Leadership Teams: Working With Consultants to Support Meaningful Change
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Maria sits at her desk, holding back tears. Most days in this first year as a center director are busy and stressful, but lately she feels that it literally is not possible to keep up with the paperwork while looking for replacements for two teachers right before the state inspection team arrives. She knows that although the teachers at the center are dedicated, they need her individual support and feedback; so something has to change. Maria had contacted two consultants for help, but after she explained she would have no time to prepare for their visits, both declined her request for their assistance. Now what can she do?
The opportunity to be a leader comes with great rewards, great challenges, and great responsibilities. Overcoming the challenges requires change—and change takes commitment over time. In the current environment of rapid change in early childhood education, staff need support to update their skills and knowledge about teaching culturally and linguistically diverse populations, using new assessments, meeting new standards, addressing already identified special needs, identifying potential special needs, implementing high-quality curriculum models, and making decisions about using technology. Although they are capable leaders, many program administrators may not have the expertise to address all of these challenges. Teaming up with the right experts, however, can make positive change possible. This article describes ways to select and use consultants as valuable members of the leadership team.
To successfully implement change, consultants do more than provide workshops. Effective consultants help define a leadership agenda by sharing impartial insights and building shared understandings of a vision for change. They may provide ongoing professional development, coaching, and mentoring to the program administrators who will lead the change and to the staff members who will be developing new skills. “One and done” professional development presentations for staff by outside consultants usually provide just a snapshot of the relevant new theories and a sample of the strategies needed to implement new practices. They are rarely enough for sustained change (Dixon et al. 2014). Further, when administrators don’t attend these workshops with staff, they are not able to support implementation of the strategies presented, so the results are even less effective.
Two types of consulting fall under the heading of professional development. These are commonly called technical assistance and training. NAEYC and Child Care Aware (formerly known as the National Association of Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies) joined forces to create a professional development glossary. Technical assistance is targeted, personalized support provided by specialists and subject matter experts (SMEs). It often takes the form of coaching, either for the administrator or for staff. While training is a global learning experience around a topic of interest or a new skill set, technical assistance is customized support by a SME to help staff of an organization or school to improve practices and processes (NAEYC & NACCRRA 2011). A popular definition of highly effective professional development put forth by Learning Forward (2008) uses comprehensive, sustained, and intensive to describe activities that help administrators and teachers make lasting changes in practices.
Research tells us that high-quality ongoing professional development, whether training or technical assistance, spurs and supports educational change when it is tied to a larger program-wide purpose (Wei et al. 2009). Evidence suggests this change is sustained in strong programs that have a constancy of purpose and are focused on the ongoing and long-term support needed to implement these changes (Wei et al. 2009). An effective leader recognizes that ongoing professional development requires more than a one-time workshop. It is essential to include professional coaching from experts with deep experience in the specific challenges being addressed. Mentoring and follow-up activities that refocus the group on the vision are important components as well (Wei et al. 2009).
Listed below are some components of consulting work in early education:
- Presenting workshops
- Offering ongoing training
- Meeting with teachers
- Observing and coaching
- Observing and writing an improvement plan
- Content writing, such as drafting policy statements or handbooks
- Site planning
- Supporting administrative functions, such as preparing files for monitoring visits
- Fund-raising and development help
- Strategic planning, vision, and mission setting
- Evaluating a program’s strategies and processes and suggesting improvements for greater efficiency
It is critical to hire consultants who are experts in the field and in the particular area of help needed. Inviting entertaining speakers with little field experience to provide workshops because staff enjoy them is not worth the cost if the experiences do not support change or improve practices. As stated earlier, an administrator’s time for working with consultants is limited, but it is important to realize that there is limited time for staff training as well. The time must be used wisely.
How does consulting work?
Following are two examples of consultants’ experiences supporting early childhood leaders.
Karen worked with the supervisor of a school district’s contracted preschool programs who wanted to improve supports for young dual language learners. The supervisor interviewed Karen and signed a contract engaging her to provide teacher training over two days, with additional intensive training for the mentor coaches. Before arriving, Karen had conference calls with the supervisor and some of the coaches to fine-tune her agenda to meet their needs. She also presented and recorded webinar training so building principals and site directors could learn about the new strategies on their own time. Karen provided study guides and reference lists to encourage continued learning and refinement of strategies.
