It’s no secret that the nation’s economic recession is driving a stake through state and district education budgets. For those seeking professional development funding, the times can feel bleak. For a boost, try googling “teacher” and “professional development grants.” When more than 300,000 potential opportunities appear on your computer screen, you might be prompted to ask, “What recession?” Or you might feel so overwhelmed at the thought of sifting through thousands of grant possibilities that you"ll want to walk away from the process altogether.
How can you focus on what works best for you when it comes to applying for professional development money? What is the best way to sell yourself? According to successful education grant writers, thinking creatively about the grant-application process and being on the lookout for funding can lead to a wealth of professional-learning opportunities.
Search Early and Often
If elementary school librarian Dona Helmer were going to give one piece of advice to someone overwhelmed by the grant process, it would be this: “Plan ahead and keep looking.” In the last 15 years, Helmer has received more than two dozen professional development grants: six National Endowment for the Humanities fellowships; a Fulbright to study in Japan; a fellowship from the Freeman Society to study in China; a Korea Society Scholarship to study in Korea; an NEA leadership grant to attend a literacy conference; two summer study programs at Harvard; a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation grant to study video collections; a National Endowment for Humanities Masterwork Study Grant for Native American literature; and the list continues.
A self-described “lifelong learner,” Helmer, who presides over the library at College Gate Elementary School in Anchorage, Ala., has at times felt both professionally and geographically isolated. But the connections she has forged with colleagues through grant-funded education opportunities have offered a sense of community while allowing her to travel the world, pursue her love of learning, and earn elective and required professional development hours. And, in this tough economy, says Helmer, “It makes me feel good to know that I have developed these [grant-writing] skills already. Maybe they’re not the 21st-century skills, but they’re the next-decade skills that will be essential.”
Helmer tries to get a jump on her annual search for grants early in the fall by developing a plan. “At the beginning of the year, I ask myself, ‘What do I want to learn this year? What are my strengths and weaknesses?’ And then I look at the school curriculum.” She scours professional organizations, including the National Education Association and library organizations’ Web sites, searching for funding ideas that make sense for her practice goals. She measures her skill needs against the grant options and tries to keep an open mind when seeking a match.
“It’s better to start with a concept,” she says, even if it means pursuing a grant that appears only tangentially related to the curriculum she’s looking to support. That way she leaves herself open to more creative possibilities, including the chance to bundle grants—using more than one to fund a trip, or grouping opportunities for academic study over the summer.
Of course, personal circumstances can dictate how many opportunities you can take advantage of and so can geography. For someone like Helmer, who lives in Alaska, it can make sense to crowd a few grant-funded opportunities into the summer, if at all possible. Grant recipients warn, however, that summer professional development activities should not be viewed as a vacation. They can be a lot of work.
Mike Wilmoth, the social studies department chair and head basketball coach at Wellington High School in Wellington, Kan., was inspired to pursue more professional development opportunities once he landed his first grant, an NEH fellowship in 2004 to study at Mount Vernon, George Washington’s estate in Virginia. Wilmoth now tries to take advantage of as many grant-funded expeditions as he can. “The opportunities this opened up to me have been amazing,” he says. “I have been many different places connecting back to this. It has given me confidence to do other things.” Four-and-a-half years later, Wilmoth’s awards, honors, and additional grants fill an entire page of his resume.
Wilmoth’s initial grant experience was serendipitous—he noticed a flyer for the NEH fellowship program at school and decided to apply. (Alert: In their own cost-cutting measure, the NEH, which sponsors more than 50 programs every summer, is now sending fewer flyers and instead encouraging potential applicants to visit their Web site.) Now he is asked to speak at professional development events frequently and often finds out about grants through the many contacts he has made along the way.
Wilmoth stresses that a lot of preparation and work are involved in the grant-application process. He has learned, however, to cut a few corners by streamlining his approach. When writing applications, for example, he keeps a file handy with each of the grant essays he has written, so he doesn’t have to search for wording or information, particularly since his grants are related to his subject area. When approaching the grant essay, Wilmoth adds, it’s important to be concrete and to sell yourself. “Share your assets, experiences, and where you’re coming from,” he advises. “Let people know what you bring [to the table].”
When Wilmoth and the other NEH fellows first toured Washington’s farm at Mt. Vernon, he was the only one who knew about crop rotation or how to work a grain elevator. “They thought I was smart, but everyone in Kansas knows this,” he says. “It’s a Midwestern experience.” In other words, the details about yourself that you might think are inconsequential might not be to someone reading your application.
Dona Helmer also suggests providing a specific but succinct list of your professional accomplishments and degrees. “I actually provide details about myself: I need to communicate with others; and my circumstances: why I want to participate in that particular grant, and how it will add to my understanding of the topic. You’ve got 250 words to sell yourself. Hit those high points. I know readers of the applications are looking at hundreds of these things. They don’t want someone who can’t take it.”
If you have specific questions about the grant, do not be afraid to call the funding agency with a short list of prepared questions. Says Helmer, “If I call someone, I don’t want to waste their time, but I also want to know what they are looking for. In other words, am I wasting my time applying? I always end the phone call by thanking them for their time and by asking, ‘Is there some question that I didn’t ask that I should have?’ Often they will tell me about another program that is better suited to me or give me some great advice.”
‘There’s Money Out There’
Steve Godla, grant director for Del Norte County Unified Schools in California, is living in a state that has been hit hard by the recession. Without grants, Godla knows his small county (student population: 4,200) would have a hard time providing staff development, particularly in history and science.
A former principal and teacher, Godla has attended grant-writing workshops, but has no formal training as a grant writer. He speaks with at least one other grant writer daily—usually from a district with which his own district is collaborating on professional development grants. One of his more successful collaborations produced a $900,000 U.S. Department of Education Teaching American History grant. By inviting neighboring districts, including one in Oregon, to join his Del Norte grant, Godla almost doubled the $500,000 his small county was eligible for.
This year, Godla held two grant-writing workshops for teachers to shed some light on the grant-writing process. He shared information about smaller grants that staff could use for classroom supplies and field trips, including one from Target, and stressed the importance of identifying classroom and school needs. “I gave them 15 different grants that are out there for the classroom and went through each of them, giving them a couple of written examples, so they could use my verbiage,” he says. “I showed them what they could apply for, how to present our needs for our district, and [how to describe] our demographic,” he explains.
Godla was pleased to learn recently that one of the grants that he shared with the teachers landed $800 for a local school and that, so far, three of the teachers who attended his workshops were also awarded money.
However mystifying the grant process may appear, Godla emphasizes that funding agencies aren’t secretive about the opportunities they offer. "[For] a lot of the grants out there, [the funding agencies] notify districts or county offices,” he says. “They want people to qualify. It’s kind of a misunderstanding. They’re not like these little hidden gems. Sure, some are. But most of the time, funding sources want you to know they’re available.”
Dona Helmer agrees. “There’s money out there,” she says. “There may be less money out there [now], but doesn’t everybody want the best teacher for their kids? Who wouldn’t fund that?”
The bottom line for educators like Mike Wilmoth and Dona Helmer, even more important than finding the time to complete the applications, is finding the motivation. It can feel overwhelming to think about applying for a grant, particularly when you’re faced with the responsibilities of your classroom. Helmer encourages educators to “get out of their rut” and just start shopping for funding.
As an empty nester, Wimoth is doing just that, taking advantage of every grant opportunity he can. “My kids are in college and my wife has her career. The best advice I can offer others who are reluctant to take advantage of a grant is: Get out of your house and go.”
A version of this article appeared in the March 16, 2009 edition of Teacher PD Sourcebook as Got Grants?