Five Minute Tip: Managing Your Team Meetings

Five minutes are all it takesIn my experience, most people run most meetings really badly. What are the most common pitfalls, and how can you avoid them?

Meetings should always result in something happening. Even if the meeting was a discussion, an exchange of views, there should be an action arising from it -- a good example here would be for someone to produce a summary of the views expressed.

Colleagues should know in advance what the meeting is going to be about. All too often, the Agenda appears at the last minute. You must give people time to prepare, especially if you want to have a genuine discussion about something.

Papers for the meeting should be made available well in advance. I have attended meetings where a 108-page document relating to the meeting was emailed to everyone 25 minutes before the meeting was due to start. That is unacceptable, and simply lays you open to suspicion of not intending to have a genuine discussion.

Someone should take notes in the meeting. As you are unlikely to have a secretary to do that, the fairest thing to do is take it in turns. But note that it is very difficult to take notes and chair a meeting. When it's your turn to take notes, you might consider asking someone else to chair it. That would also have the benefit of giving others a chance to step into your shoes and gain some valuable experience in their own career advancement.

Minutes are meant to be a record, not a transcription. Keep them brief and to the point. And make sure they are distributed within a day or two. The person taking the minutes should always give them to you for your approval before disseminating them to the rest of the team.

Minutes must always include action points, with a named person responsible. Note that the person responsible must be selected in the meeting, not afterwards, and only if they are present and agree -- it could be considered unprofessional to assign a task to someone in their absence, especially if it's a task that nobody else wishes to do.

Meetings should have set start and finish times. Even better, there should be some guidance in the Agenda as to how long each item will take. If these timings turn out to be optimistic, curtail the discussion and put the item(s) high on the next meeting's Agenda.

The meetings should start on time, and finish on time. No waiting for people who haven't arrived: the most important people are the ones who are actually there, and it's unfair to keep them waiting. It's also self-defeating, because they will learn that meetings start later than the time specified, so next time they will arrive late as well, because there is always something that "I just need to do quickly before the meeting."

Meetings should not be so frequent that they end up being held for their own sake -- everybody is too busy for that. Neither should they be so infrequent that there is no opportunity for a team spirit to build up. You'll have to judge this for yourself, but I would suggest that a meeting every two or three weeks is about right. If that is very difficult to fit in, consider a different pattern and structure: say, a full meeting every month, with a ten minute get-together at the end of each two week period in-between -- or an audio or online meeting just to "touch base".

Sometimes it may be impossible for someone to get to the meeting, but that need not be a problem. It's now both possible and easy to hold meetings which include people who are not physically present. Doug Woods, in a comment on my article about special team meetings, made some incisive comments, which I've reproduced here:

It seems to me, and this is hardly an earth-shattering observation, that people cannot always attend a meeting. Maybe this is because of illness, working from home or a different site, or they have a scheduling clash...whatever. Perhaps, this may be more of an issue nowadays with school clusters, federated schools, schools on split sites etc..These people, however, may well have a valuable contribution to make or could benefit from hearing other members' contributions .... else why would you have invited them to the meeting?

It can be important, therefore, that you enable such absentees to be able to make their contribution to the meeting in some other way. Possibly you could ask them to write their contribution beforehand and then have someone read it at the team meeting but I'd suggest that might be a poor substitute for an informed dialogue or discussion. So why not consider audio (telephone) conferencing or video conferencing as a means of allowing absentees to contribute and share in the meeting? Even someone on a train or someone driving could pull into a services [station] and contribute via a video link on their smartphone.

It also occurs to me that while meetings take place between key members of your team, there are other staff who may be affected by decisions or outcomes made at such meetings. Why not video your meetings and/or have a discussion board live during and after the meeting so that these other people can make a contribution and feel that they are included?

I'd also add that you could invite guest speakers to your meeting via Skype or a similar webcam-based solution. If you really wanted to push the boat out you could ask a member of your team who is attending a conference or an exhibition to report in live through their laptop. There also various online meeting applications available, such as Flashmeeting.

Finally, even though they may not have a choice in the matter, the members of your team are giving up valuable time to attend the meeting. Very few people like meetings. Sugar the pill by making sure refreshments are available. If possible, invite a guest speaker in, or ask one of your team to prepare a presentation. In other words, make it a bit different: you might like the sound of your own voice, but others might not!

This is an expanded version of an article originally published on 5th April 2007. Thanks to Doug Woods for his comments.

