Hal Portner
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Committees: Make Them More Productive

Are committee assignments a waste of your valuable time? Not if you implement the plans outlined here! Includes a PRINTABLE Action Minutes sheet!
by Hal Portner
Regular contributor to the Gazette
June 1, 2008
  • Professional committees working toward instructional improvement and school reform …
  • Faculty committees where teachers gather together weekly to analyze student work, interpret results, and modify instructional practice …
  • Grade-level or curriculum teams that plan and execute integrated instruction …

It is through these kinds of committees that teachers collaborate to improve teaching and learning. A committee is a decision-making group. How it makes decisions and how it problem-solves will largely determine the quantity and quality of its decisions. We will examine problem solving and decision making shortly; but first, and perhaps even more basic to the effective functioning of the group, is the way individual members interact.

Committee Dynamics

Let’s eavesdrop on the Xample School District’s Induction and Mentoring Committee meeting which is about to begin.

Chuck, a middle school Assistant Principal and elected chair of the group, claps his hands together and says, “OK, people, let’s get started.” He points to the agenda on the chalk board. “Lots to get through today.”

At one end of the table, Ben and Alice are quietly holding a side conversation that continues on even when Chuck introduces the first item on the agenda: Need for additional mentors.

“We anticipate hiring new art, music and physical education teachers next year and have no trained mentors available in those categories or money to any new ones. Any suggestions? Ben? Alice?”

“Huh?” Ben mumbles.

Anne, a Kindergarten teacher, raises her hand. “Is it really necessary that a mentor be someone from the same discipline? I mean…”

Darlene interrupts Anne. “We’ve been over this before. I want my new math teachers to be mentored only by experienced math teachers — no matter what grade they teach. Let’s move on.”

Ethel, the Assistant Superintendent, stands up, peers around the table, nods and smiles almost imperceptibly toward Darlene, then turns to Anne and gives her the look. Anne pushes away from the table and glances at the floor. Everyone else stops what they are doing and looks at Ethel. “I propose we just go ahead and assign our older art, music and phys. ed. teachers to the new teachers in their respective areas.”

Ben whispers to Alice, “I don’t recall any of the music teachers or the other ‘specials’ ever being trained as mentors.”

“Shhh,” says Alice.

When Ethel finishes her proposal, Chuck calls for discussion. No one says anything. Fred, the high school Guidance Counselor, puts his hand on Chuck’s shoulder and whispers something into his ear. Chuck nods and clears his throat. “Anne, you had some concerns about this issue. Is there anything you want to say?”

Silence, then, “No, I… umm, well, yes I do. In my opinion…”

We have heard enough for now, so let’s quietly leave. Typical or not, the Xample scenario illustrates some of the dynamics that may be in play while your committee is meeting. The following exercise will help you become aware of these dynamics, point out some ways to reduce behaviors that stifle participation, and suggest strategies to reinforce behaviors that promote active participation.

What’s going on in your committee?

A committee functions best when there are productive interpersonal relationships among committee members. Let’s gather some data. Think back to your last committee meeting, or note what goes on during your next one. In the charts below, write in the name(s) of the appropriate individual(s) or the information that an item calls for. Don’t forget to include yourself.

Verbal Participation

Who talks often?  
Who seldom talks  
Who usually talks to whom?  
When do these patterns change?  

Influence

When they talk, others listen and act.  
When they talk, others ignore or change the subject.  
Talk or not, who are the real movers?  
Is there a struggle for leadership? Between whom?  

Dysfunctional Behavior

Who interrupts?  
Who holds side conversations?  
Who changes the subject prematurely?  
Who “puts down” other members?  
Who withdraws from the discussion?  

Facilitating Roles

Who begins discussions?  
Who seeks information and opinions?  
Who gives information and opinions?  
Who clarifies?  
Who summarizes?  
Who sets standards?  
Who reduces tension?  
Who encourages others to participate?  

Now that you have a sense of the group’s dynamics — how various individuals interact with others in various situations — what can you do to facilitate productive interpersonal relationships among committee members? Here are some suggestions.

  • Reinforce positive behavior: feed back your appreciation. Let folks know that you noticed what they did or said and how it was helpful.
  • Encourage others to participate in discussions: ask individuals by name for their opinion and recognize their contributions.
  • Respect everyone’s contribution: see to it that when someone presents an idea or thought to the discussion, it is acknowledged and if appropriate, responded to.
  • Be an assertive, contributing and sensitive member: prepare your thoughts as well as possible in advance and present them fully and logically; listen to others and be ready to modify your own opinion on the basis of logic and understanding; avoid changing your mind only to avoid conflict; and view differences of opinion as helpful to decision making. The best decision-making happens when people feel safe.

Group Decision Making

Members of a committee will need to make many group decisions; and they will be expected to support those decisions. It is not always easy for a group to arrive at a decision upon which every member will agree. Individuals tend to favor solutions they propose. Sometimes an individual, for various reasons, may decide not to favor one solution over another, but simply to go along with the majority or with a trusted colleague. Individuals tend to help implement and otherwise support decisions that they have helped to make. Therefore, a productive committee is dependent on full participation by all its members in its decision making process. Here are the most common group decision-making methods.

