S3 Ep12 - What to Expect When Working with a Consultant

2 People Standing at a Table with Laptop and Notepad

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Welcome to the Structured Literacy Podcast, where we talk all things school and literacy.

This episode was recorded on the lands of the Palawa people here in beautiful Pataway, Burnie in Tasmania. We discuss a wide variety of topics on the Structured Literacy Podcast, everything from phonics to morphology and text-based units, and this week I'd like to deviate from our usual content and talk about what is involved in working with a consultant. Now, please understand, I am not recording this episode to drum up business. My calendar for 2024 is full, and has been since the end of last year, and I'm not taking any more bookings. The reason that I'm recording this podcast is because there is a lot of money spent on professional learning and consultancy and I'm not sure that it always leads to great outcomes. I want to start with having a talk about what a consultant actually is. When I went searching online for a definition of what an education consultant is and does, it was not easy to find straight answers. Consultant's not actually a title that I'm comfortable with and I try not to use it. I don't like it because it suggests that somehow a person has magical answers for a school and, frankly, nobody has all the magical answers. The other reason I don't like it is because education consultants in Australia have a bit of a bad name, and I'm not sure if that's the same elsewhere, but certainly here, a private consultant is often viewed as someone who is a little bit flashy, maybe not having a lot of substance, and is in it for the money. Now, I actually don't think that that's always the case and I think it's a bit unfair, but it is the narrative that's out there when we think about education consultants. There's no one- size- fits- all answers to improving outcomes. Achieving that particular goal requires partnership. So another reason that I don't love the title consultant is because when I work with a school, it's really coaching. I'm not an all-knowing guru with every answer that makes everything easy. I'm also not just there to take notes and talk the school through a decision-making process and not provide any suggestions or advice. Coaching, to me, is about being flexible and adjusting support and direction as it's needed, depending on where the leaders of the school and the team are up to in their journey.

Let's get into my comment that consultants have a bad name. I think this is partly because it seems that anyone can really just slap a label of consultant on themselves and start charging schools money. I've heard of consultants advising schools to use practices that are not evidence-informed at all and they don't respond to the school's goals and outcomes. I've seen people with very little school level experience advertising consultancy services and indeed working with schools on that basis. I've also heard of people with school leadership experience who have quite shallow levels of knowledge about literacy or whatever the area is, walking into schools and setting themselves up as experts.

Recently, it's been drawn to our attention on social media that there are education consultants charging as much as $5,000 per day for their services. Now we can all shake our heads at this state of affairs and tut-tut our way to judgement, but I'm not sure that's a helpful course of action or a helpful focus of a discussion. I am not for one minute suggesting that it would be a good idea to have some kind of registration body that people have to apply to before they can work as a consultant. After all, who says that having 30 years of experience in a school means that you are any more able to help a school get results than if you have two? Who is the gatekeeper of what is and isn't appropriate instructional practice in a given context? Yes, there are aspects of instruction that can be based in research evidence, but when it comes to the complexity of making decisions on the ground, the answers aren't always cut and dried. Who can really determine what the appropriate rate is for a consultant to charge? I'd also like to challenge the idea that there is an ethical and unethical basis on which someone performs this work simply based on price. Out there in the world, people say how much something is going to cost and other people agree to pay it. If you're being asked to pay too much money for not enough value, then don't pay it. That's the central point of this podcast. What does it mean to work with someone from outside your school or system in a way that brings value?

Let's firstly explore two ways that a school usually wants to work with a consultant. The first way is quite transactional and the conversation often goes like this "Hi there, we have a pupil free day coming up and need someone to come and deliver a day's PL to our team. How much do you charge for the day?" Frankly, it's not the sort of work I do, because we all know that it doesn't lead to outcomes. Let me be clear and say that again; indiscriminately running a day of professional learning for an entire staff really is not going to lead you to outcomes on its own, half the people in the room will be wishing they were somewhere else because the PL doesn't meet their current needs. There probably hasn't been any lead-up work done to prepare the team to connect with the PL provided and it's unlikely that there will be substantive follow-up action after the day. I also want to be clear: it's schools and school leaders who ask for this. To my knowledge, consultants aren't cold calling people and asking if they want a random day of professional learning, and if they are, then leadership needs to say well, no, thank you.

This kind of scenario is transactional because it's literally a simple exchange: someone runs a workshop and they get paid to do it. There isn't a long-term outcome planned and it's not a partnership. That's one of the reasons that I don't do it. The other reason is that it's not evidence-informed. Simply sharing knowledge and even helping people upskill through workshop-type activities isn't enough to get strong results in the long term.

