Feature

Getting the Results You Want

When using a consultant, first define the purpose, then attend to the particulars by CAROL PECK and DEE ANN SPENCER


We often are asked for recommendations for qualified educational consultants since one of us (Peck) serves as a national consultant and a superintendent who uses consultant services and the other (Spencer) is a university researcher who works as a consultant to school districts.

 

We try to answer with one or two sentences, but these requests really deserve more individual attention. Since the choice of a consultant depends on several factors, there is no simple response. In fact, educational leaders need to ask some key questions to determine the best consultant for a school district’s particular needs.

For What Purpose?
The question that always must be upfront is this: What’s the purpose of hiring a consultant?

Usually, there are three general purposes: to inspire or motivate the staff; to provide staff with new ideas, skills or training; or to glean information from research and evaluation studies to help make informed decisions and changes. Even the best consultant cannot fulfill all of those needs. Some wonderful speakers can wow an in-service audience, yet when brought in to fulfill a different need they will fail miserably.

  • Inspiration and Motivation

    Sometimes the sole purpose of an outside speaker is to inspire, provide humor and enjoyment or to build collegiality among teachers, administrators and staff. In this case, the speaker does not necessarily need educational expertise. These speakers fulfill a purpose in one presentation, such as a keynote address at the beginning of the school year.

  • Staff Development and In-Service Programs

    Rarely, if ever, can a one-time visit from a consultant significantly change the participants’ behaviors. A school district should conduct an assessment to determine what staff members need. Through good leadership, one can help the staff members become aware of these areas.

    A one-shot in-service program differs markedly from a well-planned, long-term strategy for staff development. A guest speaker certainly can provide insights for teachers and administrators, but the results generally are not lasting. Changing behavior requires a systematic staff development plan, just like changing smoking or eating habits. A district can establish long-term strategies and invite consultants to come in at key points that are planned to correlate with specific needs.

    Consultants are used frequently to provide information about the latest research and practices on classroom instruction. Sometimes a consultant is asked to return periodically to assist teachers with implementation once teachers have had a chance to apply the newly learned strategies in their classes. Bringing in someone from the outside to conduct a one-day seminar and then leaving the staff with a practical plan to follow is a sensible approach.

    What’s most important is for the school district or the building administrator to bring in a consultant who understands the research and what works and is able to relate it clearly to improving educational strategies. Selecting a nationally known presenter with expertise in an area of need is probably a cost-effective strategy. Smaller school systems may find this approach affordable if they team with other districts or organizations.

    Using an outside speaker to assist teachers with their personal growth has advantages over using a colleague in the system.

    The outsider enables participants to look at themselves introspectively and recognize where growth is needed. This can occur when participants have the opportunity to take a more open and honest look at their strengths and weaknesses, as opposed to sharing that information with a colleague.

    Certainly, most individuals would not choose to reveal themselves in front of a peer, whereas revealing their traits to a total stranger is not as threatening.

