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Making staff development meetings optional: an effective way to motivate educators

| September 5, 2017 | 0 Comments


An educational strategy that I often use to focus and direct the attention of my learners at the beginning of a class is to ask them an interesting question. One such question was, “What, do you think, is the most commonly used noun in the English language?”

My learners guessed various nouns, such as “person”, “family”, “money” and “boyfriend”. The correct answer, according to a 2006 study1 conducted by Oxford University Press and included in the Oxford English Dictionary, is the word “time”. At first glance, this appears quite surprising: do we really refer to time far more often than to our families, to money or even to our significant others? On second thought, however, we can see how this might be true.

We are forever saying phrases such as “next time”, “I don’t have time”, “lunch time” and “what’s the time?” As educators, the most valuable commodity we have is time – like everyone else in the service industry, we actually sell our time. Unfortunately, no matter how skilled and inspirational we are as educators, we can only sell 24 units of time per day, as opposed to a manufacturer of a product, who can theoretically sell unlimited units of their merchandise.

We regularly complain that we don’t have time to do the things we want to do. We always want to have extra time and extra lessons to get through the syllabus. Our teaching subjects always compete with others for more time, and trying to organise a school outing inevitably meets with complaints from those who lose time with their classes as a result. Time is the one thing that always passes, even if our learners don’t – and, according to consultancy firm McKinsey,2 people worldwide suffer from a “perennial time-scarcity problem”.

It is a small wonder, then, that time (or the lack thereof ) takes priority over finances and family in our daily conversations. Managers in the 21st century therefore inevitably need to recognise the importance of time and to develop strategies to prevent burnout. In schools, we are fortunate to have some downtime every holiday period – and let’s be honest, this is a major drawcard of this profession. Despite the holidays, however, most of us often feel rundown and tired when there are simply not enough hours in the day.

In our pastoral role as educators, we also worry about those learners who are overcommitted and who try to do too much, and we advise them accordingly. Nevertheless, it is a major challenge for schools to find ways in which we can manage the time of the staff and the students more efficiently and effectively.

Restructuring staff meetings

St Stithians Girls’ College in Johannesburg, Gauteng, has recently implemented one such initiative: we have restructured our staff meeting time. Traditionally, these meetings are held every week on Monday afternoons from 15:00 to 16:00, at that time of the day when concentration is low and enthusiasm levels are not always at their peak.

While these meetings provide valuable opportunities for staff to connect and to talk to each other, and while they are an essential fixture in ongoing training and development, their efficacy is sometimes lost because staff are simply too tired after a long day of teaching to gain the maximum benefit from them. To solve this problem, St Stithians has scheduled two separate staff meetings in the week. One is the nuts-and-bolts staff briefing, essential for the continued operations of the school, where the events and expectations of the week ahead and the week behind are discussed.

These briefings are timetabled for a Friday morning, while the learners run their own “pupil assembly”. They run quickly, efficiently and effectively, and everyone is required to attend them – their purpose is merely to inform staff about what is happening at the school, and they are short, sharp and to the point.

Monday meetings no longer mandatory

The Monday staff meetings, on the other hand, are now no longer compulsory. They are reserved for professional development and staff are required to attend only 80% of these meetings per term. Furthermore, a roster of the topics to be presented appears in the staffroom prior to the meeting, and staff are requested to sign up for the meetings that they wish to attend. Our educators are also encouraged to book a slot to present these meetings and to share their expertise on any educationally relevant issue of their choice.

This term, the meetings have been on a wide range of topics. We have had presentations by our educational psychologists about the solutions-based approach to meetings; workshops by a team of Pencil Box3 experts on how to unlock hidden features in our school management software; and an enlightening and interesting explanation of how discipline is implemented in the Boys’ and Girls’ Town institutions, among other topics.4 Next year, we will undoubtedly have further presentations on topics of interest to educators. These sessions have, so far, all been run by staff at our school, but the potential exists to invite outside educators or professionals to these meetings.

More time to choose

Logically, one would expect attendance to decline if a meeting is no longer compulsory, but our school has experienced remarkable attendance rates at these meetings. Oddly, even though attendance is expected at only 80% of the meetings, our staff ’s attendance has been significantly higher than this, with many staff members choosing to attend all of the sessions.

Staff see the value in these meetings and, because they have the option of attending only the sessions that interest them most, they are able to choose. Their attendance is now no longer compulsory but voluntary, and they feel far more positive because they have made a decision to be there of their own volition. If a particular staff member happens to be an expert in Pencil Box, they can choose to skip the session and run errands without a guilty conscience.

If a staff member knows that a particular week will be a crunch period, with many assessments coming in or with Grade 12 portfolios due, they can choose to prioritise and miss the meeting. Thus, it is important to draw up the roster at the start of the term so that the staff members can plan their attendance, based on their schedules and interests.

A positive atmosphere

Furthermore, the atmosphere within the meetings has changed quite dramatically. Staff are energised and positive about the sessions, because they recognise that they are learning something worthwhile, and they participate more eagerly in the discussions and activities on offer. This is not unlike the experience that we have as educators, when a learner organises an extra lesson outside of school hours: typically, these learners are more engaged, interested and enthusiastic than when they are in the regular class, because they have made the choice to be there.

In conclusion, our school’s experience with optional staff meetings has been exceptionally positive and well received. While this strategy cannot solve the problem of too few hours in the day, it can alleviate some pressure at stressful times of the year. It also appears to have to have a motivating effect on staff, and these meeting times provide our educators with an opportunity to showcase their talents and skills, while developing the skills of other staff members in the process. It is certainly a policy that school leaders and managers should consider.

Martin Perold is head of department: accounting at Stithians Girls’ College.

1. See, for example:
2. See, for example: 21636612-time-poverty-problem-partly-perception-and-partlydistribution- why
3. See, for example:
4. See, for example:


Category: Spring 2017

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