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Project 2: Interviewing an Expert
Ann Alexander

The expert I have interviewed is Jane Schaffer. She has her own curriculum company and presents her writing program at staff development sessions, publishes materials for the writing program, develops curriculum guides for novels, poetry, mythology, AP writing, etc. You can visit her curriculum guide website at Jane Schaffer Curriculum Guides and her writing program workshops at The Jane Schaffer Writing Program.

I e-mailed my questions to Jane since she has been very busy this summer presenting her different workshops to school districts.

I chose to interview Jane because she is genuine. While Jane's Writing Program is controversial in the educational field, she honestly addresses these issues and then moves on. I feel her program serves a purpose for a large population of students and when used in the intended way, is very successful. Most of her opponents concentrate on the basic premise of her program and never get beyond that. Her methods do include a path for students to write on their own after learning to incorporate basic elements, such as relevant facts and quotes, into their writing.

 

1. How did you get started as a consultant?

I did presentations at local, state, and national English conferences for a few years. One year, a friend and I discussed doing some summer AP workshops, and that started the ball rolling. As they say, the rest is history.

2. How do you spend a typical workday?
I work with schools and districts to improve writing instruction. I also offer my own hotel-based workshops across the country on a variety of subjects, mostly writing. When I’m home, I’m writing curriculum, contacting people about future workshops, doing conference calls with my presenters.

3. How many hours a week do you work?
It varies. This business is very seasonal. August and September are usually fulltime because there is so much staff development done; December, January, and May are usually quiet; the other months are booked half of the days.

4. How long have you been consulting?
Since 1985.

5. Besides consulting, what else do you do?
I write journal articles for publication, take vacations with my husband, and spend time with our new grandson.

6. Do you like being a consultant? Why or why not?
I am affecting greater change doing this, teaching teachers how to teach essay writing, than I did in my own classroom. That motivates me. I also want to prevent suffering and allay fear in other teachers since no one did that for me when I started teaching.

7. You do a lot of traveling, do you enjoy that, or is it just something you have to do in order to be successful? If you could think of another way to spread your information without personally traveling, what would that be?

To do this kind of work, I have to travel. I suspect anyone who travels a great deal would say the same thing: traveling is hard work, and life on the road can get you down. I’ve considered doing distance learning through TV, videoconferences, and CDs instead of doing workshops, but none of these does the job as well as face-to-face teaching. My workshops aren’t static speeches; they model actual teaching so that people can get a sense of what it will look like back in the classroom.

8. Your company has grown from when you started doing this alone. How many people work for you now and what types of responsibilities do they have?

I have 3 fulltime presenters (all retired teachers) who travel as much as they want to. In addition, I have 5 part-timers who travel off and on. I hope to have 10 fulltime presenters trained by the end of the next school year. They present the same workshops I do. I spend a great deal of time preparing them to do that – they observe me and each other, practice, talk to me about ways to tighten up any workshop. I’ve scripted each workshop day so that I can guarantee the consistency of content and delivery. We also meet as a group of trainers every two or three months to work on curriculum, discuss workshop issues, and talk about professional items that I want them to learn about and incorporate into their presentations. I also have a marketing and research director now who sets up exhibit space for my company at various conferences (such as the Houston AP National Conference 2 weeks ago and the National Middle School Conference coming up next year).

9. Is there anything you miss doing yourself since your company has expanded? Why?

I miss being with students. I get myself back into classrooms as a volunteer to keep my hand in and spend time with teenagers. As the company gets bigger, I have a different set of responsibilities, esp. in monitoring the performance of my trainers. It’s more like being the principal now than always being in the trenches. One plus of having trainers, though, is that I have more time to volunteer at schools doing my program so I can improve and develop new ways to reach all kids.

10. Besides the writing program’s benefits, what factor do you think has been the most important to your company’s success and why?

Credibility. Teachers have said that we offer realistic, tested, and proven ideas that have worked for us and work for them. They appreciate the practical ideas we offer from our years of experience. My trainers must all have extensive experience teaching my program. Some people have said they would like to be a trainer but don’t have enough teaching experience to persuade an audience to listen to them.

