Setting the Agenda

Since I’ve been a department chair, I’ve wondered about, struggled with, and often admired the well-run meeting. Each month at my school, history/social studies teachers gather for our department meeting at the end of the day. I’m sure its the same in many other schools. Push and pull exists between administrative initiatives and department goals. Teachers sit down either at student desks or a large table, looking around at the new notes on the board, or connecting casually (and often jovially) with their colleagues. Then at some unspoken time, the attention moves to the paper in front of them… the agenda.

When I began drafting them about a year and a half ago, I had only a little experience. I had taken some leadership courses at my previous school and had graduate courses in organizational management. Like a lot of PD and college classes, learning was definitely different from doing. I had a bunch of different thoughts about agendas. They had to be task-specific, didn’t they? Weren’t agendas a clever mix of words and ideas that took the ‘big picture’ and ‘made it actionable’ for people to actually do? If agendas were each different from one another in scope and task, I thought they would be like dominoes that fell just a millimeter away from the next one, making them meaningless in the scheme of things over time. The last thing I wanted to do was ‘spin the wheels’ of the history department.

So I thought for a while and then gave myself some reminders. What would be the center questions around which everything that happened, big and small, revolved? After the friendly intervention of a couple cups of vanilla chai, I screenshot the school letterhead logo and then added five questions:

  • What are key historical concepts students must know?
  • What historical thinking skills must students demonstrate?
  • What teaching strategies best reinforce these concepts and skills?
  • How do we effectively assess concepts and skills?
  • What resources do we have/need to be more successful?

Fourteen meetings on they are still there, hopefully doing their best to match my intentions with my actions as a teacher and department chair.

Now that many of our own department goals are in full swing (more on these in another post), those five questions alone don’t seem like enough. We’re busy people with lots of things on our professional minds, especially as the school year steadily moves on.

So, I’m going to do my best to set, keep, and (hopefully) achieve these four goals:

  • Sustain momentum. Our school just completed its 10 year accreditation. We are now using a new database system for everything and soon, for the first time, going to make our grades public. We are in our first year of implementing the MA educator evaluation system. Next year our 9-12 school is adding grades 7-8 as a STEM academy. Curriculum is constantly being revised according to mandated standards and student-centered goals. The list goes on. I want to make sure that each task, each initiative, and each collaborative project builds on the last. There has to be a link that connects our work, building and moving forward. In order to do this, we have to have a common, shared vision of our goal. We have to see small wins as important steps in that direction, because as all teachers know, edu-change doesn’t happen immediately.
  • Focus our purpose. Momentum without clarity is like stumbling in the dark, even if you know where the furniture is. For us, we have to see the reasons for our actions and believe that they will improve our practice and student outcomes. Compliance isn’t enough. We have to help each other see the connections when we falter, and yes, sometimes that happens to me too. Purpose gives me energy, and questioning that purpose doesn’t detract from its end. If anything it helps me refine my thoughts. As a team, having the flexibility to make adjustments towards a shared vision is a strength. Being single-minded, even in education, can be fanatical and counter-productive to helping students learn those same collaborative networking skills. Reminding ourselves of our purpose, and finding different ways to test its boundaries, makes us stronger, and more productive, as a team.
  • Build capacity. For me, I want the next year to be different from the last. I try to keep myself in an adaptive mindset, seeing growth as necessary as food. This is one of the reasons I love edcamps. Filled with free, fully democratic workshops, teachers share openly with one another ideas, questions and skills. They are the perfect tool for building individual and group capacity. Although department meetings aren’t the only time for us as a team to grow, the goal of adding to our toolbox,  or expanding our repertoire, is a very important one. The means to do this are varied, but simple ‘smackdowns‘ are easy ways to begin.
  • And most importantly, listen. I don’t have the answers, but I’d like to think I am really good at asking questions. Maybe this comes from believing that true change didn’t come in American history from institutions or acknowledged leaders, but from radicals, free-thinkers, and dreamers. Why wouldn’t that be true for schools (and even history departments) as well? If I want to grow as a professional, I have to do it with the help of others. I benefit most when in a group, listening – not speaking. Empathy comes to those who pause, reflect, and hear other perspectives – especially those who push back. No idea is so strong that it can’t sustain debate.

Of course, each meeting is different. Each day, week, and month of growth and change brings unintended consequences. Navigating those, to benefit student learning, is ‘the agenda’.