Change Agent Survival Guide

Considering a second career as a full-time consultant? Here are some sly tricks of the trade by FOLWELL L. DUNBAR

Consulting is a rough racket. Only a tarantula hair above IRS agents, meter maids and used car sales people, the profession is a prickly burr for slings and arrows. Throw in education, focus on dysfunctional schools and call yourself a “change agent,” and this bad rap all but disappears.

Unfortunately, though, consulting/coaching/mentoring in schools is probably the toughest gig in town. Teachers, as overworked and underpaid as always, want little or nothing to do with you, there are 68 billion obstacles, 2,300 land mines, a crocodile-infested moat, booby traps and boiling oil before you, and, if things weren’t bad enough, the copying machine at FedEx just shredded your workshop notes.

Folwell DunbarFolwell Dunbar, a consultant for 10 years before joining the Louisiana Department of Education, with Doris Hicks, principal at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Charter School in New Orleans.

You’ve only got two days a month to move mountains and the shovel store across the street is closed for repairs. Needless to say, progress is slower than a three-legged sloth with a bad case of rheumatoid arthritis. So how do you succeed at this Peace Corps-with-a-paycheck job?

Opening Moves
Having spent more than 10 years in consulting, mostly with educational organizations, I have learned a number of lessons, some more painful than others. For those who dare, here are 20 suggestions culled from the change agent trenches:

•  Make the right first impression. I once walked into a school without socks. For the rest of the year, it was as though I had a scarlet letter tattooed to my Achilles’ heel. A wrinkled shirt, bad breath, gristle between your teeth, “ums,” “likes” and “you knows,” being late or having slept with the school board president’s spouse all can make for a disastrous and fatal first step. Break out the iron, floss, read Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People, and put your right foot forward and in a sock or stocking.

•  Identify movers and shakers. As the adage goes, “It’s not what you do, it’s who you know.” Knowing the right people on campus (and off) and winning over their hearts and minds are strategic musts. Principals and assistant principals, veteran teachers and energetic/naive newcomers, librarians and custodians — find them, learn their names and titles, figure out how they broker power, identify pressure points of leverage, and then squeeze them for all they’re worth as if you were an anaconda! 

•  Give praise. Failing schools (aka those required to call on you) get lots of bad press, some of it deserved. They are the ruler-beaten stepchildren of the school district. They’re constantly tied to the whipping post, ridden hard and put up wet. As difficult as it may be, find something, anything to love. Admire a lesson, compliment student work, notice classroom decorations, take pictures of the elusive “best practice” and recognize gains, however trivial. 

•  Be visible (even when you’re not there). If it’s true that perception is reality, create the illusion that “two days a month” is really a school-bell-to-school-bell-and-beyond virtual eternity. While roving the halls, poke your head through the often-shrouded classroom window and tip your hat to the mayhem within. Create a “Victory” bulletin board and post it in a prominent spot in the faculty lounge. Attend noncombatant functions such as PTA meetings and athletic events. Submit a success story to the weekly newsletter. Use smoke and mirrors to bolster an army of one.

•  Listen. With what little time you have to appear visible, read the signs. Grow ears like one of those alien-looking bats with the awful overbite, put your head to the rail like the Lone Ranger (a trick I’m sure he stole from Tonto), read between the lines like a Scotland Yard sleuth. Telltale symptoms often are only an eavesdropping away. Don’t forget, the sooner you figure out what’s ailing them, the quicker you can begin to concoct a strategic cure.

Serious Stats 
•  Connect the dots.
Speaking of signs, some of the best are hidden behind cryptic charts, surveys and scores. As we all have learned painfully of late, it’s all about the numbers, baby! The buzzwords de jour are “data-driven decision making” and our mission in life, albeit a sad and tedious one, is to crunch the numbers and pass the test. Find ’em (easier said than done), put ’em in a user-friendly format, look for trends, patterns, anomalies and armadillos, and then filter the results through the school improvement colander.

•  Follow-Up. Like loose lips to ships or little strokes to the mighty oak, forgetting to follow up can sink or fell your consulting career. Whatever you do, do what you say. From adding a new teacher to your Blackberry to visiting a class to review a project, a promise is a promise. Use e-mail, phone calls, Post-it notes and smoke signals to stay in the vicious loop.

•  Say no. Speaking of promises, don’t promise what you can’t (or don’t want to) deliver. Over the years, I’ve dug fish ponds, delivered graduation speeches, done show-and-tells with creepy critters, written grants and school improvement plans, watched classes and weeded gardens. If you let them, they’ll use you, abuse you and make you write bad checks. In the immortal words of Nancy Reagan, “Just say no.”

