5 Lessons I’ve Learned as an Educational Consultant

March 24, 2014

I’ve spent the past 15 years or so doing contract and consulting work in the non-profit and educational sectors. Over the past year, I’ve answered questions for a few dozen people who are eager to learn more about what’s involved in this career. Here are some lessons I’ve learned that I’m happy to share:

Sarah Eaton, keynote, speaker, presenter, education, languages, literacy

Lesson #1: It’s not about you

When a potential project or job comes your way, the first thing you need to remember is that it is not about you. The organization contacting you needs to have work done. They have goals and needs that they need met. Even if they’re not too clear on what those needs are, don’t be fooled… They still need to have work done.

The precise moment you get bedazzled by the pay cheque is the precise moment you’ve ensured you’ll never be hired again. Keep your eye on the prize — and your prize is the client, not the paycheque.

Lesson #2: Never negotiate via e-mail

When you are trying to figure out the details of a contract, it is a bad sign if the other party wants to negotiate via e-mail. In my experience, it indicates either a lack of deep interest in engaging with you for a sincere negotiation, or an alarming naiveté about how  business is done.

If you can, figure out the details face-to-face. If that isn’t possible, pick up the phone or arrange for a Skype, web conference or video conference meeting. This gives you the chance to listen carefully, ask intelligent questions, understand the other party’s position and then figure out a solution that works for both of you.

More than once, I have walked away from a deal where the other party only wants to negotiate via e-mail. It throws up too many red flags before the work even gets under way.

A successful contract starts with listening, not demanding.

Lesson #3: Know your sector

It may seem obvious, but the education and non-profit sectors differ from the corporate and industrial sectors in many ways. Not only is the ultimate goal not profit, but very often the cultures and values are different, too. Non-profit and educational contexts are often messier and more nebulous. The work can be — and in fact, may need to be — more iterative and flexible. 

Some of my friends who do corporate consulting will slide their reading glasses down their middle-aged noses and advise, “The contract must include clear and precise deliverables.” That is true — to some extent.

In my experience, consulting in the educational and non-profit sectors means you need to be nimble and adaptable. Yes, every contract needs a “Schedule A” of deliverables, but that doesn’t mean you need to articulate those with militaristic precision. It depends on your sector, your client and your mutual understanding of the work.

Lesson #4:  Not every “opportunity” is an opportunity

It is naive to think that every prospective project is an “opportunity”. In my early years of consulting I would get phone calls, e-mails and LinkedIn messages from people I didn’t know offering me an “opportunity” of some kind or another. I quickly learned that this was a euphemism for “volunteering to promote their cause”. Whether that cause was a start-up project they wanted to get off the ground or some other endeavour, what it boiled down to was me working for free (or for the promise of money, but without an actual contract) to “help” them advance their work.

Besides, you want to be suspicious of any “opportunity” that sounds too good to be true or comes  as a “limited time offer”. Be even more suspicious when someone you have never met before insists on a phone call or Skype meeting to tell you all about said “opportunity”. More than likely, it’s a sales pitch… They want to sell you an opportunity to give away your time for free. 

The correct response to these offers is, “No thank you”. Every hour you spend working for free is volunteer time, plain and simple. Be choosey about how you spend your time. Volunteer only for causes that make your heart sing.

Lesson #5: Time is a limited resource

There’s a culture of giving in the social sectors that is embedded in the work we do. That’s a good thing. What’s not a good thing is when a working person’s commitment to volunteer activities interferes with their ability to earn a living, spend time with their loved ones or fulfill other responsibilities.

I know numerous freelancers and consultants who work themselves to the point of break downs, break ups, or just general exhaustion because their time is stretched too thin.

It is important to give back to society, but not at the expense of your own health or relationships.

I find the 80/20 rule helpful here. Decide how many hours you want to put into work in a week. For this example, “work” includes paid hours and volunteer time. Let’s say that’s 60 hours a week. Before you balk at that number, it’s not unusual for a freelancer, entrepreneur or contractor or even a salaried employee to put in that many hours or more per week working.

