Gopal Midha Part 1: “Unplanned Meetings”- The Hidden Gem in Educational Leadership

Dr. Gopal Midha recently received his Ph.D. at the University of Virginia for his dissertation on principal work practices in India. We reached out to him to learn about his innovative work focusing on the role of “meetings” and the use of theatre to transform leadership. In this two part series we provide an inside look into his life, work, and future trajectory. 

I grew up in a middle-class family in New Delhi, India–a very diverse cultural and economic environment.  From an early age, I was exposed to familial pressure pushing me towards an economically lucrative profession; as a result I pursued an MBA and worked for eight years in the banking sector. It was at this point that I took a sabbatical and began to think about how I could contribute to social impact through education. I became an English and Math teacher at a Mumbai school and taught for two years before pursuing my Masters in Education at University of Massachusetts, Amherst. I brought this knowledge back to India to work in educational policy and after a few years began to narrow my focus to leadership in education.

            During my Ph.D. studies at the University of Virginia, I became fascinated with the role of “meetings,” inspired by Helen Schwartzman’s (1989) book–  “The Meeting: Gatherings in Organizations and Communities.” Hence, in my dissertation, I used the lens of “principal meetings” to observe the different types of interactions principals engage in and how these meetings shape both how principals and teachers think and act. What I found in the literature is that at least 50%-75% of a principal’s time is spent interacting with others (Crisp, 2017; Johnson, 2009; Mintzberg, 1973; Wolcott, 1973) and yet a formal definition of principal meetings does not exist. In addition, while the literature mainly focuses on the formal planned interactions such as staff and district meetings with pre-planned agendas, they do not often define what happens in the corridor between a principal and a teacher as a meeting. During my fieldwork, I realized that these “unplanned meetings” on the way to the principal’s office, in the hallway, or when a teacher just stops by, compromise a significant proportion of the principal’s time and that they deserve further attention. 

school hall

            I drew from a variety of theoretical frameworks including sensemaking (Weick, 1995), meeting science (Duffy & O’Rourke, 2015; Schwartzman, 1989; Scott, Dunn, et al., 2015), and theories of educational leadership (Louis et. al, 2010) to plan my study and analysis. I spent around six months observing the meetings of principals at two different schools in Mumbai  which were on different floors of the same building. Through these ethnographic observations, interviews, and documents, three main findings emerged. 

  • Unplanned meetings compromise a large portion of a principal’s time: At least 50% of principal time is spent in such unplanned meetings which are often much shorter in duration (<5 minutes) as compared to formally planned meetings. 
  • Planned and unplanned meetings serve very different roles: Planned meetings are essential to understand “what” needs to be done and serve as a focus and pressure engine. In light of almost 500 messages received by the principals every month to complete different professional tasks, planned meetings became necessary to focus upon and apply hierarchical pressure to a narrower list of 15 or so important tasks. Unplanned meetings however, are often about clarifying “how” to get things done, clarifying and even accomplishing what has been tasked. For example, it was common for a school teacher to walk into the principal’s office and ask “I am confused, can you show me how to complete the new classroom observation checklist.” And, I would observe them spend this time discussing and co-constructing a joint understanding of what different items in the classroom observation checklist meant. 
  • Principal meetings are intertwined and connected as opposed to stand alone incidents. Meetings that the principals attended are connected and shared within and across institutions and organizations. By understanding that a superintendent meeting is connected in many ways to a school’s staff meeting, you can start to take the attention away from solely focusing on the role of the individual principal’s leadership to also look at the role of the meeting events themselves as interesting and important points of analysis. For example, in my study, two schools’ teachers seemed to think that it was the principal’s leadership style that determined whether there would be a lot of meetings, but in fact I found that aside from that, factors such as the seating arrangement, the location of the principal’s office and the floor the school was on also influenced the number of principal meetings. For instance, the school on the first floor of the building had more than double the number of principal meetings as compared to the school on the second floor.
Meeting Agenda

My hope is that this work will not detract from the attention on principal leadership, but expand or enhance the focus to include the important role of “meetings” and particularly unplanned meetings as being essential spaces to understand and inform leadership practices in schools. My ideal next step is to continue working with educational leaders, which I defined very broadly not only to include principals and superintendents but also teachers and parents, to develop a model on meetings. The goal is not to focus exclusively on making meetings effective, but more to develop an appreciation for meetings as a positive and impactful use of time. Even though it might seem that nothing is happening through these planned and unplanned interactions, the truth is that a lot is actually happening–addressing this misconception is a big focus of my continued work. 

Gopal’s research focus challenges us to redirect our attention on leadership development to include the role of “unplanned meetings,” yet he also is interested in pushing the boundaries of traditional leadership preparation models by using theatre as a tool for promoting equity and inclusion. Coming up in the next few weeks we see what this leadership development approach looks like in action, please stay tuned!

Dissertation download link: https://libraetd.lib.virginia.edu/public_view/1r66j1662