5 Minute Tip: Having a Backup Plan

Anyone who has been using computers for a while knows that as far as something going wrong is concerned, it's not a matter of if, but when. To acknowledge that is, I think, to be realistic rather than pessimistic (though there is frequently little distinction between the two). And the sooner 'newbies' realise that, the better it will be not only for their students, but for themselves as well.

Why? Because teachers who have just started using computers and related technology almost invariably blame themselves when things go awry. If you do nothing else, tell them that it's par for the course, that all of us experience glitches for no apparent reason, and when least expected.

A different kind of technology: still usefulIt makes sense, therefore, to always have a backup plan. The beauty of having a standby activity is that when your carefully-crafted lesson begins to go pear-shaped, you can put plan B into action before panic sets in. Panic stops you thinking clearly. Having a plan B means you don't really have to.

Types of Plan B

There are several things you can do in the situation, in addition to calling for some technical support, but they all fall into one of the following categories:

  • Category A: Paper-based work related to the work in progress.
  • Category B: Oral work related to the work in progress.
  • Category C: Paper-based work not related to the work in progress.
  • Category D: Oral work not related to the work in progress.
  • Category E: No work at all.

Let's dismiss Category E straight away. I don't see why a technical hold-up should mean that students are effectively given a free lesson. Here are ideas about the sort of thing I have in mind for the the others.

Category A

  • Problem-solving exercises.
  • Tests.
  • Word games based on the relevant terminology.

Category B

  • Class-based Q & A session in which students ask about things they don't understand, and you and the rest of the class attempt to help them out.
  • Discussion about issues related to the topic.
  • Quick-fire Q & A session in which you ask individual students to answer your questions.

Categories C and D are similar, but just not based on the topic in hand.

Generating the contingency work

It's a good idea to plan for the lean times during the times of plenty. In this context, that means preparing one or two extra sets of notes or worksheets when you're planning a topic. If you are part of a team that makes it easy to generate quite a bit of extra stuff very quickly. When I was head of ICT in a school, I asked my team members to produce one contingency lesson plan and resource for every 'real' one. (Each 'one' was actually a unit of work comprising material for six lessons; what I did was ask them to plan for seven lessons instead.) Within a very short period of time we had a drawer-ful of contingency resources, some of which could also be used by cover teachers.

It may be hard to predict when the technology is going to let you down. It should always be predictable that the students will carry on working regardless.

5 Minute Tip: Using Your Phone As An E-Reader

How can you read stuff digitally on the move if you don't have an e-reader and don't want to use a laptop?

I have just returned from Singapore, where I was invited by the Ministry of Education to give two Spotlight presentations at the ICTLT2010 Conference, on the subjects of introducing Web 2.0 into your classroom, and into your school. Because of weight restrictions and for the sake of convenience, I didn't want to take reams of paper with me, and I didn't want to have to read everything on a laptop either, as the one I took with was a fairly large one.

The solution? I used my phone instead.

Who needs an e-reader?

I have a smartphone, meaning that I can synchronise appointments and contact details with my computer. It also comes with a suite of applications like Word, and Acrobat Reader. I found that trying to read documents on the small screen is a challenge: you either need microsopic vision, or not mind scrolling furiously every few words.

However, I found that reading my presentation slides in pdf format worked very well indeed. The file was much smaller than the original PowerPoint version, and was perfectly clear, as you can see in the illustration. It meant that I was able to look at my slides very easily and without any fuss, whilst in situations like drinking a coffee in the airport lounge. I would highly recommend this.

Here's what I did (I'm using Office 2007).

  1. In PowerPoint, go to Save As -> PDF or XPS.
  2. Select the Minimal Size (Publish online) option.
  3. Connect the phone to the computer, via a USB cable.
  4. When asked what sort of connection, select ActivSynch.
  5. Create a suitably-named folder in My Documents on the phone.
  6. Copy the file across from the computer to the phone in the usual fashion.
  7. View the file on the phone by going to Program -> File Explorer and then navigating your way to the file.

I shall be doing a lot more of this from now on!

5 Minute Tip: Backup Your Work!

Five minutes is all it takes for peace of mindI am continually astonished at people not backing up their stuff. Only today I was talking to a neighbour. His daughter has lost everything, probably  because of a virus or some other kind of rogue file. Did she have a backup? Of course not.

At the risk of stating the obvious, it is really important to back up your work, and not just occasionally either. I know you do so, but here are a couple of cautionary tales you might like to pass on to your students or colleagues.