Let’s assume you are smart enough to take one day off per week to recharge your batteries and spend time with people you love. That leaves you 10 hours per day, six days a week, to dedicate to paid hours and volunteer work. If we use the 80/20 rule, you’ll spend 8 hours a day putting in paid hours and doing a maximum of 2 hours of volunteer service. Or put another way, you’ll have 48 hours a week available for billable hours and 12 hours a week for volunteer commitments. That’s more than enough for most mortals.

You need to set aside enough time for billable hours that you can meet your financial obligations and goals. Don’t be misled into thinking that volunteer work automatically leads to paid work because of “networking opportunities”. (There’s that word again — (or a variation of it…): “Opportunity”.)

If you’re volunteering with the ultimate hope of it leading to paid work, you’re doing it for the wrong reasons. The time we spend volunteering is time we give awayfreely and without expectation of anything in return. Besides, if you’re exhausting yourself doing unpaid volunteer work, you won’t have enough time or energy left over for billable hours. Your mortgage doesn’t care that you put in so many hours volunteering that you failed to pay attention to the need to do paid work, too.

It’s one thing to be independently wealthy enough to be a philanthropist. But even philanthropists believe in self care. Find a balance that keeps you energized, not exhausted.

Learning how to balance the demands of a career as a consultant, freelancer or contract professional is tough. Learning what works for you is half the battle. Learning to  stick with it — consistently and without apology — is the other half.


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Update – January 2018 – This blog has had over 1.8 million views thanks to readers like you. If you enjoyed this post, please “like” it or share it on social media. Thanks!

Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.

How Community Conversations Create Powerful Possibilities

February 23, 2013

The other night we held a “community conversation” as part of our “Creating Space for Strength” project. Together with my two colleagues, Lee Tunstall and Vilma Dawson, the three of us were thrilled to facilitate the evening for this amazing group of Calgarians.

Representatives from Calgary’s North Central Communities

Over 40 people attended the event, including local elected representatives, Hon. Teresa Woo-Paw, MLA for Calgary Northern Hills and Calgary Alderman, Jim Stevenson.

Creating Space for Strength - Panorama shot

Citizens from a number of Calgary communities attended:

  • Harvest Hills
  • Panorama Hills
  • Coventry Hills
  • Country Hills
  • Hidden Valley
  • MacEwan Glen
  • Sandstone Valley

World Café format

We used a “world café” style of conversation. We started off by explaining that the purpose of the meeting was to find out what mattered to community residents. Then, to take the first steps towards envisioning what the community could look like in the not-too-distant future.

People worked in groups of 5 or 6 at small tables, using key questions to guide their conversations. We asked them to jot down their key ideas and points on sticky notes. Later, volunteers collected the sticky notes from all the tables and grouped them into common themes.

We asked four key questions, framed in asset-based community development (ABCD) way:

  • What is good and strong about our community?
  • What could be better?
  • What would you like to see the community achieve in the next 5 years?
  • How do we get there?

Creating space for Strength - community conversation 1


Even though a team of 3 of us consultants facilitated the evening, the whole event was planned, organized and promoted mostly by Northern Hills Community Association.

This picture shows two volunteers from the community association grouping the sticky notes from each question into themes.Creating Space for Strength (Moraig and Paul)

The community association booked the space for the event (a meeting room in a local grocery store) and arranged for food and beverages. They ordered wraps, veggie and fruit trays, cheese and crackers and sweets.

They kept in mind that the population living in their communities is culturally diverse, so they were careful to pay attention to dietary restrictions such as having beef and pork products separated from other foods, and offering completely vegetarian options. The provided a variety of water, juice and soft drinks, too. There is something that brings people together over food and so this was an important element of our evening.

The community association also took the responsibility of buying all the supplies for the evening, including hundreds of sticky notes and enough markers so that everyone could have one to use.


