“This meeting could have been an email.” There are many jokes about pointless, never-ending staff meetings, but these gatherings are an invaluable opportunity to inspire and unite your staff.
With the integration of social and emotional learning (SEL) techniques, our school’s monthly get-togethers involved far less eye-rolling and surreptitious phone scrolling and turned into a community professional development that moved our learning forward and created collaborative bonds.
Extending our reach
For the past two years, I’ve been working with a group of colleagues at Paradise High School to learn, practice, and reflect collaboratively on SEL in our classrooms. This group includes collaborators from a wide range of subject areas as well as administrators and counselors.
After discovering together how much SEL techniques changed our classroom culture, we decided to bring these ideas to the larger staff by modeling them in our monthly staff meetings. The original intent was just to show our colleagues how the SEL techniques worked, but the result was much more rich and far-reaching.
Here’s what we did.
These activities take place at the very beginning of the meeting, and according to the CASEL SEL 3 Signature Practices Playbook (an extremely useful resource for integrating SEL into any meeting for adults or children), the activities are “brief, interactive experiences that bring the voice of every participant into the room, making a connection to one another and/or to the work ahead.” Every person in the meeting participates in a quick, low-stakes response that not only raises participants’ comfort level but also cumulatively creates a community connection.
One simple strategy is the “one-word response.” Each person in turn responds to a low-stakes question, such as “If you could use one word to describe your experience in your classroom this week, what would it be?” or “If you could use a color to describe your mood right now, what would it be?” The participants don’t elaborate on their answer until everybody has shared, and then the floor is opened up so that we can tell more about the why of our response. Taking no longer than five to seven minutes, this activity gives the person leading the meeting a chance to take the emotional temperature of the room.
Despite its name, this isn’t necessarily a happy-go-lucky ending to the meeting, but rather a chance to end the meeting, as it says in the CASEL playbook, in a “thoughtfully planned and meaningful way, helping everyone leave with appreciation and energy, looking forward to connecting again.” An effective closure gives participants an opportunity to reflect on the learning and/or their colleagues and anticipate and plan for what comes next.
The “first next step” is a quick way to gauge understanding of a meeting’s objectives. In the final five minutes, participants reflect on what they want to do next, based on what they learned during the meeting—further discussion with a colleague, reading or thinking more about the topic, or trying something out with students. These ideas are shared with small groups in the meeting and then with the larger group. Finally, the “next steps” are written on a sticky note and posted somewhere they’ll provide a reminder of future action.
Brain breaks and transition techniques
Just as the energy and focus of a classroom of students ebb and flow, so do those of a staff meeting. We’ve all felt the emotional effect of the end of a challenging school day and how this affects our engagement with the goals we want to accomplish during an after-school meeting. Leaders can be responsive to the mood of the room by using one of many techniques. Also like students, teachers may initially balk or roll their eyes about some of these activities, but the change in the room will be palpable afterward.
If the mood in the room seems highly stressed, I often tap into yoga techniques with the “animal breathing” activity. We all take a four-count deep breath, hold it for a count of four and then breathe it out with an animal sound. I usually start with a whale and model as dramatically as I can. Then, after the staff tries it out, I have someone name another animal and we repeat the activity. The animal we use doesn’t really matter if everybody participates enthusiastically. By the time we’re done giggling at each other’s attempts, the stress has been reduced and we’re more relaxed and ready to focus.
Conversely, if everyone seems to be dragging, a more active/interactive strategy is called for. “One, Two, Three, Clap!” found on page 14 of the CASEL playbook gets everybody up and laughing and never fails to raise the energy level of the room.
Reflection is key
There are countless SEL activities on the CASEL website and elsewhere online, but a key part of the process is reflection. Just as students integrate learning better when they look at it metacognitively, educators benefit from discussing the SEL techniques we model in our meetings—what they notice about how they reacted to the techniques as well as where they might fit into their own practice.
The effect of integrating SEL activities into staff meetings has not only increased engagement in our group’s professional development but also created and deepened connections between colleagues. These connections have rippled out into the school community with an impact far greater than I ever anticipated.