The principal of an elementary school hired Pam to help the school improve its special education practices. Pam met with Individualized Education Program (IEP) team members about changing IEP goals to support inclusive, rather than separate, classrooms for children with special needs. Later Pam visited the classrooms and provided individualized in-class coaching for the general education teachers whose classes now included students with more significant challenges. She submitted a written report to the administrators about changes that would be needed and then provided three days of training for all the teachers in the building.
Many consultants set hourly rates for jobs that involve writing, technical assistance, or content development, but they set flat fees for training that includes planning, preparing materials, rehearsing, and designing discussion activities. While consultants often repeat the workshops they present, they should take time with each new client to tailor the content specifically to the needs, curriculum, and context of the new project.
When Maria reaches Fran, a third potential consultant, she gets a different response. Fran offers to visit the program and sit down for a quick chat with Maria. She suggests ways that her expertise would allow her to be helpful to Maria and her staff, and explains that it would make things easier in the future if Maria could carve out time to prepare for a consultation right away. With a better understanding of how she could make this happen and benefit from it, Maria agrees to make the time. Together they draft an outline of a plan that is later included in the consulting contract.
Identifying the need for consultants
School and center leaders are successful in bringing about change when they have an overriding vision of where they want their program to go, know what is needed to implement change, and are an active part of the change process. Consultants can play an important role in developing that leadership agenda through strategic planning, helping define the mission and the vision, correcting areas of noncompliance with regulations, and revising programs, along with addressing more narrowly defined needs. Once the stage is set, the same consultants, or other SMEs, serve the program by providing ongoing formal and informal professional development, coaching, and mentoring.
Administrators’ first step in identifying their programs’ need for consultants is doing a thorough self-assessment (National Center on Program Management and Fiscal Operations 2014). They take a careful look at their own work, their areas of strength, and the areas where they struggle. The next step is conducting a program self-assessment to ask,
- What are we doing best?
- What are our struggles?
- What issues are raised by teachers and other staff?
- What issues are raised by community members and funders?
- What issues are raised by families?
- What do we need to do that is not happening?
- What do we wish to do that is not happening?
- What small and major changes do we wish to make?
Get input from staff about relevant questions. Asking for input from some of the families, volunteers, board members, or even government agency representatives who work with the program can also yield valuable information for creating a need statement for potential consultants. The result can be a paragraph or a detailed report. The important thing is to use it as a basis for developing goals for the consultation process.
Setting goals for the consultation process
The importance of setting actionable goals extends to planning for staff training as well as technical assistance. While many administrators start out by asking presenters to provide a workshop on a particular topic, a more effective leadership approach is to explain the kinds of changes that are needed in the classrooms and ask consultants to submit a proposal for a professional development plan that can make those changes happen.
These needs and goals can be written into a request for proposals (RFP). An RFP is a program leader’s announcement that she needs a consultant and is inviting applications for the position. The RFP can be formal, with language contributed by the school’s legal advisor, or it can be as informal as an email or a posting on the school’s Facebook page. In any case, there has to be enough information to allow potential consultants to determine whether the request fits their expertise and whether the scope of the project is something they can commit to.
Finding and hiring consultants
Social media sites such as Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter are sources of informative profiles about potential consultants. Attend related presentations at conferences, and contact effective presenters. Reach out to favorite authors via their publishers. College and university professors often consult with programs in their areas of expertise. Many states have registries for consultants and professional development providers on their department of education or human services websites. Of course, asking colleagues for referrals can be one of the best strategies.
Find Consultants Using the NAEYC Interest Forums
NAEYC’s Early Childhood Consultants and Authors Interest Forum provides activities for Interest Forum members and for NAEYC members at large who seek services from consultants. Webinars, online meetings, events at conferences, and extensive use of the NAEYC Interest Forum portal and social media are some of the offerings for NAEYC members. Visit http://hello.naeyc.org/home.
