educational leadership

Leaders: Could we please just get this done quickly?

Educators across all sectors are pressed for time. Here’s how we can manage one constant drain on our attention. Leaders: Make meetings meaningful.

How many meetings have you attended that you can truly say were a productive use of everyone’s time and achieved their purpose?

How many meetings have you run yourself that achieved their purpose? Would the attendees agree?

Most meetings follow a traditional format that hasn’t evolved with the modern workplace. But fear not, a few simple tweaks to your meeting style can lead to more productive gatherings.

Meeting frustrations for attendees 

You’ve probably heard these common frustrations about meetings:

  • “We didn’t need this meeting.”
  • “This could have been an email.”
  • “The decisions were already made.”
  • “Nothing will come of this.”
  • “This is so boring.”
  • “Why bother coming on time?”
  • “Why does it have to be scheduled now?”
  • “We’re just going over the same points.”
  • “Why don’t we just put it to a vote, then?”
  • “Won’t that person just pipe down?!”

Several of these issues can be resolved by asking:  Is a meeting really necessary?

Alternatives to meetings

Leaders should consider alternatives like delegation, mentoring, workshops, or one-on-one conversations with team members. The use of technology for asynchronous interaction such as focused email threads, chat programs, surveys, shared documents, rosters and graphic organisers can allow team members time to think and participate at a time of their choosing and to their desired extent of participation. 

Is the meeting happening just because it’s on the calendar? Some managers hold meetings simply because it’s the norm or because they find it easier than other forms of managing or delegating. However, a meeting should never be an end in itself. Meetings are not suited for disseminating large amounts of information or reporting without the opportunity for team discussion. The meeting must have a clear purpose and achieve its objectives.

The best meeting objectives are 

1. To generate ideas, 

2. To make a group decision, and 

3. to share sensitive or urgent information. 

Meeting frustrations for leaders

As a leader, you may have faced issues such as poorly allocated meeting places and times, directions to deliver someone else’s bad news or frustrations with attendees. 

Sluggish, unprepared, dominant, missing, or late attendees can make meeting discussions off-topic, irrelevant, or impossible! Perhaps the worst outcomes of such meetings are the a reversal of the decision afterward, a need to have another meeting, or the “real” meeting happening elsewhere.

Small changes for a big difference in meetings

First and foremost, it’s essential to recognize that a meeting belongs to the entire team, not just the leader or chair. The true measure of a meeting’s success lies in its outcomes, not in how smoothly it ran. It’s a democratic process that encourages free discussion, values diverse opinions, and ensures decisions are made thoughtfully. Encourage all team members to actively participate and discourage rushing to decisions or stifling opposing viewpoints. One major change to make is for the leader to abdicate from the Chair position..

Leaders, sit back and watch

The role of the chair is critical in maintaining an efficient meeting. While chairs hold authority, they should refrain from advocating a particular interest. Their objective should be impartial management of time and speakers, ensuring  the meeting stays on course. The chair must encourage free discussion while maintaining control, using various cues such as tone, questions, and body language.

When it comes to choosing a chair, it’s important to find someone who can manage the meeting objectively and encourage open discussion. The chair shouldn’t be overly involved in decision-making or introduce decisions that have already been made. Sitting back while the team discusses an issue allows the leader to come through at the end and make the decision, rather than informing the team of a decision already made, or asking for approval of their idea, which can make questions and ideas from the team seem like criticism.

And don’t be secretary either!

Ideally, the leader should not be chair, or secretary. Minutes should capture the essence of the team discussion, objectively recording who said what, not just the final decisions. Technology can aid in this process, allowing attendees to follow the flow of conversation with projector or whiteboard notes. This can also help quell the repetition of arguments, especially from the same person. Use action items to track decisions made and to follow up previous meetings’ items.

The power of a well-structured agenda

Agenda items are best framed as questions, with each having a designated time estimate in minutes, not clock time. Start with important items that require brainstorming or debate, and save routine matters for the end, or via email. Apply time limits for speakers, announced by the chair or displayed on a screen or clock, to keep speaking time fair and focused. Encourage a culture of meeting preparation by getting straight to the issue and not repeating information that was required reading.