  • An individual agrees — or a subcommittee is formed — to investigate an issue, report findings to the full committee, and to make recommendations. This procedure allows several issues to be researched simultaneously while cutting down on the amount of time required from each person. On the other hand, there may be a tendency for the individual or subgroup to have formed such a strong opinion that they emphasize data that agrees with their viewpoint and attempt to cut short any dissenting discussion. The investigated issue is then put through one of the following processes.
  • The question is put to a majority vote. Usually following Robert’s Rules of Order, a motion is made and seconded, a vote is taken, and more than half of the members (if there is a quorum present) agree or disagree. This procedure can save time, but if the proposal passes, those who voted against it may not fully support the decision.
  • The unanimous vote is similar to the majority vote except that all voting members must agree in order for the proposal to pass. Of course, one person can block a decision by disagreeing. There is also the possibility that someone may feel obligated to agree, but again, not really support the decision.
  • Like the two methods above, consensus is a process in which all parties actively discuss the issues around the decision to be made. The difference, however, is that the ideas and feelings of all members are integrated into a group decision that in order to be accepted, must have the agreement of each member to support it. During the consensus process, discussions and straw polls take place; modifications of the original proposal are considered; attempts are made to find common points of agreement; and finally, all involved make a genuine commitment to its implementation.

    As you might imagine, decision by consensus is usually difficult to attain and will consume more time than other methods. As the energies of the group become more focused on the problem at hand (rather than on defending individual points of view), the quality of the decision tends to be enhanced and the decision itself is likely to be more vigorously implemented than if made by other methods such as the use of majority power (voting), minority power (persuasion), or compromise.

    Realistically, of course, not every decision made by consensus will meet everyone’s unqualified approval. There should, however, be a general indication of support from all members before consensus is considered to have taken place. Because decision by consensus usually takes a great deal more time than other methods, the process may prove frustrating to some. But if each group member takes the time needed to listen for understanding, to consider all other member’s views, to make her or his own views known — ultimately the committee will make high quality decisions that will be well supported.

Beware The Illusion of Agreement

On April 17, 1961, a brigade of about fourteen hundred Cuban exiles, aided by the United States Navy, Air Force, and the CIA, invaded the swampy coast of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs. The rest — as the saying goes — is history. Nothing went as planned and by the third day, the approximately twelve hundred invaders who had not been killed by Castro’s twenty thousand well-equipped troops, were captured and ignominiously led off to prison camps.

The irony of the Bay of Pigs fiasco — and the reason I refer to it here — is that the decision to go ahead with the ill-conceived plan was made by consensus of a popular president and a group of advisors who, as author Irving L. Janis describes them, had “considerable intellectual talent, capable of objective, rational analysis, and accustomed to speaking their minds.” (Victims of Groupthink. Houghton Mifflin, 1972.)

According to Janis, “when a group of people who respect each other’s opinions arrive at a unanimous view, each member is likely to feel that the belief must be true. This reliance on consensual validation tends to replace individual critical thinking and reality testing, unless there are clear-cut disagreements among the members.” Janis suggests that had even one senior advisor opposed the adventure during the group’s meetings, President Kennedy would have canceled it. No one spoke against it publicly, although privately — it was reported later — several voiced their doubts.

Ironically, the more amiable and cohesive your committee, the greater the danger that independent critical thinking will be replaced by what Janis calls ‘Groupthink.’ A built-in adversary — a designated “devil’s advocate” — can help dispel Groupthink. The concept of Groupthink need not cause you any paranoia, but by being aware of its possibility, your committee’s decision making will be less susceptible to miscalculation.

Reflect on Decisions Before Acting on Them

The probability exists that unanticipated consequences can result from your committee’s decisions. Therefore, it is a good idea to run them through the following test before confirming and acting on them.

  1. Why are we making this decision?
  2. What could happen if we don’t make this decision?
  3. What, if anything, will be better because of this decision?
  4. What, if anything, will be worse because of this decision?
  5. What effect, if any, will making this decision have on people?
  6. Will it work in the context of the school/district’s policies, budget and operational structure?
  7. Will it work in the context of the school/district’s informal culture?
  8. Will it work in the context of the school/district’s professional contracts and agreements?
Turn Meeting Hours into Action Minutes

A committee is a group that keeps minutes and loses hours - Milton Berle

Feel free to use the following organizer to record the minutes of your next meeting.


click for full size

Note: This article is based on material from Training Mentors is Not Enough: Everything Else Schools and Districts Need to Do by Hal Portner (Corwin Press, 2001)



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About Hal Portner...

Hal Portner is a former K-12 teacher and administrator. He was assistant director of the Summer Math Program for High School Women and Their Teachers at Mount Holyoke College, and for 24 years he was a teacher and then administrator in two Connecticut public school districts. From 1985 to 1995, he was a member of the Connecticut State Department of Education’s Bureau of Certification and Professional Development, where, among other responsibilities, he served as coordinator of the Connecticut Institute for Teaching and Learning and worked closely with school districts to develop and carry out professional development and teacher evaluation plans and programs.

Portner writes, develops materials, trains mentors, facilitates the development of new teacher and peer-mentoring programs, and consults for school districts and other educational organizations and institutions. In addition to Mentoring New Teachers, he is the author of Training Mentors Is Not Enough: Everything Else Schools and Districts Need to Do (2001), Being Mentored: A Guide for Protégés (2002), Workshops that Really Work: The ABCs of Designing and Delivering Sensational Presentations (2005), and editor of Teacher Mentoring and Induction: The State of the Art and Beyond (2005) – all published by Corwin Press. He holds an MEd from the University of Michigan and a 6th-year Certificate of Advanced Graduate Study (CAGS) in education admin¬istration from the University of Connecticut. For three years, he was with the University of Massachusetts EdD Educational Leadership Program.


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