Professional Learning

Making the Best Use of a Consultant: What Happens When They Leave the Room?

March 13, 2006

I'm not going to name names, but different schools get different value from the time I spend working with them. Some get more, and some get less. And it is not my fault -- really.

Let me explain: In my years as a classroom teacher in a 300-student K-6 school in rural Maine, there were occasions when getting outside for recess was impossible. Sometimes it was 20 below with a biting wind and sometimes it was simply snowing too hard.

But in the spring came the terrible two: rain and mud. The playground we used was really just a large field, and for a period of several weeks between when the snow disappeared and when the frost finally left the ground, allowing the winter's water to flow back into the water table, mud was the name of the game. So when rains came on top of that mess, all bets were off and we stayed inside, not uncommonly for periods of two to three days.

So, here we would be in the dreaded indoor recess, and I would have to -- you know, let's be honest -- go to the bathroom. So I would step across the hall and ask my colleague Gayle if she could "watch my kids," assuring her I would be right back. She did, I did, I was (right back, that is), and life went on.

Other times, during class, I would need to leave the room to speak briefly with the principal or a specialist or perhaps make a hurried visit to the office with a note or a form of one kind or another seeking a signature. I would make the same request of Gayle, and the process would be repeated. Now, don't think this was some one-sided me-taking-advantage-of-Gayle thing. She would ask the same of me -- we helped each other out, as teachers do.

But what I have been thinking about recently is how differently certain classes, more than individuals, responded to my absence. I really think that their response to being on their own could tell me a lot about their maturity, self-direction, and confidence as learners, as well as about how good a job I was doing in supporting them in developing those qualities. I now believe that one of the best assessments of my impact on them as a teacher was, more importantly than the wonderful things they did while I was with them, the wonderful things they might do when I was not there.

Now, I teach teachers and administrators primarily -- sometimes kids. And you know what? The same kind of things are important in all of the cases. When I am doing a residency in a school, I am responsible for bringing a certain energy to the groups I work with, being in the inspiration business as much as I am in the knowledge-transfer business. And principals, teachers, and students respond to that energy -- they know why I am there, and they are eager to be part of the excitement, discovering ways technology can be integrated into their work and experiencing real learning through a project-based approach.

And face it; we all know that when a guest is in the school, folks tend to be on their best behavior: kids, teachers, administrators -- even the lunchroom ladies give me extra helpings! Everyone's nice to the special guest. Sure, don't get me wrong, I appreciate the warm, fuzzy feeling, but when you think about it, it is sort of like having the teacher in the room, eh? You have to be good.

But the most important time, the time when the value of my work is really established, is when I am not there. The planning that goes on before my arrival is critical in helping the school and me gain a sharp focus around the expected outcome of the work. And it is only when my work is securely embedded in the ongoing work of the school or the school district that the best will happen. Is reading the current focus in your school? How about mathematics or writing? Whatever, that should be my focus as well.

Don't ask me to do skills-based technology training -- rather, ask for more and expect me to help you support your reading, writing, or mathematics effort through the thoughtful integration of technology. Sure, I am involved in the planning, but please don't just ask me to come help make teachers "more comfortable with technology." Way, way too vague. The kids -- and everyone else -- deserve a clearer focus than that.

Sincere, evident, and ongoing administrative support for the changes I encourage during a residency will determine the payoff in improved teaching and student learning realized for the investment made in my time and that of the school community. Everyone can nod their head and agree with what I'm saying when I am in the school, but, hey, Steven Brown used to do the same thing right before I stepped out of the room to hit the head back at Bowdoin Central. And young Steven was one I often found practically swinging from the water pipes upon my return.

I can assure you that if the administration does not actively support and expect intellectual risk taking with an eye toward improved teaching and learning for all students after I leave, folks who are inspired during my time in the school will slowly but certainly fall back into the traditional way of school and the hoped-for improvements will not materialize. If I am being asked to support teachers in finding new ways to be more effective in reaching all of today's students, they have to be actively supported in using these new methods after I go away.

Here's some ways I think all schools can improve their return on technology professional development:

Make sure everyone knows up front why you are doing the professional development. A tool I use with the folks I am doing professional-development design work is to ask, "What would you like to hear people saying after this session, day, or days?" Most times, that cuts through the mumbo-jumbo of Educatese and cuts to the chase. And it allows me, in return, to be clear about what they are going to have to do after I leave in order to make those statements valid a week, a month, or even six months later. And, please, make sure teachers participate in the establishment of the purpose!

Instead of isolated one-day sessions, plan multiple visits spread out through the year. Give people a chance to form relationships with the professional developer, and vice versa. Visits crank folks up, they have a chance to try out what they learn, and then the next visit gives the teachers a chance to debrief their experience and prepare for the next step, all while working with people they are learning to trust. People will take chances when they trust someone, and become defensive in the absence of trust.

Avoid skills-based technology professional development like the plague. Embed it! Put the why before the how. Sure, folks will get tons of new technical skills in the method I am describing, but they will gain those skills as a way of being a better teacher, not simply in an effort to become more technical. The vast majority of teachers want to be teachers, not technicians. But once folks understand why something is important, they are more willing to take on new learning.

So give the technology a job, like the creation of better communicators or mathematicians, the improvement of connections between school and community, or improved student engagement. Technology does not inspire people; people inspire people. It is a tool that only has human value when used effectively.

Plan to grow the learning in the absence of professional developers. Use their visits as times of critical catalysis, but utilize your local genius and a culture of ongoing improvement to keep things going. Certainly, expect things to be exciting when the residency is going on, but be sure you find ways to encourage the ongoing day-to-day implementation of the new ways of doing business.

Okay, that's it. I'm done. I'm leaving now. Be good. Steven? You all set? Steven? You got plenty to do? I'll just be gone for a minute, and Ms. Toolin is right across the hall if you need anything . . . :)

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