A meeting agenda should establish context, provide a stimulus, allow interaction and idea-sharing, produce tangible outcomes, measure accountability against objectives, and encourage reflection and action steps.

Final tips

To best generate ideas and to make a decision as a group, it is crucial to create an environment where alternatives can be raised and discussed with the right thinking frame and time before criticism is allowed. Using De Bono’s thinking hats, even if informally through a competent meeting Chair, will encourage the team to genuinely contribute. Establishing criteria before a decision is made should help focus contributions to the issue at hand rather than personal standpoints. Asking one or more members of the team to adopt a Devil’s Advocate position is an equally valuable initiative which prevents groupthink. 

Incorporate these strategies, and your meetings can become a more productive use of your team’s time, knowledge and ideas. Next time you gather your team, consider these best practices to make your meetings more efficient and effective.

Dr Hugh Gundlach is a lecturer and researcher in the Faculty of Education, The University of Melbourne. He recently presented this content at the ACEL National Conference in Brisbane as one of the 2023 ACEL New Voices in Educational Leadership Research. He likes meetings that stay on topic, produce outcomes, run to time, and that have chocolate biscuits.

How to lead the leaders

In its infancy, the Australian Council for Educational Leaders (ACEL) was a male-centric organisation. At its 50th anniversary, it showed us how far it had come.

It was significant that the opening of the 50-year ACEL celebration represented a major transformation of past ACEL membership to its current iteration, transformed by a group of influential women in the early 70s and now represents the diverse faces of educational leadership in 2023. 

One of the significant features of the 2023 ACEL conference was powerful women in leadership within the organisation. Barbara Watterston (ACEL CEO) opened the conference with great passion and insight, throwing the spotlight on the quality of educational leadership and the agility and resilience of educational leaders. Briony Scott (ACEL President) made the most remarkable concluding speech that tied all elements of the conference together in an eloquent and positive manner. She challenged the 600 delegates to listen to multiple voices and build collaborative and inclusive relationships within the community.

 These ACEL leaders were joined by Stacie Hansel (Dep DG Qld) who officially opened the conference, Sarah Kanowski – the effervescent host and maestro who wove the key elements together throughout the conference, Dr Sue Pillans, who managed to encapsulate and illustrate key learnings from the conference, and the distinguished Viviane Robinson (Uni Auckland) who started the conference with virtuous educational leadership- doing the right things the right way. 

Emeritus Professors Frank Crowther and Brian Caldwell, two of the founders and original members of ACEL were celebrated for their 50 years of service. They highlighted the role ACEL played in leading educational change such as women in leadership in the history of ACEL through the Commemorative Monograph (1973-2023). The Monograph was framed in five parts, writing four sections himself and the final contribution by Brian Caldwell: Auspicious beginnings; Years of Renovation, Revolution and Unification; The Blossoming of Education Leadership Scholarship; Ahead of the Game in a Tumultuous World; the Future of ACEL. Frank talked about connections and described how the DNA of ACEL (originally the Australian Council for Educational Administrators) has shaped, is shaping, and will shape Australian education. The 2023 theme was celebrated through presentations, demonstrating the evolution of ideas and practices in educational leadership rooted in the DNA described by Frank Crowther. The monograph reflects on the journey of ACEL and highlights key events and dedicated service since the inception. It was a fitting backdrop to the theme of the 2023 National Conference, Learning from the Past, Leading for the Future, which raised the following ideas.

‘Working with’ not ‘working for’

Inspiring attendees to look to the future, presentations explored the opportunities that arise when we shift our mindsets to ‘working with’ rather than ‘working for’ groups in education. Marnee’s William Walker oration focused on the value of codesign in working with Aboriginal communities.

The panel discussion involving Kristen Douglas and Beth O’Brien highlighted the importance of working with people to remove the barriers that can inhibit success in education and work. The discussion represented a powerful shift in inclusive education, about working alongside people to showcase their strengths and support their needs.

