This article is written by Truth for Teachers writer Melissa Forbes.
I recently asked several colleagues what they think of data meetings. Their responses did not surprise me. Here are a few, which probably won’t surprise you, either:
“I love the idea of data meetings. But I leave the meetings frustrated and with so little useful information.”
“Because of the way our data meeting is organized, it ends up being really redundant. It’s not a good use of our time.”
“Our team hasn’t bought into the idea that analyzing data is good for our kids.”
“We do a lot of damage when we speak ill of our students in data meetings. This is not the place to vent.”
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We’d all love to be a part of well-functioning data meetings. But the three things that ensure their success — deep trust, a well-cast vision, and administrative support — can’t be manufactured. They take educational like-mindedness from your teammates and your administrators. That’s a tall order. And one you don’t have much control over.
Which leaves you to deal the best you can with your particular situation. And that can look like a miserable 60 minutes a week — or something much better.
You do not have to dread data meetings. It is possible to change your mindset about them, so you do not merely survive the session through gritted teeth and shoulder spasms. With patience and steady progress, you might even find yourself looking forward to these meetings, and one day even thriving in them.
Before we jump into some tips, though, let’s be clear. This blog post is not about helping you figure out how to improve your data meeting, your colleagues’ behavior, or your team’s culture.
This blog post is about you.
It’s about how you can shift your thinking from “what a pointless waste of time” to “that wasn’t so bad” to even “I really feel good about today’s meeting.” Perhaps your teammates will also evolve as a result of your influence, and that would be great. But I advise you not to count on it. Or your gritted teeth and shoulder spasms will just get worse. (Ask me how I know.)
So here we go: ten tips you can use before, during, and after your data meetings. Try one and notice how it makes you feel. Adjust and re-try. And remember, this is all about you, what you need to improve your own mood and mindset in data meetings.
Before the meeting
1. Give your students an independent task.
Give your students a task they can complete on their own for 15 minutes before you leave for your data meeting. Here’s why: You need time to transition from teacher mode, where you are the boss, to data meeting mode, where you are a colleague.
I think one of the reasons data meetings often struggle is because we teachers are very used to being the boss.
I totally get this. After I leave school every day, I stay in teacher mode. I do it at the grocery store, at restaurants, and even in spirited discussions with my partner. This is not helpful. No one wants me to be the expert other than my students (and often, not even them). Bringing my “large and in charge” approach into a data meeting isn’t helpful in that setting, either.
My fourth period class wraps up twelve minutes before my data meeting. A couple of students linger with questions or to hang out before lunch. As a result, I frequently dash into my data meeting distracted and hurried, my mind still on my students.
A few months ago, I came up with an activity to keep my students busy just before my data meeting. I use those minutes to look over my notes from last week’s meeting or questions I have for our team leader. This helps me mentally detach from teacher role and ease into colleague role.
2. Bring a question.
Keep a list of questions on your desk you can bring to your weekly data meetings, and add new ideas to it as they occur to you. Then choose one question to bring to the group each week.
This question should be data-focused. While that may seem obvious, we all know that data meetings easily veer off track into upcoming school activities or student-specific concerns. Bringing a question about data or instructional practices can help keep the meeting centered, but more importantly, it will help you get something out of the meeting.
So your question should also be real. In other words, try not to manufacture something. Instead ask a question you genuinely need assistance with.
For example, you might ask for advice for modifying an assessment for your second language learners. Or you could ask for thoughts on reaching out to parents about results that were below grade level.
You don’t need to present your question with any fanfare. You also don’t need to use your question as a hammer to get the group back on track, as in, “People? Can we focus here?” Instead, casually say something like, “Hey, I have a question I could use help with.” No need to flatter or cajole. Just ask.
Remember, your question isn’t about getting the team back on track if the discussion lost its focus. Your honest question will help keep you from succumbing to the temptation to veer off focus — and the inevitable frustration that follows.
3. Prepare as you’ve been asked to prepare.
Preparing for your data meetings, in the way you’ve been asked to, will improve your mindset even if you don’t agree with the process or respect the person assigning the task. Let me explain.
You’re asked to bring assessment results? Get out a calculator and figure them out. Don’t tweak the numbers or rationalize what happened. Just collect the data with the objectivity of an outsider. Do not blame yourself, your students, or the fact that you were required to administer a test on Halloween. Just collect the data in the way you were asked to.
Fill out the spreadsheet. Email your results to your colleagues. Bring each team member a copy of your test. Whatever it is you are asked to do before the meeting, do it. And do it well.
Listen, I get that it’s tempting to dismiss this advice. Perhaps no one on your team ever prepares unless an administrator plans to attend. Or maybe everyone prepares, week in and week out, but no one ever talks about the data. Instead the typical (and maybe even valid) complaining ensues.
Prepare anyway. Here’s why: you are a professional. Hold your head all the way up and revel in that. A professional prepares for meetings. You are a professional. So you prepare for meetings.
Plus, looking at the data may reveal a surprise or two. It may show you that your second period kids are performing well ahead of any of your other classes. Now you’ll ask yourself why and then adjust (and host an impromptu celebration with your second period students, of course). Or your analysis may show you that a student who was struggling with science vocabulary has made a sudden leap. Time for a good news conference with that kid, right?
I know we all analyze our data regularly and fine-tune our teaching as we go. Absolutely we do. But perhaps — just perhaps — looking at results in the specific way you’ve been asked to could reveal a revelation you wouldn’t have otherwise noticed.
During the meeting
4. Focus on the meeting itself.
In other words, don’t grade papers, check emails, or jot down your grocery list.
