top of page
  • Writer's pictureDr. Sue Chapman

Power Up Your Meetings with Purpose-Driven Protocols

Updated: Feb 17, 2022

Meetings that matter do not simply happen – they are crafted with care.

~ Thomas Van Soelen

Imagine a meeting that educators are eager to attend because they understand the meeting’s purpose and know the meeting will be structured in support of this purpose. Imagine a school or district culture where such meetings are the norm, where adults recognize these purpose-driven discussions as essential to their own effectiveness and the effectiveness and well-being of the learning community.

Thomas Van Soelen, author of Meeting Goals: Protocols for Leading Effective, Purpose-Driven Discussions in Schools, tells us that meetings should help participants to feel 1) effective and 2) efficient and should be characterized by 3) equity in voice and 4) excellence. How many of the meetings you attended or facilitated last week met these criteria?

Van Soelen suggests that these four conditions for effective meetings can serve as a frame for choosing specific discussion protocols to power up the impact of our meetings. Van Soelen defines a discussion protocol as a structured conversation that creates a collaborative space. Discussion protocols promote adult learning and development and “create environments of risk-taking, resulting in a higher level of trust” (p. 5). Skillful use of discussion protocols creates conditions “where group members can collectively be better than they are as individuals” (p. 11).

Where can you find discussion protocols that meet these criteria? Meeting Goals: Protocols for Leading Effective, Purpose-Driven Discussions in Schools offers dozens of protocols that Van Soelen has developed and/or refined through his extensive work in education leadership and professional learning. You can also find a wealth of discussion protocols on the School Reform Initiative website or with a Google search.

According to Van Soelen, we can use protocols to maximize the impact of our meetings and professional learning sessions by identifying our specific purpose for using a protocol and then choosing a protocol that achieves this purpose. As you read the examples from Van Soelen’s book below, think about situations in your own context where you might use these same types of discussion protocols.

Laura is an instructional coach focused on mathematics. As she works with the fifth-grade team, she believes the members of the team all have very different understandings about what a particular standard means in practice. The team participates in divide-and-conquer planning, and there is disagreement on the team between the two educators who wrote the plans for this week. Rather than spend the collaborative planning time revising the plans, Laura believes this plan would be more empowering for the two teachers who plan mathematics instruction.

Laura has been hoping the team would start using various resources in their planning (many of which she has provided to the team already), so she goes to websites with unpacked standards from Virginia and California. Laura’s state doesn’t provide unpacked standards for teacher access. Searching out just this particular learning standard, Laura creates a document with less than four pages for the team to read during the planning time. She needs some sort of discussion protocol to help them really study the standards and the related texts.

Chapter 2: Protocols to Build Shared Understanding, Meeting Goals: Protocols for Leading Effective, Purpose-Driven Discussions in Schools

Laura wants to build shared understanding.

Examples of Protocols to Build Shared Understanding:

Say, Say, Do - Leadership Version

Planting the Seed

Rebecca has just been named the school leader at a K-5 elementary school. She prides herself on asking for feedback on almost everything. In her last post as principal, her staff gave her frank, sometimes brutally honest feedback on documents and ideas. She has been having trouble finding that level of truth with her current staff. The last time she sent out a draft plan to the school leadership team, it seemed their feedback fell into four categories.

  1. Recommended grammar and usage changes (“Misplaced semicolon in the third row, second column.” “I think Principal should be capitalized.” “A few typos on the third page – perhaps you were in a hurry!”)

  2. Affirming statements (“Looks great!” “Love it.” “This looks manageable.”)

  3. The emoji version of affirming statements (winking face, smiling face with halo, smirking face with starry eyes)

  4. Radio silence – no response at all

She knows she could call a meeting and ask for this feedback, too, but she’s afraid she might just receive more of the same, just in person. Chapter 3: Protocols to Refine Products, Meeting Goals: Protocols for Leading Effective, Purpose-Driven Discussions in Schools

Rebecca wants to refine a product.

Example of a Protocol to Refine a Product:


Rachelle has a pit in her stomach because it is Thursday – RTI day. As the response to intervention coordinator for her school, she feels guilty about what happens on this day. Although the schedule seems to work for teachers, and they do develop student plans, the overall culture and feel of the day are not positive.

It seems some of her staff gain a level of enjoyment from talking negatively about students. This isn’t mean talk, rather it seems to be important to gather a laundry list of all the skills a student cannot do. Rachel doesn’t think the teachers even know they seem to have a deficit-first view of the students they are discussing; it seems to be innate.

