The importance of line management meetings

Line management meetings are often the first thing to be cut in busy school environments but senior managers underestimate their importance at their peril. (376 words)

What are the top three day- to- day roles of a senior manager?

I won’t list mine here but it’s worth a think. I wonder how many of us have put line management meetings on the list?

Over time I have learnt that line management meetings are an essential and often overlooked part of being a manager of others. It’s also an area that we get no training in- despite their importance.

Poor line management meetings are very top down. ‘Do this.’ ‘Do That.’ ‘Have you done what I asked you to do since last meeting?’

The best line management meetings are an exchange of ideas and a sources of ongoing CPD.

I’ve experienced  both kinds from the point of view of the manager and the member of staff.

Line management meetings are where the real relationships are made. Where you find out the vision of the person you are line managing (and vice versa) and help them to shape it and help their teams to achieve it. As a manager, it’s easy to cancel or move line management meetings because other things feel more pressing. In general, they aren’t, especially long term. We wouldn’t cancel a lesson to write a report or similar and line management meetings are as important. They aren’t an extra. They are an entitlement.

For those of us who line manage middle mangers, we need to remember it’s a difficult job but one where the key work of the school is done and how our strategic vision becomes reality via smaller teams. Middle leaders deserve space to think and play with ideas in a non judgmental way as well as somewhere they can discuss any issues  (personal and professional) that they are bothering them. Line management can provide this as well as necessary constructive challenge.

Senior leaders need good line management too and I’d suggest anything less than once a fortnight on a regular basis is probably inadequate.

A chat in the corridor is good for day to day discussions but it should be an extra to a real sit down. Let’s make those we manage feel valued.

 

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When groups don’t work

I don’t really like group work.  It’s just not for me.

I’ve been on two (pretty good) courses recently where I had to work in a group to come up with ideas and then execute a task. Let me clarify: I’m fine working with people, happy to be part of a team- as a member or a leader- as long as my role is clear. But… and here’s the rub… the idea generation part – that I need to do on my own. I need time to think and digest and synthesize things before joining with a bigger group to discuss things further.

My experience may be uncommon but here’s what usually happens…

  • You get given a previously unseen task
  • You have about 1 min to read it
  • You work as a group to to discuss the ideas as they flow out unfiltered
  • A person self appoints as leader + usually dominates the discussion or filters the ideas to fit their own agenda
  • Quieter people (or those who can’t be bothered at that point) opt out
  • The ideas of the dominant voice(s) get carried even if they aren’t actually that good, as people acquise for a quiet life or because they don’t want their idea shouted down or ignored

The sequence above can happen anywhere but I’ve experienced and observed it in training sessions, brainstorming sessions, meetings, classrooms and playgrounds.

As an observer, I’ve seen excellent ideas shouted down or ignored in favour of mediocre ones.  I’ve also been on one course where a participant felt so ignored by their group that they packed up and left, despite having spent hundreds of their own pounds to be there.

This way of working seems like a complete waste of potential to me. So what can be done?

One of the most interesting, exciting and fruitful strategy meetings I attended was chaired by a colleague who asked us to have a silent discussion.

We had a central question that we were exploring relevant to the school improvement plan.For 10 mins, all of the senior leadership team worked in silence, writing relevant comments and questions on the wall. The real beauty came after about 3 mins, when people started to respond in writing to questions/ ideas posed by other members of the team.

There was no dominant voice, as everything was written, and everybody started to engage with the quality of what was said rather than the package it was presented in.

How can we ensure that the big ideas are given space to breathe rather than being killed before they are truly born?

Placing the classroom back at the centre of the (leadership) universe

This blog post could be considered a response or maybe even a companion piece to one written by Christopher Waugh (@edutronic_net), a teacher  and thought-provoking educational blogger.  Chris’s article was about the need to evaluate and constantly improve what happens in the classroom in order to improve outcomes for students.

The bit that stood out for me as a school leader was

Let’s face reality. As teachers, we are at the front-line. We work for our students. We are paid by the taxpayer. Everyone else in the chain; the support staff, the SMT, the Headmaster, ofsted, ofqual, the examining board, the Department for Education and the politicians work for us, to support US to do a better job in ensuring the best possible outcomes for our students. If any of these agents are getting in the way of this, we must work to mitigate their impact. This is our responsibility and our gift. Impertinent as it may seem, my internal monologue when engaging with those support agencies is “Your work is designed to support mine – how effective are you at this?

I whole heatedly agree with what Chris says and want to rephrase it from the point of view of a school leader…

As school leaders, we are paid by the tax payer to ensure excellent outcomes for people’s children. However we can not do this alone. We have to inspire, enable and coordinate many people in a chain including  support staff, teaching staff, parents and outside agencies to work to together in order to achieve the best for every student in our school.  It is our duty, our responsibility, our privilege. Everybody in the chain is important but the class teacher is our foot soldier, our infantry- nothing great can happen if we do not give them space and support them. My internal monologue as a school leader needs to be

 “My work is designed to support and enable yours- how can I enable you and provide the structures to allow you to be as effective as can be?”

Many school leaders, including myself at times, get caught in the monitoring and accountability cycle.  These things have their place. it is important to be aware of where your team, department, school, authority, country is but only so that you can build on that and become better.  Accountability should never be an end in itself, nor should it get in the way of the main thing- creating conditions for long term excellent learning.

Teacher quality is the number one driver for improvement in schools. It is followed by the quality of leadership.  As leaders we need to remember that we are there to allow teachers to do their job well and to provide the resources and tools for them to do it better.

If we are not sure what this involves- as a start we could try asking our staff.  If they don’t know then we could look at everything that we do and consider “How does this impact on teaching and learning? How will this help my staff to become better educators?”

I am new to senior leadership and still run a department but I intend to look at everything through this prism.  The most obvious thing for me was meetings.  I came out of many meetings  that I chaired feeling disappointed and depleted and unable to say how the past 30 min- 1 hour would have any impact on students, so I changed them.

I decided that every meeting with my department  would have a teaching and learning focus, decided by them. I used my informal learning walks to identify strengths of every teacher and then approached individuals privately to lead a session regarding that strength on a weekly basis.  This had a dual effect of sharing good practice whilst letting staff know that I valued them. At the end of last term our final meeting was a reflection and “Thank you” session that I amended from an idea that Tom Sherrington (@headteacherguru) had tweeted.

Reflection meeting

Meetings had gone from a dreary, pointless habit done in the same way that had always been done to a dynamic exchange of ideas which directly impacted on teacher’s work in their classrooms. We will be changing the format again this term to suit our changing needs.

The positive feedback from staff ( 9 teachers generated 30 diff post-it notes in about 7 mins) suggested that I had done my job and I will continue to find ways to ensure those I am responsible for and equipped to do theirs in increasingly better ways.