Focusing on the wellbeing of all

We were reminded of the importance of considering the wellbeing of all members of the school community, including teachers and leaders. We know that educational leaders are often inclined to worry about the wellbeing of their students and their staff before themselves. The analogy of the airplane oxygen mask came to mind for participants with the importance of leaders ‘fitting their own masks first’ in order to be able to help others. 

The theme of ensuring leaders are healthy and well, so that they can best serve their schools, was evident in Paul Kidson’s concurrent session. Paul shared evidence from the 11 years of the ACU Principal Health and Wellbeing survey and made connections to strong evidence from TALIS research that demonstrated a positive relationship between teacher and principal job satisfaction and student achievement. With the current need to focus on teacher retention in Australian schools, as was raised in the research from Mark McCrindle and Fiona Longmuir, the conference highlighted a need to reframe the ways in which we support staff wellbeing. While educators will always care about the wellbeing and learning of students, perhaps a slight shift in focus to ensure those in the profession have their own ‘masks’ well secured first would ultimately benefit students the most?  

Dealing with the ‘problem’

So much of the current talk about education takes a deficit discourse. Within the media and the policy arena, we constantly hear about the failings of students, teachers, educational leaders, schools and initial teacher educators. Discussions at the ACEL conference, however, were a little more proactive. Kristen Douglas and Penny Brown, among others, shifted the conversation forward, calling on educators and policymakers to stop focusing on the people and pay more attention to problems within the system. 

The call to refocus our attention was 

 to the ‘Imagination declaration’, in which Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people made a statement to the Prime Minister and education ministers describing their aspirations for the future:

We are not the problem, we are the solution. 

We don’t want to be boxed.

We don’t want ceilings.

We want freedom to be whatever a human mind can dream. (Imagination Declaration, 2019)

Connections beyond the classroom

Listening is fundamental to the curious mindset of educational leaders that was advocated for by Pasi Sahlberg. Fiona Longmuir’s Spotlight session reminded us that listening to teachers’ experiences in order to understand how to best support them is integral to retaining them in the current workforce shortages. 

The conference provoked discussions about listening to one another, being curious and celebrating the strengths of educators. In his keynote, Mark McCrindle described significant disruptive features that already exist in schools that require new ways of thinking, challenging us to adopt creative strategies for adapting to change.

As one of the final speakers at the conference, Luke Springer critiqued the current ‘doom and gloom’ discourse of teachers and school education and demonstrated the importance of positive representations of schools. His social media posts have helped him to engage with students, parents, teachers, system leaders and the international community, spreading new narratives about the joys of teaching.

Participants were left with a challenge to make a difference, by being inclusive and responsive, by listening and connecting to improve educational leadership, now, and into the future.  

From left to right: Jess Harris is an associate professor in the School of Education at the University of Newcastle. Her research is focused on the leadership and development of teachers and teaching within schools and through initial teacher education.

Fiona Longmuir lectures in educational leadership at Monash University and has over 20 years’ experience as a researcher and practising school leader.Her research interests include intersections between educational leadership and educational change with a particular focus on student voice and agency. Susan Ledger is a professor and dean of education at the University of Newcastle. She researches education policy, practices and issues related to teaching and preparing to teach in diverse contexts: international, rural, remote, multi-lingual, special needs and difficult to staff.

How the spirit of lockdown leaders prevailed in the crisis

This report is from the Educational Leadership SIG Symposium – Educational Leadership in crisis across Australia and New Zealand at #AARE2021, presented by Fiona Longmuir (Monash University) , Michelle Striepe & Christine Cunningham (Edith Cowan University), Sylvia Robertson (University of Otago) and David Gurr (University of Melbourne)

The experience of the pandemic is a significant and shared disruption and the ways that education has been led through crisis and uncertainty were explored in this symposium. 

Research has previously considered how educational leaders have guided their communities through crises of many descriptions and Michelle Striepe and Christine Cunningham first presented a scoping review that examined this prior body of work. They found that the evidence was limited and, as one would expect, covered a broad range of contexts and crises – earthquakes, bushfires, hurricanes as well as local crises such as unexpected deaths. The literature suggested that leading during a crisis is different and is tailored to the context and nature of the crisis (Hemmer & Elliff, 2020; Liou, 2015). 