At certain levels in the process, parents are not yet involved, and at others, they are invited but often cannot come to the meetings. More than once, Rachelle has been relieved the parents were not there to hear the discussion.

Chapter 4: Protocols to Seek Perspective, Meeting Goals: Protocols for Leading Effective, Purpose-Driven Discussions in Schools

Rachelle wants to seek perspective.

Examples of Protocols to See Perspective:


ATLAS - Looking at Data

Making Meaning

Examining Assessments

Babetta has a strong record in building consensus with others – it helped catapult her all the way to being named superintendent in a small urban district one year ago. She comes to the district with deep knowledge and experience in special education and support services. In fact, the district has been named a “District in Need of Assistance” by the state education department, mostly for its gaps in student performance between students with disabilities and those without.

Some of the necessary changes have not been difficult to implement – a new form here, a different way to contact parents there. Babetta is puzzled about how to help the middle school with what she perceives as a persistently resistant climate. Staff members did not push back on any of the changes thus far, but what she has been trying to talk with them about next has not been going so well. Being a small community, she is worried if she doesn’t build a stronger strategy with that campus, board members may soon become involved.

When she asks central office leadership team members for help, she isn’t sure if their posed strategies will get at the root of the issue. She is wondering if she needs to have some different kind of help – perhaps gaining some insight into what might be under the surface of this situation and being less focused on her next actions.

Chapter 5: Protocols to Explore and Manage Dilemmas, Meeting Goals: Protocols for Leading Effective, Purpose-Driven Discussions in Schools

Babetta wants to explore and manage a dilemma.

Example of a Protocol to Explore and Manage Dilemmas:

Descriptive Consultancy

Cindy has been given a significant task to transition teachers at her school to standards-based grading. A district study team has met and revised the grading policy. The new board-approved policy comes with a time line for training she needs to enact. As a high school assistant principal, Cindy is used to directives and deadlines, but this one seems particularly tricky.

Although she knows the end result is not flexible, she believes this is a perfect opportunity to differentiate professional development. Having been the administrator of several content departments, she is not only aware of individual teacher differences on this concept but varying content approaches as well.

Thank goodness it is only February, and the professional development won’t begin until the summer! District assistant principals meet monthly, and she thinks they might be a perfect group from which to harvest ideas. Some of them work in buildings where they have been piloting standards-based grading, so she is sure they will have important perspectives to bring. She wants to leave the meeting with a basketful of ideas to consider in creating a menu of teacher learning for the summer. Chapter 6: Protocols to Generate Ideas, Meeting Goals: Protocols for Leading Effective, Purpose-Driven Discussions in Schools

Cindy wants to generate ideas.

Examples of Protocols to Generate Ideas: Wagon Wheel Charrette

We can also build our craft in using discussion protocols when we design agendas for meetings or professional learning sessions beginning with the purpose for each part of the agenda, and then carefully choosing a discussion protocol aligned with this purpose. Here is an agenda planning template recommended by Van Soelen.



What or How

What Happened

Van Soelen says that the best way to become skilled at using protocols is to give it a go. He advises “Open up your calendar, look at collaborative gatherings coming up in the next few weeks, create a purpose-driven agenda, and go for it” (p. 211).

Join Thomas Van Soelen and co-presenters Shannon Kersey and Rebecca Williams, current principals, this summer at the Learning Forward Annual Conference for any of his acclaimed conference sessions:

Are you Meeting Goals - Do Your Meetings Have Goals?

Based on the book, Meeting Goals: Protocols for Leading Effective, Purpose-Driven Discussions in Schools, participants will examine sample meeting agendas as well as their own, searching for intentionality and engagement. Attendees will leave with their own revised agendas, explicit with purpose and possible discussion protocols.

Jeans Days and Sonic Drinks are Not Enough: Leading with Adult SEL in Mind

Every leadership move sends messages about what and whom we value. Come determine what messages your leadership might convey and hear from two practicing principals how this looks in practice.

Crafting the Feedback Teachers Need and Deserve

What constitutes helpful feedback after a classroom observation? This session offers practical strategies in creating a culture of giving and receiving feedback.

Receiving Feedback in Productive and Emotionally-Healthy Ways

Educators think more about how to give feedback than how to receive it! We tend to be thoughtful about our work, thus it can be hard to hear from others. This session gives insight to better understand our various reactions to feedback and what to do about each iteration.

Sue Chapman is a professional learning consultant and author of MathVentures: 33 Teacher-Coach Investigations to Grow Students as Mathematicians. Learn more about her at and connect with her on Twitter at @SueChapmanLearn.

266 views0 comments


bottom of page