Cautionary tale #1: a few years ago a colleague's student lost all his work that he was supposed to send in to the Examination Board, to have marked. His teacher tried to appeal to the Board to give him the benefit of the doubt, but I knew what their answer would be, and I was right. Given that the course in question was a computer skills course, they said (quite reasonably in my opinion), that if he didn't even have the nous to take a backup of his work, he didn't deserve to pass. Well, they put it more diplomatically than that, but that was what they meant.

I would have asked his teacher why he didn't tell his students to take backups, but when I discovered, by chance, that he saved his own files with such descriptive names as Document1, Document2 and so on, I realised there was a deeper problem.

Cautionary tale #2: Having worked for -- I was going to say hours, but in fact it's days; and days; and days -- on two presentations for a conference in just over a week's time, I was dismayed when I switched on my computer this morning only to find that, overnight, the gremlins had got in and corrupted the disk. Not only could I not do any work on it, but I couldn't save any new work either.

I found that out because, being the paranoid type, I tend to save my work after each paragraph rather than at the end of the session. I even tried emailing the file to myself, but the email program was trashed too. It took the computer a total of five hours of chkdsking to sort itself out. That's the kind of stress I can do without.

Fortunately, however, being paranoid, I also back up my work every day to an external hard drive. I was therefore able to get on with it using my wife's laptop. And being even more paranoid than I am sure is healthy, I have now backed it up to the aforementioned laptop and two memory sticks. Later I shall back it up to the external hard drive and then tomorrow, just for good measure, I'll deposit a copy somewhere on the internet too.

Finally, just in case every single backup goes haywire, I've printed out my notes and the slides. I am not quite sure how holding up my printouts to an audience of (probably) several hundred people will pan out, but one thing's for sure: you can't say I didn't try! But seriously, I just figured that if the worst really did come to the worst, I could always scan my notes or simply memorise them, and use no slides at all. But I don't see that as being a likely scenario. Even I  am not that pessimistic!

5 Minute Tip: Keeping a Professional Development Record

5 Minute TipWhat have you learnt today? Most people do not keep good records of their professional development, and many heads of department or curriculum leaders in education keep none for their staff. This makes it difficult, if not impossible, to manage the departmental training needs effectively.

Virtually every application form these days asks for details of courses attended, or of relevant courses, attended within the last x years. Maintaining such a list on a computer is easy-peasy. If you're a team leader, like a head of department, you ought to encourage your staff to maintain their own records, and you should also keep a departmental record, for reasons given below.

First, consider the individual's records.

Individual Records: Table It

The method I'd recommend using is to create a table in a word processor, with the following column headings:

  • Course title

  • Course topic

  • Run by

  • Date(s)

You may prefer to use a spreadsheet rather than a word processor, since a spreadsheet will “see” dates as dates, whereas a word processor will “see” them as text.

By entering the details in a table, you can sort it according to course topic or date (or possibly both at the same time).

When entering the date, do so in this format: yyyy-mm-dd, eg 2007-06-12. There are two advantages of doing it like this:

  • It is easy to sort the data into chronological order.

  • There will be no confusion between UK and USA conventions, eg 12/06/2007 means 12th June to someone in the UK, and 6th December to someone in the USA.

If you use a spreadsheet like Excel, you can use the custom date format feature (Highlight the relevant cells, and then click on Format-Cells-Custom) to create this format. If you do, then if you enter the date as, say, 12 June 2010, it will automatically convert to the correct format. Incidentally, I've looked into the Google Docs spreadsheet, and when you enter a date in the way I've suggested it automatically converts it to the 'normal' format, which is rather frustrating.

Team or Departmental Record

Why is it important to maintain a record of training for your whole team ?

  • Without knowing your staff's skills, you cannot be fully confident in what you, as a team, can offer.

  • By maintaining a group record, you can identify gaps in the training needs of the team as a whole

  • It will enable you to support your individual team members' professional development, be it by recommending courses for them, or writing references for them.

In fact, one criteria of good practice (eg for the ICT Mark) is that there is a professional development 'map' for the whole school.

Write Once, Read Many

It is inefficient and unreasonable to expect people to keep two sets of records. Therefore, you might be tempted to create one central record to which people can contribute. (If you use a spreadsheet, you could have a different worksheet for each person.) However, the problem with this approach is that each person's record can be seen by everyone else, and even if everyone says they don't mind, a new member of staff may do.

The answer, I think, is to ask your colleagues to enter the information in the relevant area of the information management system, and have the data exported to a spreadsheet that can be accessed only by yourself, as long as any legal constraints are abided by (check with your personnel or legal department).