In the 1982 book Student Achievement Through Staff Development, Joyce and Showers summarized their findings in the following ways. Giving someone learning theory and knowledge gets you zero to five percent transfer of that to the classroom. Theory with modelling gets you five percent transfer to the classroom. Theory, modelling, practice and feedback gets you a huge bump in the personal skills of the person, but still only a five percent transfer of strong practice to the classroom consistently. The thing that gets you to 75 to 90% accurate, effective use of new techniques is coaching. So if I deliver some PL to a team, model lessons and give people some feedback on their teaching, they'll have greater skill, but it won't give them the bang for the buck in the classroom that leads to great outcomes.

For that they need coaching. It's not feasible for me personally to provide all the coaching a school needs. It's not sustainable and nor is it necessary, but some coaching is achievable. I'm actually doing that tomorrow in a school and I can't wait. I'll be observing some lessons and working with teams and individuals to reflect on practice and plan for next steps. The other type of coaching that I do is for the leadership team of the school to help them get better at coaching and supporting their teams. The goal is to help the school get set up so that they can carry on good work when I'm not there.

So if transactional relationships are one way a school might work with a consultant, the other way is transformational, and that's the work I love the most. I love nothing better than to hear that a school has a fire in their belly for growing teacher capacity, that they've done some knowledge building, that they're ready to challenge the status quo and are looking for a coaching partner to support them as they take decisive action in a particular area. When I hear these things, it means that we might be a good fit for each other and we can move forward and find out. Transformational relationships are about just that: transforming teaching and learning from where things are now to where the school wants them to be. They aren't about inviting someone in with magical one-size-fits-all fixes or handing over decision-making to a third party.

Leaders and teachers must be critical and reflective thinkers. They must know their school context well. They must have a solid grip on the basics of the research and be ready to learn and grow beyond the confines of a program, more on that in a little while. It's been suggested that consultants aren't necessary, that school leaders should be able to find other leaders who can share their own strategies and experiences and provide all the help a school might need. This might be true if we had enough knowledgeable leaders who were experienced in leading structured literacy approaches for universally great results. Unfortunately, that's not where we are. This suggestion also doesn't respond to the reality that school leaders simply don't have the time and headspace to provide the high level support and guidance that a leader who is looking for help needs. Trust me, I've been a leader, and all the best intentions in the world won't make more hours appear in the day or reduce the complexity of the work, particularly in small, regional and remote schools. Networks and collegial relationships are great and incredibly important. They enrich our professional lives, but they aren't sufficient to help in the way that so many of us need. Well, not always sufficient. So let's unpack what schools might look for in engaging an expert to support their school improvement journey.

Number one: the person needs to have a high level of knowledge. It's easy for someone to throw around buzzwords like phonemic awareness and the science of learning, what's harder is to have a deep knowledge on a topic and use it to help solve problems. There aren't any specific credentials that a person can show you to prove their knowledge; having completed professional learning or a particular degree doesn't always mean what we want it to. You can determine a person's level of knowledge by asking questions. Ask questions such as, what does that mean for us if we...? How can we bring that to life in our context? Why is that important? The answers you receive to these questions should be nuanced and demonstrate a clear understanding of the theories and frameworks talked about. Responses limited to: because the research says so and this guide from such and such says, with no supporting detail, may be a red flag that the person you are speaking with isn't the right one for you.

Point number two: rather than show off about their knowledge or credentials, the first thing a consultant or coach needs to do is ask great questions to find out all about your school and your context. You're looking for someone who can help you craft a plan for action that responds to your school's context and circumstances. While the type of instruction that's supported by research is applicable regardless of context, how that instruction is implemented will depend on factors such as the number of adults available, the particular needs of the students, the experience of the team, the expectations of parents. Ask specific questions and look for someone who is able to make meaningful, responsive suggestions and someone who wants to get to know your school community. This matters because if the person you are talking to has an established presentational package that they drag out regardless of the needs of the school, be wary and ask more questions.

Number three: a consultant or coach needs to work with you and your team to take specific action. That means that they have tangible, substantive instructional routines and techniques that they can share. They also need to be able to pop into any classroom in your school and model those routines and techniques in a way that is easily accessible for your team. If this can't happen, if the person can model a lesson but doesn't have a system or approach that teachers can run with when they leave, the relationship is unlikely to lead to lasting outcomes. General information and fluffy instructional advice will never help your team take action; you need specifics. In saying that, a consultant needs to be able to work beyond a program too.

Programs and resources may be a part of the picture, but if all a consultant has to offer is a suggestion of a program, and can't support with the nuance of practice in response to different contextual challenges, then you might want to continue your search for someone to support your journey. Point number four: any successful consultancy and coaching relationship needs to include more than just the time in school. As already mentioned, the person should spend time with you in some way to get to know your school and learn about your goals. It's important that they understand where you've come from and where you want to go. They should also provide you with follow-up support. We've already learned from Joyce and Showers that modelling, knowledge building and feedback lead to personal skill development, but it's coaching that leads to real implementation. Your consultant might not coach teams and teachers directly on an ongoing basis, but they should provide coaching for the leadership team so that they can provide coaching to the teachers and help solve the issues that are guaranteed to arise along the way. Finally, your consultant should be able to help you define your desired outcomes and monitor progress towards these outcomes.

