5 Questions to Ask Your Next Education Consultant

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Photo Credit: https://flic.kr/p/4JLPnq
Photo Credit: https://flic.kr/p/4JLPnq

What questions do you ask the education consultant that you intend to hire?

I ask because I am an education consultant. I know a ton of them too. Many of us come to this work in similar ways: we loved to teach, we fell in love with some aspect of our work, we wanted to inspire and support other teachers, and so we tried that. People responded. Some of them anointed us experts: typically the teachers who need the idea of experts because it makes them feel safe.

While this is always a nice compliment, the best of us never buy into it. We know the truth: we’re just learners who are willing to share our discoveries. We make mistakes. We have lousy days too. We’re also secretly wary of those consultants who promote themselves as experts: the ones who are all high-polished pitch and no delivery.

I know the influence that I might have on any system. I know the damage that I can do.
Here’s my story: I was English teacher for twelve years. During that time, I grew as passionate about writing instruction as I was disgruntled by testing, grades, school politics, and the crazy way our system uses data. I had some good ideas. I did some good work. People invited me to start talking about it and learning even more. As a result, I’ve been an education consultant, facilitating sustained professional learning experiences in New York State schools, for over a decade.

Every experience has made me better at what I do, but I’m no expert yet. I’ve been fortunate to work full time in upwards of thirty different districts, crafting and executing a variety of initiatives, many of them relevant to English Language Arts curriculum and assessment design. I also serve as an instructional coach.

I’ve helped entire systems design and map curricula, and I’ve worked one on one with teachers who are eager to put writers’ workshop in place. I was the first to lead large-scale performance based assessment design work in my region, but I still enjoy event-based workshops and recognize their value. I was also the first to start a regional learning community comprised of both teachers and students, and over the years, a good amount of my work has begun to shift from the ground to the web.

In short: I’ve done a lot of different stuff, and I’ve worked hard to do it well.

I’m no expert though.

Like any education consultant, I’ll tell you that every day is a job interview. I create this reality with intention and by design. In addition to making the right judgment calls and deepening my understanding of systems thinking, I spend at least half of my direct-service time being carefully observed by those who hire me. As a coach, I’m teaching in classrooms constantly. What makes my experience different from most teachers’ is that when I’m working, the back of the room is always lined with professional observers: other teachers, their building administrators, and often, superintendents.

They watch me, and they should. I know the influence that I might have on any system. I know the damage that I can do.

Smart teachers and administrators are sensitive to this as well. After all, bad consultants are a dime a dozen, and they make a killing off of this field. The problem is, very few of them are well-vetted and even fewer are held to any real standard of quality. This truth hurts, and I know that my reputation is compromised by every consultant that does shoddy work. We need to start asking more of consultants, and we need to be far more thoughtful about what we’re asking as well.

5 Key Questions to Ask Education Consultants

  1. What approaches will you use to assess our needs, and how will you access the voices of those you can’t hear but should?
  2. How will you align your work to our greater vision?
  3. How will you know if your efforts have produced good results? What will success look like? What evidence will you gather in order to measure this?
  4. What kind of leader are you? What approaches do you value as an agent of change?
  5. What challenges do you anticipate? Where do your concerns lie, as you prepare to lead this work? What are your weaknesses? What do you still need to learn?

In this era of high accountability, it’s important to recognize the role that consultants play in school improvement. They may not be evaluated as teachers and administrators are, but I know from experience that their influence is incredible and that what they do often comes to bear on those who are evaluated.

In light of this, what other questions should we be asking consultants? How do you vet them? How do you hold them responsible for quality work?

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A former English teacher, Angela Stockman is the founder of the WNY Young Writer's Studio, a community of writers and teachers of writing in Buffalo, New York. She is also an education consultant with expertise in curriculum design, instructional coaching, and assessment. Read more from Angela at Angelastockman.com.

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