Expertise For Sale

By Mary Koepke — September 01, 1991 8 min read

At last year’s conference of the National Science Teachers Association, a teacher from Idaho handed Joyce Jeffery a business card. Jeffery, a project manager for Addison-Wesley Publishing Co. who had been keeping an eye open for possible teacher consultants, was impressed. Several weeks later, Jeffery called the Idaho teacher and signed her up to do some consulting for the Boston-based publishing company.

Addison-Wesley, which uses hundreds of teachers as consultants every year to write or review book manuscripts, is one of many companies that value the expertise of teachers. Book and magazine publishers, television stations, audiovisual production agencies, museums, and other organizations that produce or promote education-related products often need teachers to write study guides for television series, assess the merits of new programs or materials, or dream up ideas for educational workshops, among other things.

Companies that produce educational products need teachers’ advice and perspective. Unlike editors, producers, and designers, who can only guess at what material is appropriate for children, teachers know from experience what works. “Teachers represent the real world,” explains Toby Levine, president of Toby Levine Communications, a research, marketing, and publishing company that produces educational materials for clients such as the Discovery Channel, USA Today, and the Public Broadcasting Service. “Teachers not only help us prepare materials that will be used in the real world but they also help us by testing out projects in the classroom.”

Although some teachers work as paid consultants, many others are rewarded with nothing more than a sincere “thanks” and a free lunch. “If it has to do with education, you’re not going to get rich,” notes Michael Dispezio, a Massachusetts science teacher, who left the classroom to make his living as a professional consultant and writer.

In general, experts say, if the consulting involves teaching a workshop or writing materials, teachers should receive a cash honorarium or an hourly rate. But if the consulting involves sitting on an advisory board or participating in an occasional focus group, a travel reimbursement and a ham-and-cheese croissant are often all a teacher can expect.

The amount an organization pays its consultants depends on the size of the project and how much it can afford; a Parisian perfumery can afford to pay an expert “nose” $1,000 a whiff, but many museums and nonprofit organizations, already stretched to the limit, have difficulty coming up with even a token gratuity. Obviously, teachers won’t always want to work for nothing, but volunteer consulting often leads to paid work.

For instance, about 11 years ago, Barbara Wolff, a New Jersey physics teacher, found that if she gave 30 high school sophomores accelerometers and strapped them into the seats of the Great American Scream Machine, a roller coaster at a nearby amusement park, they learned principles of motion while hurtling up, down, and around.

When the New Jersey chapter of the American Association of Physics Teachers heard about the field trips Wolff had organized, the group invited her to write a handbook for other teachers on amusement park physics. Since then, the local amusement park has hired her to give an annual workshop to other teachers in the area, a publishing company has asked her to help develop science teaching guides, and World Book Encyclopedia has asked her to write an article on—guess what?—roller coasters.

Now, Wolff never knows what a phone call will bring. “I just judged a Duracell battery competition in which the company invited kids to use batteries to build inventions,” she says. “Once you’re in the network, all sorts of things start happening.”

Although the money that Wolff earns is a welcome extra, she and other teacher-consultants say they are motivated by the personal and professional validation and the sense of professional pride that consulting brings. “It helps me keep fresh in the classroom,” notes Don Rathjen, a high school teacher from Pleasanton, Calif., who has reduced his teaching load at school to edit a new book for the Exploratorium, a science museum in nearby San Francisco. “You meet new people and share experiences. Anyone who has been teaching very long realizes that teachers don’t operate well in a vacuum.”

So how do interested teachers learn about consulting opportunities? Museum coordinators, publishers, and television producers looking for consultants sometimes call a department chairperson or teachers’ association in the nearest school district and simply ask for candidates. Within this scenario, teachers most likely to get tapped are those with good local reputations and strong ties to professional or disciplinary organizations. But teachers with an itch to have an out-of-school consulting experience shouldn’t sit around and wait for someone to notice them. They should hustle up work.

Teachers can start by checking out the opportunities in their own communities. Here are some places to start:

  • Public television stations and producers often need teachers to develop study guides or to serve on advisory boards for educational programs. For example, the supplementary learning activities that accompany 3-2-1 Contact, a show produced by the Children’s Television Workshop in New York City, are written by both practicing and former teachers. And at WGBH-TV, Boston’s public television station, teachers serve on an advisory board that reviews all teaching materials for Nova and for Degrassi High, the popular series about teens.
  • Local research, marketing, and publishing companies (such as Levine’s company in Bethesda, Md.) often are hired by television stations and producers to create and distribute supplementary educational materials for television programs. These companies sometimes employ teachers to write and test study guides, brochures, and other materials.
  • Publishers, software developers, and production companies sometimes ask teachers to review and test products that are expensive and time-consuming to produce—such as textbooks, audiovisual materials, and computer software—before they put it on the market. In addition, both large and small companies often use teams of writers and teachers to research, write, and edit these materials.
  • Museums, zoological parks, and botanical gardens can be excellent resources for teachers who want to develop and teach workshops on a variety of subjects. The Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, for instance, offers the public weekend and summer workshops on subjects ranging from ancient tomb painting to animal nest building, as well as environmental field trips. Carolyn Blackmon, who heads the museum’s education department, says that teachers are often the source of innovative workshop ideas.
  • Corporations involved in manufacturing or developing education-related products also hire consultants. IBM, for example, employs 575 teachers—or “education instruction specialists”—to help develop products and to assist schools with hardware and software installation. Some teachers work for IBM part time after school; others take leaves of absence from the classroom.
  • Park districts, state boards of education, local school boards, arts councils, state and local historical societies, service clubs, nature centers, and libraries are other promising sources for consulting work, particularly for the small-town teacher.

Although consulting is rarely full-time work for a teacher, tracking down interesting assignments can be like any job hunt. In other words, homework counts.

Before approaching a company or organization, a teacher should find out who is responsible for hiring consultants. Museums, corporations, and other large organizations may have a separate education department and a director for educational programs. Most local television stations have learning-services directors who can tell teachers what kind of projects the station is working on and whether it has hired an outside company to produce supplementary materials. Small publishing and marketing companies, on the other hand, rarely have separate education departments, so contacting the company president may work best.

Next, a teacher should think about what kinds of consulting he or she wants to do. A teacher’s expertise in a subject area or enthusiasm for a particular product can dramatically increase the chance of being chosen as a consultant. A biology teacher who contacts a zoo with specific ideas for workshop topics will be remembered. Likewise, a teacher who enjoys using television as an instructional tool will capture the attention of a media producer. “If you are doing something with our programs, we want to know about it,” says Cheryl Gotthelf, assistant vice president of school services for the Children’s Television Workshop. “That’s more likely to get our attention than a resume.”

Within large publishing companies or corporations, a local sales representative can also be a useful contact. “If teachers use a certain textbook and have ideas that they’d like to share, they should contact the local sales representative,” explains Jeffery of Addison-Wesley. “They need to make it clear if they have some specific area of expertise. If they don’t, they need to make it clear that they are really in touch with children and learning.”

Perhaps the best way to make connections, Gotthelf and others suggest, is to attend educational conferences and meetings. Representatives of organizations keep their eyes open for prospective consultants when attending these events. “We’re out to sell our materials to teachers,” Gotthelf says, “but we are also there to meet teachers.”

A version of this article appeared in the September 07, 1983 edition of Education Week as Expertise For Sale