    Some consultants are experts in program evaluation and in gathering and interpreting data. A consultant could administer surveys, conduct needs assessments or provide information for a district or school to use for decision making. While these services could be provided by a district’s research department, budgetary constraints make this impossible for smaller districts, which are unlikely to have staff assigned specifically to a research function.
  • Sometimes the sole purpose of an outside speaker is to inspire, provide humor and enjoyment or to build collegiality among teachers, administrators and staff. In this case, the speaker does not necessarily need educational expertise. These speakers fulfill a purpose in one presentation, such as a keynote address at the beginning of the school year.Rarely, if ever, can a one-time visit from a consultant significantly change the participants’ behaviors. A school district should conduct an assessment to determine what staff members need. Through good leadership, one can help the staff members become aware of these areas.A one-shot in-service program differs markedly from a well-planned, long-term strategy for staff development. A guest speaker certainly can provide insights for teachers and administrators, but the results generally are not lasting. Changing behavior requires a systematic staff development plan, just like changing smoking or eating habits. A district can establish long-term strategies and invite consultants to come in at key points that are planned to correlate with specific needs.Consultants are used frequently to provide information about the latest research and practices on classroom instruction. Sometimes a consultant is asked to return periodically to assist teachers with implementation once teachers have had a chance to apply the newly learned strategies in their classes. Bringing in someone from the outside to conduct a one-day seminar and then leaving the staff with a practical plan to follow is a sensible approach.What’s most important is for the school district or the building administrator to bring in a consultant who understands the research and what works and is able to relate it clearly to improving educational strategies. Selecting a nationally known presenter with expertise in an area of need is probably a cost-effective strategy. Smaller school systems may find this approach affordable if they team with other districts or organizations.Using an outside speaker to assist teachers with their personal growth has advantages over using a colleague in the system.The outsider enables participants to look at themselves introspectively and recognize where growth is needed. This can occur when participants have the opportunity to take a more open and honest look at their strengths and weaknesses, as opposed to sharing that information with a colleague.Certainly, most individuals would not choose to reveal themselves in front of a peer, whereas revealing their traits to a total stranger is not as threatening.Some consultants are experts in program evaluation and in gathering and interpreting data. A consultant could administer surveys, conduct needs assessments or provide information for a district or school to use for decision making. While these services could be provided by a district’s research department, budgetary constraints make this impossible for smaller districts, which are unlikely to have staff assigned specifically to a research function.

    Making the Most of a Consultant
    What can you do to obtain the best consultant for your school district’s needs?

    Consultants sometimes jokingly are labeled as the experts who "blow in, blow up and blow out." They can inspire and empower professional growth or create disarray. We could offer many examples of a consultant or a consulting activity gone awry.

    In one instance, a well-known researcher delivered an incredibly boring speech that lulled staff members into a catatonic state. In another instance, a consultant charged exorbitant fees for training that could have been presented as well and much less expensively by someone in the local school or university community. Then there’s the researcher who reported statistical survey data in mystical jargon.

    As a result of these experiences, we offer the following tips when hiring a consultant:

  • Know your speaker.

    Just because someone is a good researcher does not mean she or he is an effective presenter. Before committing to someone, try to observe that person in action or talk to others who have used the presenter. You also might view a videotape to determine if that person is lively and interesting and uses the language of the audience.

  • Timing is everything.

    Consider the relationship between the purpose of hiring a consultant and the school calendar. The best time to use a motivational speaker may be at the beginning of the school year rather than in May. The best time to present a new approach to discipline is probably before the school year begins so action plans can be developed.

    Despite the best-laid plans, however, a consultant’s activity might be victimized by unanticipated events. One of us, for instance, was asked to present a workshop on the same day teachers had just been notified they would not receive their regular paychecks because the district had run out of money. Needless to say, the teachers’ level of enthusiasm was at a low ebb.

  • Getting your money’s worth.

    Of course, a district can only hire consultants as the budget will allow. When considering a consultant, consider the balance between costs and benefits. It may be worth hiring a higher-priced consultant if the purpose is to inspire, teach or motivate the entire staff at the beginning of the school year rather than bring in a consultant to address a small group.

    We always are amazed at the number of districts that hire a consultant without ever asking about fee arrangements. Occasionally, they are not happy with their "surprise" billing. Expense charges also need to be addressed. Many administrators can share stories about consultants whose unusually high billings included last-minute, first-class airline tickets, even though the consultant had been retained months earlier.

    In the case of our partnership, the university researcher is contracted on a yearly retainer and the year’s projects are planned early each fall with the superintendent and other district administrators.

    Often it costs nothing or little more to have the outside consultant work with several groups during his or her visit. For example, when you retain a speaker to work with staff, perhaps feature the same speaker to address parents at an evening workshop. This is a cost effective way to provide high-quality instruction to parents.

  • Check the logistics.

    Verifying logistics, while a mundane task, will help ensure the effectiveness of a consultant. School districts should check the equipment needs of the consultant (what is needed and does it work?), the location of the activity (is it easy for participants to gain access?), the seating arrangement in the location (is it conducive to interaction or to viewing the visuals?), the lead time to promote the activity (is it sufficient for teachers and principals to gain release time or coverage?), and handouts and other materials for the participants (are they sufficient and do they provide valuable information for use in the classroom?).

