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Creating new collaborative spaces: Why Meetings Suck

I love the New Year. I love the promise and opportunity it brings. The chance to dream big and imagine a world in which disruption is a choice we make, as opposed to one thrust upon us. For our kura, the end of 2021 has looked like opportunities to meet and discuss our programmes for the year ahead.


Often, I find that meetings are the gripe of most teachers. They are unnecessary unproductive, excessive in length and time could be better spent planning individually. There is some truth to this. I have sat through many a meeting like this. However, I’ve also sat in meetings where creative gold has been found, where people have energized and inspired me to enact plans, where creativity has flourished. There’s been a buzz in the room. People throw around ideas and the time seems to fly.


Psychologist and host of the WorkLife Podcast Adam Grant describes this phenomenon of as “burstiness” when rooms are filled with creative bursts. He describes burstiness “like the best moments in improv jazz. Someone plays a note, someone else jumps in with a harmony, and pretty soon, you have a collective sound that no one planned. Psychologists understand burstiness as a pattern of how rapidly we’re taking turns in conversation and interrupting each other. (Grant, 2018) So what does any of this have to do with that Monday morning staff meeting I am required to be at school for? Well, very little. Part of the reason for this is that those meetings serve a different purpose.


Here’s a framework we are beginning to explore at our kura, which may provide some clarity on when, why, and how we meet.

Hui

The word Hui in Te Reo Maori means to gather or congregate. In our context, this looks like a more formal opportunity for staff to come together and for information to be shared. There is an opportunity to ask questions or raise concerns but the rakau (talking stick) lies largely with the person presenting.

Wananga

This space is often a more deep and contemplative space, where we come together to answer a question. Each voice is valued and there is a shared understanding that we are learning from one another. Together, we aim to learn, to reflect and to answer our questions.

Talanoa

Talanoa means to talk or to speak. I’ve discussed Talanoa in a previous blogpost. Basically, this is a more free and open space. It’s a chance for anyone to share what is going on. The purpose of Talanoa can be decided by the participants but key tenets such as ofa (love), mafana (warmth), malie (humour) and faka'apa'apa (respect) are present. These spaces are often about relationship building and provide an opportunity to discuss whatever is prescient at the time.


Each of these spaces is valuable, each has a time and a purpose. In a sense, you cannot only have Wananga or only have Hui or Talanoa. You must find the balance between all three. Perhaps even more important are the spaces between these, the opportunities for one-to-ones. These provide the follow up and ensure that our meetings and our words become action.


In a same sense, we require each of these spaces within the classroom. When our class operates purely as hui, we don’t allow the space for Ako (learning from one another). However, there remains a time for direct instruction and one-to-one with our students.

So, what helps create spaces where burstiness is allowed to thrive, where our meetings and our classroom spaces become a joy as opposed to a burden?

Shared purpose

In each of these three different spaces, there is a need for participants to not only understand the purpose of coming together but to also be invested in a shared purpose. I’ve found it helpful to clearly outline the purpose of the meeting from the get-go. This way people know what they are getting into and don’t feel disillusioned when it doesn’t align to their expectations. Even better is ensuring that when we meet, we are working towards a collaboratively constructed vision. You might do this with your team or in your classroom at the beginning of the year.

Shared safety

One of the things that can quickly stamp out creative vision and sharing, is the presence of a leader. A particular type of leader, who can make people fear ‘giving the wrong answer’. The problem with this in wananga is that there isn't necessarily a ‘right’ answer. When we are scared to share our ideas or feel social pressure to acquiesce to the boss’ preference, we quickly stamp out creativity. We need to create spaces where it is safe for us to bring even half-baked ideas to the table. As a leader & teacher, part of your role is creating a safe space for people to share their ideas without judgement.

Shared voice

People not only need to feel safe to talk but need to be given the opportunity to do so. It is important to foster a culture where people want to speak up, to add to the collective kete (food basket) and to share their ideas. Ways to do this include incorporating opportunities to share back using non-verbal forms of communication, to explore circle time (where each person is given the space to share), and to ask questions to prompt discussion amongst your colleagues.


When we have a shared sense of purpose, safety, and a collective voice, we are able to navigate when and where to use hui, wananga and talanoa. Ultimately, each of these settings are both necessary and valuable. Each has a place in our staffrooms and in our classrooms. It isn’t a case of one size fits all or of traditional versus progressive but rather a case of when and where. When our meetings and classrooms look like spaces where direct instruction, collective questioning, relationship building & one-to-one feedback all can happen, we provide a space for effective teaching & learning.

Questions to prompt reflection

On meetings

How often are your meetings hui, wananga or talanoa? If meetings at your kura lean too much toward one practice (hui, wananga or talanoa), how might you offer opportunities for other types of meeting? Is the purpose of meetings made explicitly clear from the outset?

On vision

Does my team have a collective vision for 2022? If so, what is that vision and do I know it? If not, how might I go about creating that vision?


On safety & voice

How often do I offer opportunities for others to share in meetings? Do I feel as though I can share ideas with my boss in the room? What methods do I use to gather voice in my classroom?


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