As educational leaders, I am sure that we have a list of items that we have discussed with our staff time and time again. You know, those matters that have a lot to do with how the school operates but we all cannot agree on. Have you ever endlessly discussed in a meeting over several years any of the following:
- Whether teachers use the formal first name of a student on academic reports or should the student’s preferred name be used?
- Whether or not teachers prefer to use Microsoft Outlook or Mac Mail as the supported email software in your school?
- The timing of Mock / Trial examinations on the academic calendar?
- Should parent-teacher conferences take place after school or at the weekend? Or, perhaps we should finish school at midday and start the conferences in the early afternoon?
- Whether or not we should use a face to face briefing to set the tone for the school week or it is better done in an email?
I figure that if you have not experienced one of the above discussions, you have probably been exposed to something similar. I like to call these discussions never-ending debates, as they seem to never go away. What these talking points have in common is that rarely can people agree, and even when a decision is made, the discussion re-surfaces 6 months or a year later.
These discussions, if not dealt with effectively, have the capacity to consume a huge amount of precious time. As leaders, we need to know that there are a number of things that we are not going to get consensus with but, more importantly, we need to quickly learn which discussions we do not need to spend time on so that we can keep student learning front and center. Here are three things that we can do as leaders to prevent everyone’s time being wasted with never-ending debates:
- We can predict when particular debates will re-appear, so it is worth spending time preparing a response in advance of a meeting or in anticipation of an email. Even better, the leader in the room can address the question or opinion before it is even raised or suggested. When doing this it is important not to dismiss suggestions or opinions but to appreciate them and respectfully explain why things will not change given the lack of consensus.
- We must determine which debates are worth re-visiting in the interests of everyone, the student in-particular, and which ones we will not enter any discussion over. For example, school policies exist for a reason, not everyone agrees with them or respects them, but as the leader you are ultimately responsible for the school’s position on various matters; therefore, certain policy decisions may not be worthy of constant debate.
- We must determine who is not happy with the current situation and wishes the discussion to re-open. Is it a noisy few, whereas most people are pretty happy with the current situation? When a teacher re-ignites and old debate, ask them to propose an alternate solution along with evidence of considerable staff backing for any change to be considered. If it is something worth doing, then the affected teacher(s) will take you up on the offer and it may then be worthwhile re-visiting.
While we can bear in mind all the above, at the end of the day, someone has to make the final decision, which will not be popular with everybody; as leaders we are charged with making these decisions and it comes with the territory. If we are getting most people on board, most of the time, then we are doing a lot right. It is the 50:50 / line-ball decisions that are the hardest to deal with and for that part you cannot win but it is how you handle it that matters most.