Across this literature there was evidence that educational leadership during times of crisis involves: 

  • Leading responsively, instinctively and virtuously
  • Working through phases of reaction, management and recovery
  • Understanding the immediacy, urgency and complexity of the crisis and the resulting needs of the community.

From their review, emerged questions that were relevant to thinking about educational leadership through the COVID crisis. These are – 1) how we bound the concept of crisis, and the relationships between crises – for example, are we currently experiencing a health crisis within broader crises of environment and equity?  2) Do we see experiences of crisis as linear or are there constant cycles through phases of crisis that are influenced by the intensity of disruption? 3) How do culture, context and language shape experience of crisis?

The emergence, and persistence of the COVID-19 pandemic crisis since early 2020 has been different across the three locations of the studies shared in the symposium- Melbourne and Perth in Australia and Dunedin in New Zealand. 

From Perth, we heard about a large Independent school that experienced 17 days of lockdown early in 2020 and the work of a school leader who brought a risk management disposition to his work (Striepe & Cunningham). 

In New Zealand, Harry, the principal at the centre of the case, shared his rapid responses and attention to the hauora (health and wellbeing) of the community as the threat that the pandemic might arrive loomed for many months (Roberston). 

The Melbourne study reported on interviews with eight school leaders conducted in mid-2020, which was in-between two long lockdowns. Here, common messages emerged about the need for care for the entire school community and the importance of timely and clear communication (Longmuir).

From across our three contexts, and in reflecting on the review of crisis literature, we saw some commonalities and some areas that raised more questions. 


The experiences of the pandemic were inequitable even within each school. Individual circumstances and situations came to the fore and leaders needed to understand and respond in supportive ways. Across our three locations, we noted that issues of social and economic advantage and disadvantage were important, and we know from emerging research across a broader range of contexts, that COVID-19 has laid bare the intensity and variety of inequalities, and the ways that education is involved in these.

Relational leadership

In most of our cases we noticed that the relational aspects of educational leadership came to the fore. It seemed that during a crisis, core purposes of human sociality were foregrounded – people cared about each other and educational leaders noticed a “coming together” of their communities in the face of the shared experience of adversity. 

Phases of crisis response 

The idea of phases of response was evident in the literature review and the factor of time is a really important one in any further thinking about how educational leaders have responded, managed and survived such an extended crisis. Reacting, responding and recovering stages were evident – but how has the rollercoaster of the pandemic experience blurred what might normally be thought of as a linear crisis journey through these stages

Crisis leadership practices

Many leadership practices that are thought to be important at any time were still identifiable in the work of the leaders we studied – what changed were the ways that these practices were combined in order to respond as needed for the unprecedented circumstances. 

In reflecting on some of the key messages across our research, Sylvia Robertson left us some important questions:

  • Are we seeing a shift from instructional leadership to a more relational approach with a social justice focus?
  • Has the pandemic highlighted equity issues to the extent that they cannot be ignored any longer?
  • Moving forward, will there be less concern with measurement of outcomes and greater focus on social inequities, care and innovation?

We agreed that the answers remain to be seen.

Fiona Longmuir lectures in Educational Leadership at Monash University and has over 20 years’ experience as a researcher and practising school leader. Her research interests include intersections between educational leadership and educational change with a particular focus on student voice and agency. She is working on projects investigating school leadership for social cohesion; leadership for unprecedented times; and student voice and agency in alternative educational settings. Find her on Twitter @LongmuirFiona and LinkedIn:


Hemmer, L., & Elliff, D. S. (2020). Leaders in action: The experiences of seven Texas superintendents before, during, and after Hurricane Harvey. Educational Management Administration & Leadership48(6), 964-985.

Liou, Y. H. (2015). School crisis management: A model of dynamic responsiveness to crisis life cycle. Educational Administration Quarterly51(2), 247-289.

Papers where some of the research is reported: 

Longmuir, F. (2021). Leading in lockdown: Community, communication and compassion in response to the COVID-19 crisis. Educational Management Administration & Leadership.

Striepe, M. and Cunningham, C. (2021), Understanding educational leadership during times of crises: a scoping review. Journal of Educational Administration, ahead-of-print.