Some time ago I shared an article titled ‘Antidote to a disengaged school board’. Judging by the strong response of appreciative feedback I received in response to that article, many schools’ board meetings could be more engaging.
For a school to advance under visionary, energetic, committed leadership, board members and the principal must be visionary, energetic and committed. And yet some of the board members I deal with when I conduct workshops and large projects confess that although they are excited by the school and the potential of the contributions they can make, they are often bored when they attend board meetings.
Given that every school board meeting should be making decisions that will enhance the formation of young lives and thus shape our society for decades to come, I genuinely find it perplexing that this could ever be described as ‘boring’. I would love to think that at the end of every board meeting, every board member goes home and is able to claim:
- I left the meeting feeling privileged that I am able to serve as part of the collective process to shape the future of this school.
- I gained a deeper understanding of the work we are doing and I can’t wait to tell others about it (while respecting the confidentiality of the meeting, of course).
- I felt that I was respected by others and that my insights were valued as we worked together to solve problems and create new opportunities to advance our mission and vision.
- I gained fresh perspectives that help me understand some of the ongoing challenges that we need to address.
- I feel even more enthusiastic about being an ambassador for the school and I want to raise its profile across my network and in the wider community.
- I was impressed that the Principal’s and other reports were informative, compelling, and inspiring.
- I learned more about my fellow board members.
- I thought the meeting was well planned and executed by the Chair.
It is hard to imagine any board member making those eight claims AND also honestly claiming they had been bored. Therefore, what practical steps can a board take collectively to make these eight claims a reality after every meeting?
- Ensure that every board member understands the school’s purpose (its mission) and priorities (its vision) by quoting these at the top of every meeting agenda.
- Set a clear agenda for every meeting, distribute it well in advance of the meeting together with any documents required for background reading, and stick to the set agenda throughout the meeting.
- Be mindful of the time commitment of board members by starting and finishing meetings punctually, setting time limits for individual agenda items, disallowing discussion on items not on the agenda, treating items that do not require discussion or decisions “as read” or “for information only”, thus keeping the discussion focussed.
- Encourage respectful disagreement during discussions (because it helps the board to fine-tune its decisions), but eject any attendee from the meeting who shows contempt or disrespect for others.
- Incorporate interactive elements in the meeting, such as Q&A sessions, group discussions or different styles of presentation, including multimedia where appropriate.
- Urge every attendee, including the quiet introverts, to contribute to every discussion.
- Allocate a responsibility to every board member, such as chairing a board committee, liaising with an outside organisation, etc.
- Introduce breakout sessions to encourage small group discussions and greater individual involvement when exploring options on specific topics.
- Include personal stories that highlight the impact and significance of statistical information that is presented during regular reporting sessions.
- Offer regular professional development workshops on best practice in school governance so that board members fully understand their roles and the ways in which they can maximise their ‘value added’ to the work of the board.
- Undertake regular board performance reviews to encourage board members in areas that are working well as well as identifying areas where renewed focus might yield significant benefits.
- Take the time to celebrate the board’s (and the school’s) achievements and successes.
These 12 points all relate to the conduct of the meeting, either directly or indirectly. There are some additional factors that can support these steps and help facilitate positive meetings:
- The environment of the meeting room has a huge impact on meeting dynamics. Participants’ energy levels increase when there is abundant natural light, good ventilation and a cool-to-moderate temperature.
- The room must be acoustically sound (excuse the pun), not only to avoid disempowering participants with hearing difficulties, but so everyone can hear everything that is said by everyone else without straining and having to filter out echoes or background noise.
- Attendees should be arranged so that everyone can see as well as hear everyone else. This is necessary because body language is an important component of communication (for everyone), and in addition, those with poor hearing are helped by seeing the lip movements of other speakers. In general, oval-shaped tables work best if available.
- Morning meetings are usually more productive than evening meetings. Meetings that last more than two and a half hours show declining focus and productivity.
- It is helpful to take a short break every 90 minutes or so participants can use the bathroom, take important phone calls, stretch legs, inhale some fresh air or simply clear their minds.
- Have refreshments such as water, biscuits, chocolate, tea and coffee available throughout the meeting for participants, recognising that some attendees may not have had time for proper meals before the meeting.
- Dr Stephen Codrington