•  Ask for help. In the change agent world, you’re forced to wear many hats, and some just don’t fit or look plain silly. As a perceived Jack or Jill of all reform yet master of “not enough,” sooner or later you’ll find yourself with no experience to pull from.

At this point, it’s a good idea to call for help. Chances are someone in your Outlook address book can lend a hand, e-mail, website or document. Note: As the song by the Police goes, when you send out your SOS to the world, you may wake up to “a hundred million bottles washed up on the shore.” In addition to saying no, you also can say, “Sorry, but we can’t support you with that.”

•  Empathize. Bring together a gaggle of teachers and chances are they’ll vent. From getting paid in rubles to exorcising evil spawn, you name it, they’ll groan about it. So how do you function in the midst of this melee? Gingerly, diplomatically and sympathetically. Collective sighs and supportive back pats, nodding to rants and commiserating over dead, still-beaten horses, anecdotes and humor all can be effective. Remind them you, too, once were a teacher and make “I feel your pain!” your mantra.

Above the Fray 
•  Remain apolitical.
Caught in the hailstorm of a hearty vent (not to be confused with a mighty wind), you’re likely to get sucked into the lose-lose abyss of inner school politics. Avoid this quagmire as though it were, well, a quagmire. Remain objective and unbiased. For a school consultant, the only side worth taking is the one off the field.

•  Document. And then document some more! Basically, three reasons exist for documenting: (1) It’s professional, (2) it provides evidence for district, state and federal accountability, and (3) it covers your vulnerable, often-scapegoated tush. From training agendas and meeting minutes to school improvement plans and work logs, felled trees and lost time doing busywork are two of the unfortunate but necessary casualties of school reform. 

•  Get stuff done. In schools, talk is worth less than a pile of Pompeian pumice. (Of course, in the advice-giving business, we do charge a lot more for it!) For obvious reasons, our clients still get plenty of it. What they really need more than anything else, of course, is results. After every visit, make sure there is evidence (see “Document” above) of something, albeit small, accomplished! 

•  Practice what you preach. When visiting schools, I generally hand out worksheets, lecture for several hours and spew a few fun facts. As disciples of instructional best practices, we must not only talk the talk, but also skin our knees on the playground asphalt. During workshops and design team meetings, while sharing tools for teachers or conducting a progress review, make sure you and the research are on the same page. 

•  Control the controllables. New (and often unfunded) state/federal mandates, set-in-their-ways principals, 98.5 percent free and reduced lunch, extreme teacher apathy.

Unfortunately, there are some factors far beyond your control. Find the ones that aren’t. Prioritize them, put together an ambitious yet realistic action plan, recruit go-getters and delegate responsibility, work hard, and, as the backers of KIPP schools like to say, “Be nice.”

Warding Off Barbs
•  Grow thick skin.
When visiting schools, I’ve caused teachers to dive into classrooms like doughboys into trenches on the Western Front. With all your do-gooder graces and altruistic motives, the outside consultant is still viewed as Lucifer to them. To deflect the inevitable barbed glances and loaded stares, you can (1) remind them you’re just the messenger and (2) remind yourself that it’s really not about you.

•  Give them stuff. When all else fails, resort to bribery. Doling out teaching paraphernalia and Krispy Kremes goes a surprisingly long way. If you give it, they will gleefully take. Note: Avoid stuffing teacher mailboxes with education articles because they’re rarely read and it usually annoys the ever-living tar out of them. 

•  Be patient and smile a lot. Like a tent-to-tent sand salesman in the Sahara, your job can be rather daunting to say the least. Presentations about school reform aren’t exactly as appealing as an iPod. Keep reminding yourself as a consultant that (1) change takes time, a long time; and (2) it could be worse. To quote the Monty Python boys, even when you are strung up on a chalkboard and nailed to a mimeograph machine, “Always look on the bright side of life!”

•  Have a life. Speaking of smiles or a lack thereof, school consulting can definitely be a lonely gig. Like Don Quixote, you wander the land with nothing more than a laptop computer and Motel 6 cable. It’s hard to establish relationships at schools you visit only twice a month. Drink up cell phone minutes like Maxwell House coffee and make one out of every five e-mails about something other than work. When traveling, visit local attractions (if there are any) and during weekends, turn off the instant messaging.

•  Keep the faith. Working as a change agent, at its best, is a mission-driven profession. Whole-school change, improved teaching and learning, and helping educators help children succeed are all worth fighting for. As rocker Lou Reed puts it, “You need a busload of faith to get by.”

Folwell Dunbar, a former consultant, is academic adviser for charter schools with the Louisiana Department of Education in New Orleans, La. E-mail: fldunbar@cox.net