I wanna be a consultant...how?

I teach at an elementary school and I focus on science education. Science in elementary schools is nearly a lost cause because of the demands of high stakes testing, lack of adequate teaching training and discomfort among elementary school teachers in general. This is particularly acute with physical and earth sciences. (The plants and warm, fuzzy animals they’ve got covered.) But with the No Child Left Behind legistlation, science has be a tested subject soon, at least once in elementary school. Anyway, I recently completed a masters degree in science education and I would like to become a consultant, in addition to my regular job at this point. I think I can make a positive impact and help schools improve their science instruction. I’ve prepared a cover letter stating my case and I know what I can and would like to do, particularly with private and charter schools. But HOW do I proceed? Send the letters cold? Advertise? Is an educational consultant fundementally different than any other consultant, or the same? Any and all suggestions would be appreciate.

Anybody can be a consultant. But what you want to be is a successful consultant – one who performs a valuable service and regularly makes money from it.

For that, I can give you some guidelines, based on having worked with consulting agencies and companies for 20-odd years. (Some of them very odd, but that’s a MPSIMS story… ;))

One: Your reputation is your most valuable asset. You need to show them that in hiring you, they’re not buying a “pig in a poke” but someone with a track record of achieving results. How you go about demonstrating this is a good question – but if you have taught classes that performed demonstrably better on standard tests as regards science than other groups, that’s your most valuable proof to others that you have something of value to vend. Be prepared to document that to skeptical administrators and school boards.

Two: Your fee level should be reasonable – lower than “Cadillac” competitors, but not rock bottom. Consider “gambling with” your clients – “I charge $1,000 flat for coming in, plus $2,000 if I produce the results that I promise to produce.” You know you can accomplish it, barring the sorts of classes that give teachers nightmares – and that sort of double-tiered fee appeals to the frugal sense in administrators.

Three: You should have some means of supporting yourself while building up a clientele and starting an income-generating cycle. When my ex-boss started his grant-writing business, he ran the first year at a loss, even though Xeroxing, postage, vehicle mileage, and my salary were his only real expenses. But he built that business up to the point that it could support two of us comfortably. You will not be an instant success; plan for that.

Four: There is always a cheaper way to achieve the same results. But if it’s money that has to be spent, spend it. Conflicting points that add up to the same advice: spend all that you need to spend to make your business successful – but be sure it needs to be spent and that it’s the cheapest way of accomplishing the results you want. (Note that this does not always mean buy the cheapest alternative: the next level up may have adequately better quality to make it worth spending the extra money, in terms of the results you are looking for.)

(My apologies for not letting you know earlier how great your response was. I couldn’t get online with the SDMB easily yesterday)

Polycarp, you’ve hit on the major difficulties that I face. I don’t have a reputation yet, except in my teaching field. I’m trying to break into consultanting all by myself, and science has not been a tested subject in North Carolina so even though I am a very effective science teacher anecdotally, I have no scores to back me up. I’m not trying to make a living at this so I don’t have any money at stake yet. I could really do it for very little money since I have a full time teaching job and I have to keep teaching for a least the next 2.5 years. And I have no costs to speak of. I’m selling my expertise only. I don’t need an office or anything else. So the question is…after I send out a cover letter detailing what I propose to do, what do I do next? Call after a decent interval? Should I offer to do something for free for one school in order to establish a reputation? Advertise? I don’t know anyone else who’s doing this so I’m really on my own.

As an aside, most of North Carolina is rural. Are you in the rural west, the rural east, or somewhere else? I’m in Chapel Hill.

Very odd. What you describe is exactly what my mother does for a living including the teaching science teachers how to teach part. There are only a handful of people that do that in the country. You can look at her website her website to see what her business is like http://www.debbiesilver.com

Another thing to do is start presenting at every professional conference you can. Become a presenter within your district, present a regional or statewide conferences and do some national conference presenting.

This will give you name recognition, build your resume and give you presentation skills.


My suggestion is that you spell check and proof read your letters before sending them out. Were I in the position of hiring someone to be a consultant on education one misspelled word or grammatical error would get that person’s letter a one-way trip to the circular file.

And yes, I realize my post is borderline snarky but I’m dead serious about your information being pristine before anyone who might hire you sees it.

And just to complete the snark:

RE: Follow Up: In your introductory cover letter, state that you will call within a few weeks. That way they will be expecting a follow-up call; if they’re interested enough, they’ll call you first.

The idea of a “loss leader” to establish yourself is probably a good one. Contact a school district where the grapevine indicates that they need your kind of support, and have an administration that might be receptive: Franklin, Person, Granville, Vance, Hoke, Lee, Alamance Counties. (Durham could probably use you and might well be willing to engage you – but tackling that as a first consultancy is IMO biting off more than you may be able to chew – get some seasoning in how to work in a train-the-teacher role before approaching them.)

I’m in Pilot – about halfway between Raleigh and Rocky Mount. Except for working for my ex-boss and one of his former clients, I don’t consult on my own – I know my limitations.

