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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Schools Need to Be More ‘Consultant Savvy’

By Peter DeWitt — July 22, 2013 6 min read
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Since the beginning of NCLB schools have seen many consultants come and go. Educators and critics have joked that NCLB went from meaning No Child Left Behind to No Consultant Left Behind. It sounds jaded, and perhaps it is, but schools are suffering from initiative fatigue, and not all the consultants that knocked on the main entrance doors were worthy. The word consultant quickly became a dirty word.

Sometimes those consultants were retired school administrators or teachers, and they had valuable insight for schools. They could look at education through a different lens because they had a more holistic view. Other times, unfortunately, consultants were people who had no educational experience at all. Their purpose was to show teachers or school leaders how to improve their practice or use their product. The bottom line was that they wanted to make money.

Schools became a cash cow.

Now, with Race to the Top (RTTT) and the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) schools are much more exposed to the work of educational consultants. School leaders receive flyer after flyer and catalog after catalog that focus on the CCSS. At first when this happened, impulsive schools threw money at these resources and hired consultants only to find out that they were not worth the paper that checks were printed on. Much more savvy schools began to see that everyone said they were experts on the Common Core, and understood that was probably not the case.

The unfortunate side to all of this is that real consultants who could help schools were closed out. Non-profit organizations that could assist schools in becoming more inclusive environments were thrown into the same category as consultants who didn’t know anything about education at all.

This is the problem with initiative fatigue; schools feel as though they have to make quick decisions which result in professional development days that are a waste of time. Due to these quick decisions they bring in consultants that really don’t do their background work on the schools they were working with or they hire people who say they are experts in their field when they really are not.

Many schools lack the infrastructure that allows for one person or a small group of people to weed out the consultants who are worthy and those that are not. This is highly problematic because schools are missing out on valuable opportunities to work with organizations that can really help them change for the better.

Organizations and their consultants have to change the way they sell themselves to schools. And make no mistake, at this point all schools should make consultants sell themselves before they allow them in. That will hopefully help separate the good ones from the bad.

Some Advice for Consultants
Schools are feeling very raw these days. They are dealing with mandates, accountability, test scores, data, and they have to prove themselves every single day. Educators have seen big business take over what was once a grass-roots effort to educate students with integrity. Now they see one -size-fits-all initiatives that they know is the new fix du jour for a “failing system.” They are hurt, angry, and tired of the noise.

Even though many school leaders understand their best people work within the school district they are put in the position of hiring someone from outside the district to train everyone on things like the Common Core State Standards. Edcamps have been a great way for schools to highlight the experts from within but with so much new information being thrown at them because of mandates and accountability schools have opened themselves up to outside consultants and have been left feeling disappointed.

It’s really important that outside consultants understand that they have to be prepared to enter into a school where they may be confronted by teachers or school leaders who are a little tired of seeing another “expert” enter into one of their professional development days. Instead of getting time together with their colleagues they have to sit in a room with someone who stands at the front and tries to tell them how to teach, even though that consultant may never have taught before.

Be engaging - Don’t stand at the front of the room and try to be the “Sage on the Stage.” Teachers don’t like that and it goes against all the blogs and articles they read on their own about inquiry-based learning and engaging instruction. Get to know the participants and even do a few icebreakers to begin the session. Try to be personable.

Sarcasm doesn’t work - If you are entering a school try not to sarcastically state the obvious. Too many educators see consultants try to blame the initiatives on state education departments while selling their product as the silver bullet. Please don’t play both sides. Offer schools something authentic.

Do the work - There is nothing worse for an educator than a consultant who shows up and doesn’t know exactly what to do. Perhaps they lack a plan or they didn’t research the school enough before the training, but educators have seen consultants who seem as though they aren’t prepared. There have been times when consultants show up and are new to the job. We commend them for getting a job but educators can’t waste any more time handholding. Their evaluations depend on good professional development from qualified consultants.

Arrive early - Most educational presenters will tell you they arrive to their conference room at least an hour early to make sure that their computer, LCD projector and wireless network work. Don’t enter five minutes before the presentation to staff, or even worse, don’t arrive late. It shows a lack of planning. We understand that directions are sometimes wrong or the alarm didn’t go off, we have just seen too much of this happening over the years.

Know your stuff - Show educators how your product or way of teaching is going to be a game-changer. Yes, their expectations are just that high. If you don’t meet that expectation, teachers and leaders will just be sitting in the room wondering why they couldn’t spend some of their precious time working with colleagues or on their own finding effective tools through their PLN’s on Twitter.

Name Brand - If you come from a company with a big name in the educational industry, be prepared that some of your attendees will be cynical. No, it’s not fair to look at you as the reason for corporate takeover in education, but you are a representative. It doesn’t mean you deserve to be abused, and you won’t be abused by good teachers, but it does mean you may get questioned a little more than usual.

Keep an open-mind - Teachers and school leaders do have to keep an open-mind that some consultants can help them become better in their field. Just like any good resource it takes time to weed out the good ones from the bad. However, learning sometimes involves putting something into it to get something out of it. Be open to the advice consultants are offering and reflect on whether it is really helpful.

In the End
It’s important to remember that there are so many good consultants and organizations out there that can help schools become better places. They shouldn’t lose out because other consultants have wasted the time of educators. Not all consultants are created equally and some organizations have quality missions and are not all about the money.

At this point in time, schools need to be savvy with their money because there is less of it to use. Teachers and school leaders know their time is precious and they don’t want it wasted by consultants who provide them with snake oil instead of game-changing practices and resources.

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.