings:

  1. At the beginning of a month where I am going to have a department meeting, I make a slide deck and agenda, just like I would if I were going to Laundry List it.
  2. I film myself presenting the information in the slide deck.
  3. I post the video.
  4. I send the link to the video to my department, and ask them to watch it prior to our scheduled department meeting. It seems like 2-weeks is an appropriately long period of time to let teachers find the space they need to watch the video.
  5. I create a tool that serves to track video viewing, and provides teachers with a place to leave any questions/concerns/complaints they might have upon viewing the video. My current tool of choice is a simple google form.
  6. I look at the questions/concerns/complaints prior to our in-person meeting. I deal with any individual issues individually.
  7. I start our in-person meeting by dealing with any questions/concerns/complaints that need to be addressed as a group.
  8. I then use the bulk of our in-person meeting to do something useful that doesn’t involve my review of a Laundry List of administrative items.

November was the first month where I flipped the department meeting. It worked about as well as I thought it would. You can see the video here if you really need to. To make it a bit more interesting for participants, I “gamified” the google form a bit by using quiz mode, with a prize to the teacher(s) who scored the highest. The form is also how I know it worked:

We spent our in-person meetings for the month playing around with some computer resources that I wanted to share more broadly at the Middle School, and doing our annual Regents-data analysis/strategy brainstorming at the High School. Both of which were much more useful for the departments than any Laundry List could have been.

As a nascent administrator, I’m trying to stay really conscious of the fact that I don’t know enough at this point to even know what I don’t know. So much of the on-boarding process just involves learning the structures and systems by which I can function in my job, let alone do anything even remotely innovative. But even with that established, killing the Laundry List is a small victory for common sense, and I’m glad to have been able to do it, at least in my little corner of education. Now I just need to figure out what to do with all of the good PD time that’s suddenly available.