Making the connection
Hiring someone to do consulting for your program or school is just as important as hiring a new staff member or administrator. Review the background of consultant candidates. Check their references and look online for more information about their expertise and strengths. Conversely, an experienced consultant is likely to look up the school or program and talk with colleagues to learn more about its track record for honoring contracts, being open to feedback, and paying in a timely fashion.
Interview consultants via phone or video chat, or in person. It is a good idea to have more than one person conduct the interview. Be prepared to discuss
- The tasks to be done
- The start and end dates and number of hours needed
- The needs identified in the self-assessment process
- The actionable goals of the consulting engagement
- Some information about staff, families, and children in the program
- The curriculum models being used
- Other work that’s been done with consultants and how this engagement could build on or improve it
Funding streams and state or local regulations or initiatives that may have an impact on how the consulting relationship takes shape
Sharing details like these will help the client and the consultant determine whether they are a good match. Consultants should be prepared to answer questions about their specific experience related to the needs of the client and the outcomes that were achieved in previous consulting work.
Complex jobs usually start with a proposal from the consultant, but smaller projects may be discussed without needing a formal proposal. In either case, it is important for the parties to agree on the terms to include in a contract. The consultant’s proposal shows the potential client the exact tasks to be accomplished, what the consultant plans to do, what the administrator or staff members need to do, and what the cost will be—either true or estimated. The cost should be considered a topic for discussion and negotiation between the two parties. Keep in mind, however, that consultants do not just set arbitrary fees that are subject to bargaining. If the stated fee is more than the budget allows, it is acceptable for the administrator to ask the consultant if there is any flexibility in the fee. It is usually wise to be honest about the budget available for the project. Consultants’ fees are their paychecks, and they deserve to be paid for their time and their expertise, including the behind-the-scenes preparation and the follow-up they provide. Some options for negotiating might include promising that some of the tasks will be completed by school staff, or giving a longer time frame for completion of the work.
Getting to work
Once a program chooses a consultant, both parties need to review a draft contract. The contract contains specific information about when and where the consulting work will take place, and sections outlining the responsibilities of each party. It is important to include a cancellation policy: Will the school still be obligated to pay the consultant if the event is cancelled due to underenrollment? Or inclement weather? Or the consultant’s illness? An attorney might suggest wording saying that the terms of the contract can be changed only by mutual agreement of the parties, in writing. Some contracts need wording about who owns materials written by the consultant. The consultant should also spell out how his name and credentials can be used or shared. Some consultants may want to be credited, while others may not want their names associated with individual school or program projects.
The scope-of-work statement is an important part of any contract. (See “Sample Scope-of-Work Statement.”) Spelling out exactly what will be done when and by whom, and exactly what is covered by the fees, are all critical for a productive consultant engagement. Lack of specifics in a contract often leads to assumptions by both sides that don’t match. For example, one person may use “early childhood staff” to mean just the preschool teachers, but another person may assume that means everyone in the school who has contact with any student from preschool through third grade. Spelling out details at the beginning is the best way to ensure success.
Be specific about what is included in the fee. Some consultants charge a flat fee for a presentation but add fees for planning and follow-up consultations. Some provide materials for their workshops; others expect the host program to make copies and provide materials.
Sample Scope-of-Work Statement
Nov. 13–30, 2015
Details of activity
One full-day workshop on inclusive pre-K for up to 75 people on Nov. 13 and availability of consultant for follow-up email consultation up to maximum of 3 hours through Nov. 30, 2015
(To be determined)
Description of cost
Fee includes up to 2 pre-workshop planning calls, a full-day presentation, and 3 hours of follow-up consultation via email. Fee also covers all of the consultant’s travel expenses.
Making it happen
After all the planning and work to set up the contract, it is time to get ready for the actual work. When schools make the financial commitment to pay a consultant, failing to prepare properly is the surest way to get less bang for the buck. While it is true that experienced consultants have to be flexible and proceed when things are not going smoothly, that is not the best way to benefit from their expertise. Staff members are less likely to learn and respond positively when they attend events in overcrowded rooms with uncomfortable temperatures, inadequate working space, nonworking audiovisual equipment, or insufficient comfort services. These disadvantages can wipe out the potential for improvement that a program is paying for.