I completely understand the temptation to bring work to a data meeting. Teachers have far more tasks to do than they can reasonably expect to accomplish, and the pressure is no joke. I have brought papers and lesson plans to countless data meetings, assuring myself I can multi-task.
The truth is, I can’t. No one can. When I split my attention between the meeting and an additional task, I end up with a headache and a sense of unease. Afterwards, I feel like I did a poor job of both the meeting and the work I tried to cram in.
Think of it this way: working during a data meeting guarantees the meeting will not succeed. Is your data meeting in trouble? If so, there are likely a whole bunch of reasons, this being one of them. Fix this for yourself, at least. And show your colleagues respect by giving them your full attention.
5. Volunteer to be the note taker.
If it’s nearly impossible for you to transition out of the very busy, active mindset you need to run your classroom into a more settled listening stance helpful for a data meeting, taking notes is a great solution. Being the group scribe will help you manage your energy without sacrificing the quality of your data meeting.
Plus, it’s hard to be irritated if you’ve got a legitimate task in front of you. I was part of a team for a couple of years that was deeply dysfunctional. This is when my note-taking trick was born. My brain didn’t have time to judge or criticize when it was focused on taking notes.
The trade-off, though, is that my voice was rarely heard. It’s difficult to participate in a discussion when you are simultaneously trying to distill that discussion into boxes on a Google doc. Be aware that being the note-taker, while saving your mood, might silence you. Choose the role you need now, and then adjust when you’re ready.
6. Notice your body.
This is such an easy way to improve my mindset in a stressful meeting that I wish I’d thought of it years ago.
If the tone of the meeting isn’t quite what I’d hoped for, I take a moment to notice my own body. Are my arms crossed? Has my pulsed picked up speed? Am I frowning?
Two or three deep inhales and deliberate exhales slow my pulse and clear my mind. Just this simple act can convert frustration to observation, judgment to empathy. Now my mindset is much improved even if the meeting itself doesn’t recover.
If I notice my arms are crossed or my hands are clenched, I open my palms and rest them in my lap, signaling my brain that I’m open and receptive. Even better, my body language conveys open-mindedness, too. Is this behavior fake-it-until-I-make it? You bet. I’ll take that over tension any day.
7. Resist discussing specific students.
I completely understand why we want to talk about our students in data meetings. We are, after all, teachers. But resist doing this for two reasons.
One, talking about specific students distracts us from the purpose of data meetings. It’s a little like telling your car mechanic about your amazing road trip. Does your mechanic need to hear about the amazing seafood restaurant you found? No, he does not. In that discussion, only car maintenance is relevant. The same is true with data meetings. Keep the focus on data and strategies, rather than student specifics.
Two, I’ve noticed that student-driven discussions have a tendency to slide into the dangerous territory of blaming students for assessment results. “Kerry fell asleep during my progress monitoring test, which threw off my numbers.” “Did you know Jake’s parents are going through a divorce? That’s why he’s been so distracted in class lately.”
Kerry and Jake need and deserve your compassion. That compassion has several appropriate outlets: your colleagues who teach the same students, parents, your mentor teacher, and IEP/504 plan check-ins, just to name a few.
After the meeting
8. Give students another independent task.
When you return to your classroom after a data meeting, your head might be swirling with ideas and to-dos. You might also need a breather after a tense discussion. Or you might feel overwhelmed with even more work you’ve been asked to take on.
Allow yourself a few minutes to transition from one space to the next and to capture your thoughts from the meeting. A great way to do that is to, again, plan a brief, independent activity for your students.
Our kids need to function independently at various points throughout the day anyway, so feel no guilt about this. You likely already plan several independent activities for your kids. Just make sure one of those activities coincides with the few minutes right before your data meeting, and another one immediately after.
9. Compliment a colleague.
Think about something a colleague said during your meeting that you liked. Or found thought-provoking. Or that piqued your curiosity.
And then email them to say so. “Hey, I like that form you created for tracking sight words,” or “What you said about using YouTube videos really got me thinking.” Nothing fancy here. Keep it short. And notice how doing so lifts your mood.
After a few data meetings of complimenting colleagues, you’ll observe something interesting. You will begin to look for positive moments during the meeting. This is the kind of mindset change that can have enormous impact. Will it fix a dysfunctional team or encourage administrators to better support the team? Maybe. But remember, those things are largely out of your control. This is about you thriving in your profession. Looking for what’s good and calling attention to it can have exactly that effect.
10. Email your team leader and administrator.
Soon after your data meeting, email your team leader and administrator. Sum up the tasks you agreed to complete, ask clarifying questions, and establish completion dates.
This tip returns to the professionalism I talked about earlier. This is not about more work to do, although it may feel like it initially. No, this is about acknowledging your professional role in your team and attending to it.
So jot down what you need to do and when you will do it. This will free you up to give your students your full attention as you shift back into instructor mode. Your kids will notice a happier, more relaxed you, which actually has the effect of making you happier and more relaxed. A win-win.
One final thought …
These ideas are not meant to be tackled all at once. The last thing you need is more work to do.
No, these are just a few suggestions to get you thinking about how you might approach your data meetings with fresh eyes. Try one for several weeks and see how it goes. No change to your mindset? No problem; try a different idea and watch what happens.
Just as you monitor and adjust your teaching, so with your approach to data meetings. Over time, you’ll make discoveries that work for you.
Melissa Forbes is a high school job skills teacher, a liaison for an alternative education jobs partnership, and a writer. She’s taught English, journalism, and work experience, as well as coordinated a high school dual enrollment program. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in English and a Master of Arts in Liberal Studies. Melissa writes about her experiences both in and out of the classroom. She lives in Central Florida with her husband Matt.