11. Besides looking at the state standards for a group requesting your workshop, what other information do you feel it is important to know about your clients before a presentation?

  • SES, demographics of the student body, how many free and reduced lunch students, ethnicity, age range of a staff, experience level of a staff, how many principals the school has had in the last 10 years, whether they are a program improvement/low performing school, pregnancy rate, 2-year and 4-year college attendance rate, test scores for any assessment students take, whether the staff is coming voluntarily or is being required to attend, how many people and schools will be there, what kind of writing program they have in place already, whether the English Department keeps writing folders, how often the department meets to write curriculum and discuss student work. (I had no idea this list would be that long. I am so used to asking all of these questions automatically that I was astonished at the number of things I need to know.)
  • 12. How did you envision consulting when you first started and how do you see it now?

    I envisioned doing this on a weekend here or there, but the calls started coming in, and there were too many requests than could be filled just on weekends. These days, I see my job as growing the company, getting a large cadre of trainers in place, and hiring more people to take over some tasks I’ve been doing, like scheduling people, arranging logistics for workshops, following up on requests for workshop information. I need more time to write, and traveling fulltime doesn’t allow me enough time to do that.

    13. If you weren’t promoting your writing program, what other type of consulting would you choose to do?

    Maybe visiting companies of any sort to provide an outsider’s take on things, a person who is there to ask questions and synthesize the responses in order to help the company improve.

    14. Besides school districts, what other types of clients have approached you?

    None. I’ve thought about approaching some private companies to discuss training their employees to write better, but I don’t have the time for that right now.

    15. What has been your biggest challenge?

    The same one, always: persuading my critics to come to one of my workshops to hear the complete version of my writing program before they criticize it. I have invited a number of them to come free of charge, offered to comp them, so that they can have an informed view of the program. No one has taken me up on my offer. I field a great deal of hate mail about my writing program.

    16. What qualities/type of personality do you look for when hiring someone to join your consulting team?

  • They must believe what I do about kids and writing: all students can think, and all students can write.

  • sense of humor

  • good writing skills themselves

  • experience teaching my writing program

  • a desire to teach other teachers; we have a reputation of being incredibly rude audiences.
  • 17. If you had a choice to hire a classroom teacher or a curriculum developer from a publishing company as a consultant, who would you choose and why?

    Classroom teacher. I need people who have been on the front lines and know kids inside and out. Teacher groups resist listening to anyone who hasn’t been there. I can teach a teacher more about curriculum theory; I can’t teach a curriculum developer enough about teaching kids to give them that credibility.
    I was interested to see a number of retired teachers working for various publishers when I attended NCTE conferences over the last several years. Publishing companies want the same thing I do.

    18. What warning would you give to a teacher starting out in your business?

    No warnings but some advice (which I wish I had had when I started—common cry of small business owners);
  • Decide what product you want to sell.

  • Search the field to see who is selling similar products, and differentiate yours from the others. It pays to build a niche market.

  • Talk to other business owners early and often. Their experience can save you many headaches.

  • Get an accountant to advise you on income, expenses, tax issues that affect businesses.

  • Get a graphic designer to develop a logo, banner, other identifying symbols.

  • Write a business plan with goals to achieve in the next year, next 2 years, 5 years, 10 years. Revisit the plan regularly.

  • Direct mail works. Buy mailing lists and get a mailing service to do flyers and brochures.

  • A website is a requirement. If you’re not on the web, you don’t exist. And add credit cards to the site. More and more people want to order online, and this is the cleanest way to do it.

  • Advertising: look at all the ways your business can advertise its wares and budget accordingly. For example, I ran some ads in English Journals over several years’ time but didn’t think the ads got a good enough response. I increased my direct mail budget instead and have been pleased with the results.

  • Join a gym or health club to ensure exercise. It reduces stress, keeps your health up when the road trips wear you down, and helps you make decisions. I was interested to read an article recently that outlined a 60-minute workout that you can do in your hotel room with minimum equipment –an important thing for me since I never check luggage and don’t have extra space to carry much beyond what I must.