What Otto said is a good point – I got a little thrown by your using “consultanting” as a gerund. Do you have an acquaintance – he won’t be a friend – who is a true Grammar Nazi, nitpicking everything? Take your draft letter to him for critiquing; you have to sell yourself as a professional in every way. George and I used to go through up to ten rescensions of the grant proposals we’d submit, to make every sentence as precise and clear as possible.

If Shagnasty’s mother is willing, you might want to try to make direct contact with her (via Shag) for pointers – doing applications for grants and loans to government agencies in behalf small-town and NFP clients is a far cry from what you’re proposing; I merely abstracted the elements that aren’t area-of-consultancy-specific.

Whistlepig has a good point, too – and with the plethora of teacher-training days in this state, you’ve got a captive audience to build that reputation on. Start tomorrow morning to rough-draft what you’d do in such a session; when you have a good outline, approach whoever in Chapel Hill-Carrboro or Orange County systems arranges for teacher training events with an offer to lead a workshop during the 2004-05 school year.

Ouch. I humbly accept, and do appreciate, the criticisms, snarky or not. You are of course 100% correct. In my defense, I must say that I am not as rigorous about spelling and punctuation when posting to a message board as I am when writing a formal letter or paper. Anything I write to send out I vet carefully. (I have no idea where the word consultanting came from. I meant to type consulting.)

All of the other points were valuable to me as well.
I’ve been presenting at conferences for the past few years—difficult because I have to pay my own way and did I mention I was a teacher? I know my stuff but actually being in front of an audience of adults is a little intimidating still.
My cover letter does say that I’ll follow up with a phone call in a week or so but to please feel free to call or email me directly first if they choose to do so.
I had thought about approaching charter schools first, rather than school districts. The needs of charter schools are great, their resources are scarce and they have to teach and meet the state standards. Since they have less red tape than regular public schools, I thought they might be more flexible. And if I can build small and slow, I hope I won’t be biting off more than I can chew.
I would volunteer my time at a charter school just to get started but I don’t know the best way to phrase that since I would eventually want to get paid by other schools.
Shagnasty’s mom’s website has a link to contact her if you’re interested in what she does. Her science workshop covers topics I know intimately and is precisely the type of presentation I can do. Maybe she wouldn’t mind offering me a few hints. I can ask anyway. I wasn’t able to find much else on the web about educational consulting of the kind I am proposing. I wonder if I’m using the wrong search terms or wrong search engine for that matter.

Thank you all for the responses, even—or especially—the snarky ones. As they say in the military, the hotter the fire, the stronger the steel.

A lot of being a consultant is simple bluster and bother. I know many, many people personally who left my field to become independent consultants to “the industry”, and when I read their websites, resumes, advertisements, flyers, and intros at conferences, I think “Ummm…this is all bullshit.” A little while ago I was asked to describe everything I had done, all papers presented, books written, studies done, reports contributed to, speeches given, and classes taught in the form of an “independent consultant’s flyer”, and when I sat back I was stunned at how important it looked.

Which, I’m saying, means if you sit back and critically assess all your positives, and sell them up just a little, you can look really, really good on paper.

Slick but not overwhelming websites work, and people will ask for a URL now of your Q&Es quite often. They need to be small and tight and have easy access to quick info, as the people evaluating you are often bored and stupid and won’t read a 2,000 word essay on your abilities when they can read someone else’s 200-word bulleted list.

Another thing you’re going to have to consider is professional liability insurance, and other insurances which you may need to carry to get a contract. In fact, from work I’ve done with municipalities and semi-governmental agencies (like school districts) you may run into a wide range of legal wants to do what you do. One of the biggest pains in the ass I have is all the little piddly requirements that a municipality or city has for hiring a consultant, relative to say, oh, the government of the UK, or Poland. Shit, it was easier for me to write a contract for the World Bank than it was for a little town in the ass end of Alabama.

I guess one thing to close this rambling post is that I’ve found that in working as a consultant for small-scale places, what prospective clients want are:

  • An easy way to see all your Q&E’s without digging or thinking too hard about them. Slick, medium-length presentations geared to your individual audience. Blanket statements of capabilities only work for huge companies. If you’re applying to consult for earth sciences at Jailbait High School in Shelbyville, AL, you need to give them proposals, 1-page summaries, and even a URL that emphasizes “this is how I will help teachers in earth sciences for High School students in these areas of AL, which have historically shown problems with science scores as seen by these tests and these cites…I will work to improve these scores for these specific cases by these general methods…”

  • Some reassurance of past history and experience. Newbies find it very, very hard to get their foot in the door. This may be the biggest problem for you. So you need to find some way to sell your experience - especially relevant experience. Padding your Q&E with lots of experience not really relevant looks nice, but it’s amazing how many client’s eyes will just glass over and ignore it.

  • An easy and simple way to get you in the door should they pick you. If you smooth the path for them by investigating all the requirements of work, including insurance, forms, professional standards, etc. and show in advance you meet or exceed all of these, that’s a big point in your favour. No one’s going to pick the best candidate if they see they’re going to have to spend 3-6 months waiting for the right forms to clear allowing them to work.