There is no point in spending money and asking your team to give their attention and time to a process that doesn't have a clear plan for achieving results. As a general rule of thumb, if you could find your desired information online and watch someone from a neighbouring school conduct a lesson and get the same outcomes that a consultant would give you, save yourself the money. If, however, the person you engage with will help you look at your data, set goals, create an action plan, help you train your staff and help them to grow in confidence, then engaging someone from outside the school could well be a good idea. Now, I'm not going to argue the merits of one amount of money over another. There are so many factors at play in determining what a fair and reasonable consultancy rate is, such as travel time, pre- and post-visit meetings and coaching, how personalised any professional learning is for your school and how much time working with a consultant will save you. Each Principal needs to make their own decisions about the value they feel they'll be receiving from engaging outside support. I'd like to finish off today's episode by sharing some thoughts on what a school can do to set the whole process up for success when working with an outside consultant or coach.

And that could be someone who you hire from outside your system, or it could be someone who comes from within your system and is there to support you. The first thing is to know what you want from the relationship: what are your desired outcomes, what deliverables are you looking for and how will you know that your goals have been achieved? You need to know that the work you're seeking to do with the person aligns with your strategic plan and is part of a cohesive approach. The next thing to do, to ensure a smooth journey with a consultant, is be sure that it is the right time to engage them and you're able to hold space for the work that must be done. There is nothing worse for your team than having a consultant foisted upon them during a school review or at the same time you are asking them to give attention and time to another initiative or another five initiatives. There are only so many minutes in the day and so much headspace teachers can have filled up with new things. Remember, they have cognitive load needs as well. We know that it's counterproductive to ask our students to learn too many new things at once; the same can be said for our staff.

Third, be sure that your school is ready to take action and that efforts are being driven by the Principal or head of school. If you're an instructional leader or deputy asking a consultant to come in, but your Principal is not on board with the changes you want to make, I'm sorry, but your efforts are doomed to fail, I wish I had better news for you. I have, on more than one occasion, said no to working with a school because their Principal or executive leadership was moving in a different direction. An instructional leader will make contact, hoping that I'll be able to help them convince a Principal of one thing or another. I wouldn't be serving a school well to agree to work with them under those circumstances. In another scenario, a Principal may be the one to make contact, but they aren't ready to hear feedback, to engage robustly with data discussions or actually make changes that are necessary to positively influence outcomes. That, too, is a recipe for failure. So, if you're seeking to work with an outside consultant, it's important to make sure that the general conditions for change are there.

Lastly, you need to do your homework before you engage someone. As I mentioned at the start of the episode, there's nothing to stop anyone setting themselves up as a consultant. You need to ask about their prior experience, what other schools they've supported and what the outcomes in those schools were. You need to challenge them and ask them a few curly questions to see what happens. Don't just trust someone's social media profile or slick website. We tend to put trust in people we see online whether they are deserving of that trust or not. So consider a consultant objectively. When it comes to price, be sure about the value you are getting for your money and time, but don't expect wild promises of overnight success.

Anyone promising you the magic cure for all of your instructional woes or poor student outcomes is probably lying to you; if it sounds too good to be true, it likely is. There is only sensible, measured decision-making based in data and the promise of loads of hard work. Yes, there are things that will make your journey and that of your teachers' easier, but remember that the journey from not much happening to pretty good practice is the easy bit. The harder section of the road is a shorter distance, but it's all uphill. You'd need to be able to be precise, to cut the fluff, as Anita Archer says, and be hugely focused on that one thing, that one key idea that's going to get you where you want to go. Just be sure that the person you're choosing to support you has the knowledge, experience and capacity to help you get there.

Working with a consultant or coach can be an extremely valuable, satisfying experience, but this rarely comes from one-and-done encounters. It's ok to have someone come in, run a workshop live and leave again, but leaders need to have their eyes open to what impacts that will and won't have. Of course, if you have a robust coaching and support system in place already and have instructional and executive leadership who are well-versed in reading and learning sciences, then that one-and-done might be just what you're looking for. The transactional nature of that might be what you're after, just don't pay a fortune for something you could get from YouTube or a recorded webinar.

However, if you are looking for a transformational change with someone who can walk alongside you over a number of years, make sure that the person you choose to do is knowledgeable, experienced, and a great fit for your school. Do your homework, ask questions and be clear about what you want, and remember that if a proposal is sent to you, you are then allowed to say no, and if you do not feel strong and confident in the relationship that this person is offering you, just say no. It's not just ok, I think it's really necessary. You don't have to walk the path alone, and a consultant or coach can be a part of that journey. If you are currently seeking the support of an outside person, I hope that this episode has given you some pointers for finding a great match. Have a wonderful week ahead, everyone. Bye.


Bruce Joyce and Beverly Showers. The Coaching of Teaching in Educational Leadership, October 1982

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