When arranging for a consultant to visit the program to attend meetings or provide training, an effective leader provides the following information in advance of the date.
- The exact address of the training location, including which entrance to use
- Suggested hotels in the area, transportation options, and the nearest airport
- Meals provided at the venue
- AV equipment provided at the venue (e.g., will a microphone be necessary?)
- The number of attendees and their job titles
- Information attendees have been given about the event, and what their expectations are
- How the room will be set up: podium, tables in the front to display materials, participants in theater style or at tables, whiteboard or flipcharts available, and such?
- Cell phone numbers of at least two members of the team
- List of materials available for the participants, and who is responsible for bringing them
- Participant preparation for the event (e.g., were prereading materials distributed?)
- Start times, end times, and break times for the event.(these must be respected because consultants may buy travel tickets based on this information)
Time to do all of these things will not magically appear in your day—but that does not mean you should give up! There are 21st century options for meetings and presentations, as well as follow-up technical assistance and questions. No one is ever really unreachable these days, especially independent consultants who make a living this way. If you choose carefully, you can rely on a good consultant to handle many of these issues for you with some up-front strategic planning, in-depth access to your program, and your trust in their expertise.
A good consultant is a leader in the field, and developing ongoing relationships with good consultants can bring a depth of change in the program you lead that you may not even expect. Consultants who know your program well, and have developed trusting relationships with you and the staff, usually leave their ego at the door and are not hesitant to bring in other experts to help make needed and sustainable change.
Making all of this work out takes a commitment from you, as leader, to keep an open mind and to recognize that there is always work to be done to improve the program, and that you can turn to others to help you do it. Prepare yourself and your school community to hear what the outside experts have to say, and encourage everyone (including yourself) to listen without feeling judged or defeated. Once you have made this commitment, you will all have a plan to work with. Plan for measurable outcomes so you are confident you are getting a return on your investment. Celebrate the small changes along the way, and before you know it your leadership agenda will be transformed into reality.
Dixon, F.A., N. Yssel, J.M. McConnell, & T. Hardin. 2014. “Differentiated Instruction, Professional Development, and Teacher Efficacy.” Journal for the Education of the Gifted 37 (2): 111–27.
Learning Forward: The Professional Learning Association. 2008. “Definition of Professional Development.” http://learningforward.org/who-we-are/professional-learning-definition#.....
NAEYC & NACCRRA (National Association of Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies). 2011. “Early Childhood Education Professional Development: Training and Technical Assistance Glossary.” Washington, DC: NAEYC; Arlington, VA: NACCRRA. www.naeyc.org/GlossaryTraining_TA.pdf.
National Center on Program Management and Fiscal Operations. 2014. “Strategic Use of Consultants: A Guide for Head Start and Early Head Start Leaders.” https://eclkc.ohs.acf.hhs.gov/hslc/tta-system/operations/consultants.
Wei, R.C., L. Darling-Hammond, A. Andree, N. Richardson, & S. Orphanos. 2009. Professional Learning in the Learning Profession: A Status Report on Teacher Development in the United States and Abroad. Dallas: National Staff Development Council.
Authors' Note: Fran S. Simon, cofacilitator for the NAEYC Early Childhood Consultants and Authors Interest Forum, made significant contributions to this article.
Photograph: Getty Images
Karen Nemeth, EdM, is an author, speaker, and consultant on early childhood language development at Language Castle LLC. She is the author of Basics of Supporting Dual Language Learners: An Introduction for Educators of Children From Birth Through Age 8. Karen@languagecastle.com
Pamela Brillante, EdD, has spent 30 years working as a special education teacher, administrator, consultant, and professor. In addition to her full-time faculty position in the Department of Special Education and Professional Counseling at William Paterson University, Dr. Brillante continues to consult with school districts and present to teachers and families on the topic of high-quality, inclusive early childhood practices.