    Devoting prior attention to the equipment needs of the speaker, such as overhead projector and screen, Internet connection, flip charts or microphone, can make the difference between a smooth, uninterrupted presentation and a costly embarrassment.
  • Just because someone is a good researcher does not mean she or he is an effective presenter. Before committing to someone, try to observe that person in action or talk to others who have used the presenter. You also might view a videotape to determine if that person is lively and interesting and uses the language of the audience.Consider the relationship between the purpose of hiring a consultant and the school calendar. The best time to use a motivational speaker may be at the beginning of the school year rather than in May. The best time to present a new approach to discipline is probably before the school year begins so action plans can be developed.Despite the best-laid plans, however, a consultant’s activity might be victimized by unanticipated events. One of us, for instance, was asked to present a workshop on the same day teachers had just been notified they would not receive their regular paychecks because the district had run out of money. Needless to say, the teachers’ level of enthusiasm was at a low ebb.Of course, a district can only hire consultants as the budget will allow. When considering a consultant, consider the balance between costs and benefits. It may be worth hiring a higher-priced consultant if the purpose is to inspire, teach or motivate the entire staff at the beginning of the school year rather than bring in a consultant to address a small group.We always are amazed at the number of districts that hire a consultant without ever asking about fee arrangements. Occasionally, they are not happy with their "surprise" billing. Expense charges also need to be addressed. Many administrators can share stories about consultants whose unusually high billings included last-minute, first-class airline tickets, even though the consultant had been retained months earlier.In the case of our partnership, the university researcher is contracted on a yearly retainer and the year’s projects are planned early each fall with the superintendent and other district administrators.Often it costs nothing or little more to have the outside consultant work with several groups during his or her visit. For example, when you retain a speaker to work with staff, perhaps feature the same speaker to address parents at an evening workshop. This is a cost effective way to provide high-quality instruction to parents.Verifying logistics, while a mundane task, will help ensure the effectiveness of a consultant. School districts should check the equipment needs of the consultant (what is needed and does it work?), the location of the activity (is it easy for participants to gain access?), the seating arrangement in the location (is it conducive to interaction or to viewing the visuals?), the lead time to promote the activity (is it sufficient for teachers and principals to gain release time or coverage?), and handouts and other materials for the participants (are they sufficient and do they provide valuable information for use in the classroom?).Devoting prior attention to the equipment needs of the speaker, such as overhead projector and screen, Internet connection, flip charts or microphone, can make the difference between a smooth, uninterrupted presentation and a costly embarrassment.

    An Alternative Solution
    Is there an alternative to spending large amounts of money on outside consultants?

    School districts can create consultant-type services by arranging for key staff members to work with and learn from outside consultants. These employees become your consultants, providing valuable resources to your district and staff members.

    When selecting staff members for the trainer-of-trainer activities, choose role models who are interested in the topic and already have proven themselves. As expertise among your staff increases, the newly trained employee may begin training others. This will alleviate the need to continue hiring a consultant. If staff members are paid, it means the money is going back to the employees in your own district.

    Another advantage, aside from the cost savings, is that you can select a staff member who already has the respect of peers. Because other staff members will listen to him or her, it elevates your own staff, creates good morale and provides likely "buy-in" to the strategies being implemented.

    It is important to remember that veteran staff members are savvy about consultants. They have heard many speakers and have gone through plenty of staff development and in-service activities over the years. (Most participants can excuse an occasional weak speaker providing the mistake is not repeated.) Give your participants the chance to evaluate every in-service program to find out what works and what does not and to provide suggestions for the future.

    Carol Peck is superintendent of the Alhambra School District, 4510 N. 37th Ave., Phoenix, Ariz. 85019. She is the author of The Best Kept Secret to Achieving Successful School Management. Dee Ann Spencer is a senior research specialist in the College of Education at Arizona State University.