If there are any objections to your having access to individual people's records, then maintain a group record that does not have people's names. This will still help you identify gaps in overall training needs, which is its main purpose. In fact, if you're going to do that, you may as well use something like Google Docs because it just makes access and updating a whole lot easier.

Of course, the obvious disadvantage of that approach is that without knowing who the individual records belong to, it will eventually prove impossible to believe in their accuracy, because you won't know who has updated it and who hasn't. I think this is a clear case of where an overall school policy needs to be decided upon by the senior leadership team, and then adhered to by all staff.

Wait! What IS CPD?

Good question. These days, it's not just formal courses and conferences, but online conferences, blogs, websites, Twitter, Ning communities and all sorts of other informal learning opportunities, especially online. You cannot keep formal records of informal learning without changing the very nature of the professional development involved. What you need to do instead is to encourage members of your team to inform you when they have benefited from some form of informal professional development.

Perhaps even more importantly, they should be encouraged to keep their own records, at least in general terms, so that they do not 'lose' the information. I'll look at this in other 5 Minute Tip.



14 Ways to Make the Most of Teaching Assistants

In my experience, many teachers make poor use of teaching assistants, regarding them as a sort of junior helper on the same level as a school pupil doing a holiday job. This is unfortunate. The teaching assistant can be a vital component in the quest to raise standards. Here are my thoughts about how this can be brought about.

Outside of the classroom

The work starts before even setting foot in the classroom. Generally speaking, to be most effective in the classroom, the teaching assistant ought to be involved in all stages of planning, and given the opportunity to have appropriate training. In particular, the teaching assistant should:

  • Be familiar with the scheme of work being followed. She may even have had a hand in designing it or adapting it to the school's needs.

  • Understand where the lesson fits into the scheme of work, eg it may be an introduction to internet search techniques, which are to be further developed later in the course -- perhaps next year.

  • Understand where the less fits into the current unit of work, ie what came before, and what follows. In other words, the assistant needs to know that in order to understand the main point of this lesson, the pupils need to understand X, which was covered last week, and that if they master this week's objectives they will be in a strong position to understand the objectives of next week's lesson.

  • Understand the intended learning outcomes of the lesson.

  • Understand how the ICT can help to achieve those learning outcome.

  • Be familiar with the hardware and software applications involved.

  • Be familiar with the individual children’s needs.

  • Have access to the school’s data management system (as it relates to pupils) and be familiar with how to use it.

In the classroom

The teaching assistant given the job of supporting children with special educational needs should:

  • Set up specialist equipment if any is needed, before the pupils enter the classroom.

  • Focus only on the children with special educational needs, generally speaking.

  • Not do the child’s work for her.

  • Help children, where appropriate, by adjusting the computer environment. For example, use the display options (if you have access to them) to make the contrast better on the screen, or use the accessibility features if you are using Windows (look in the Programs-Accessories menu).

  • Have a range of paper-based resources handy, in case the computer system goes down.

Getting permission to go on an ICTcourse or to a conference

So, you’ve discovered a conference you’d like to attend, but there’s a real possibility that your boss will say “No”. What can you do to maximise your chances of being allowed to attend?

The suggestions which follow cannot, obviously, be guaranteed to succeed. However, they will almost certainly give you more of a fighting chance than the usual approach, which is just to ask for 3 days off. The trick when talking to supervisors is to make your problem their problem, and their problem your problem. Let’s start with the first, making your problem their problem.

Making your problem their problem

Reasons to be allowed to attend

It’s a big challenge keeping up with current thinking and research and practice, so a conference can be a very useful way of doing so very quickly. The issue is: will you get more from going to the conference than you could obtain by other means? In this respect, two factors come into play.

First, does the conference, or a particular theme or strand of the conference, deal with something you’re especially involved in?

For example, are you running a particular course, are you about to buy and implement a particular type of learning platform, are you about to enter your students for a particular examination? These kinds of needs, if addressed by the conference, are powerful arguments in favour of your being permitted to attend.

Second, do the speakers have particular expertise in the area of concern? Note that this is not the same as “is the speaker famous?” If you’re about to start a new course, and the main speaker is one of the writers of the course, or from the relevant Awarding Body, that is likely to be much more useful than an entertaining but, ultimately, empty talk by a well-known personality.

There is a need to network. Even the best schools can become complacent or out of touch, if they have no external reference point by which to judge themselves. When I used to do inspections of schools’ ICT provision I often found myself recommending to the subject leader that s/he starts to make visits to other schools to see what they’re doing. You can’t really pick up good ideas from reading about them in quite the same way as you can by actually seeing the ideas in practice and asking questions of the appropriate people.

In fact, networking is so important that whenever I am involved in organising conferences I ensure that there is time for people to meet informally, and I always try to have this billed in the programme as “social networking” or “networking”, as opposed to “Bar”. Having “bar” as a timetabled activity almost invariably elicits the response “Why should I have to pay for you to go on a junket?” The fact that it takes place in your own time doesn’t make any difference, because it’s the perception that counts in cases like this.

Making their problem your problem

1. Minimise the disruption. If it’s possible to set work that requires very little effort by another teacher, but which is still useful, then do so. For example, you could set everything up on the school network in advance.

You can also compile folders for each lesson. Imagine being a cover teacher, and handed a folder containing the instructions to the class “Log on and click on the X icon”, a list of students’ names and their login details, and simple instructions about what they have to do.

2. Minimise the cost. While you’re away, the school may have to hire a temporary teacher. There are two main ways you can try to avoid or minimise this cost.

First, it may be possible for you to organise cover within your team, if you have one. This make sense from a learning point of view, because it means that the students will still be being taught in your absence. However, if your co-workers agree to this arrangement, you must negotiate a quid pro quo whereby they will not be asked to cover others’ lessons in addition. In other words, nobody should end up doing more cover work than they normally would.

The second is to see if there is a possibility of volunteering to assist with the conference arrangements, or to speak at the conference, in return for a free place and money to cover supply teachers. Obviously, not every delegate will be able to enjoy this kind of arrangement, but in my experience most of them never ask.

As I’ve said, these approaches are not absolutely guaranteed to work, but one thing is for certain: they mark you out as a professional who believes it’s their right to have access to continuing professional development.

What's RSS and why is it useful?

Here's a quick guide to RSS, which you may have seen mentioned on websites and blogs. (Note: I've written this guide with the complete novice in mind. If you already know what an RSS feed is, think about bookmarking this article in order to refer to it colleagues who are less knowledgeable than you. Thanks!)

What does RSS stand for?

The most commonly accepted answer is 'Really Simple Syndication'.

What does RSS let me do?

It makes it easy to do two things really easily. Firstly, it lets you read the articles on your favourite websites all in one place, using an application called a 'feed reader'. Secondly, as an extension of that, it lets you collate the latest posts from several blogs all in one place. It doesn't have to be only blog posts. It could be latest comments on someone's blog, or their most recent tweets in Twitter, or anything else that has an RSS feed.

Taking the first point, it means that you don't have to traipse from one website to another to check if there is anything new: new stuff will show up in your feed reader automatically.

How do I obtain a feed reader?

Just search for the term 'feed reader' and then find one that suits you. You can have one which is installed on your computer, or one that resides on the web. I prefer the latter, because it means it doesn't matter whether you're sitting at your own computer or not when you feel like checking for new content. Some installed feed readers let you synchronise with a web-based one, meaning that you potentially get the best of both worlds.

Popular feed readers include Bloglines and Google Reader, which are web-based. For other readers, look at this article about feed readers.

Update: since this article was written, Google has decided to discontinue its RSS Reader service. There are plenty of alternatives, however. Check out RSS isn't dead: the best Google Reader alternatives. Read the comments too, as there are suggestions in there as well. Feedly has been cited lots of times in articles. I myself have started to try one called The Old Reader, which seems quite nice.

How do I subscribe to an RSS feed?

If you've installed your feed reader's browser toolbar, you should be able to do so by clicking on 'Subscribe', if the blog or website has been set up to allow this. Otherwise, look for an icon like this: and click on it; your feed reader should do the rest. If it doesn't, right-click on the icon and select the menu item which reads 'Copy link location' (or similar), open your feed reader, and then paste the link into the New Subscription box. Don't worry: it's all a lot simpler and quicker than it sounds.

How do I read new articles?

Just open your feed reader and see what, if anything, has been added to the various websites since you last looked.

Conclusion

RSS makes it easy for you to keep up with lots of reading in a shorter period of time than would probably otherwise be the case, because you're not racing all over the internet from site to site.

If you're a teacher, it can also benefit your students. For example, if your school uses a virtual learning environment (VLE) you could set up areas for students to visit where the latest headlines from a range of websites are displayed. That could be used purely for reference, or you could incorporate it into lessons. For example, the first five or ten minutes of each lesson could be spent discussing what's new in the world of hospitality and catering, or in business and finance. At the risk of sounding clichéd, the uses for RSS are limited only by your imagination.

I hope you have found this useful. Feel free to comment on the article.