We have yet to formally analyze the data from the event, but informally I can say that by the end of the meeting, the room was buzzing with energy. Residents stayed for a long while after the event wrapped up. They wanted to talk more about their community and how to improve it.

A number of attendees took the initiative to exchange contact information and ask how they could get involved.

Overall, it was a great night that ended on an energetic and inspired note.

As always, we want to acknowledge the organizations that are making this work possible:

Project Origins – Northern Hills Constituency

Project Funders – Government of Alberta (CFEP Grant); United Way of Calgary and Area; Aspen Family and Community Network Society; Northern Hills Community Association

Project Supporters – Northern Hills Constituency; City of Calgary; Aspen Family and Community Network Society; Northern Hills Community Association; United Way of Calgary and Area


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Update – January 2018 – This blog has had over 1.8 million views thanks to readers like you. If you enjoyed this post, please “like” it or share it on social media. Thanks!

Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.

Using Skype in Language and Literacy Programs

May 7, 2010

Skype is a free program. You set up a “Skype account” and download the program. Then, you add contacts, much like you would do in your e-mail program. Only you don’t e-mail using Skype. You talk or have a video call.

You and the other party, or parties, all need to have Skype installed on your computers. There are no tricks and no gimmicks. Think of it sort of like Hotmail or Gmail, but for voice and video calls.

Skype allows you to:

  • Voice and video calls to anyone else on Skype
  • Conference calls with three or more people
  • Instant messaging, file transfer and screen sharing

Why do I love Skype? Well, first of all, the basic service is free as long as you’re talking computer-to-computer. They also have really, really inexpensive plans were you can be on your computer and call to a regular land-line.

Here are some examples of how I use Skype:

Personally: Our family is spread out all over the place. We use Skype to talk long-distance, for free. The most amazing thing we do is with my Dad and step-Mom. They live in a remote area in Northern Ontario. Last year, my brother and his wife had a baby girl. Every Sunday night, everyone gets on Skype for a visit. My Dad gets to see his little grand daughter every single week and can watch her growing up. It’s connects our family in deeply meaningful way.

We like Skype so much in our house that we got Skype-enabled handsets that look and act just like a regular phone. We also use Skype now for computer-to-phone calling in our house and we really like it.

Professionally: I have used Skype for long-distance business. Last year, I had a consulting client in Sweden. Instead of doing phone coaching, we had our meetings via video call on Skype. It was much better than the phone, as we got to see one another and doing business was much easier (and less expensive).

Here’s another example of how I’ve used Skype in my work. Last week I was scheduled to give a webinar to a group in Tennessee. They called me at the last minute to say that the e-learning platform I’d been planning on using wouldn’t work for them. I asked if they used Skype. They said yes. We quickly exchanged user names and logged on. I gave the webinar using the screen sharing feature to go through the slides I’d prepared. At the end, they were super-happy with the presentation.

How can you use Skype in a language or literacy program:

Connect with your students: If students have Skype accounts, you can connect with them before they arrive, taking the time to connect with them and answer questions. From a relationship marketing point of view, this creates a super opportunity to create a personal bond with your students.

1-to-1 tutoring: I was giving a workshop on marketing to a group of literacy coordinators yesterday. One coordinator who works in a rural area commented that she has a hard time matching tutors with learners sometimes, as they are supposed to meet in public places, but it just isn’t convenient given the rural area in which they live. She’s obliged to match tutors and learners of the same gender, but said she had more female tutors and male learners, so it created a problem. I asked if her learners had technology literacy. She said that many of them did. I suggested that she introduce them to Skype to tutors and learners could be matched and each of them would work from their own homes.

Give information sessions and presentations: Skype has a screen-sharing feature that is brilliant for giving presentations. You can show PowerPoint slides and go through an entire presentation, just like I did with my clients last week. This is super for pre-arrival orientations, information sessions and other presentations you might give to prospective learners.

Skype is an amazing tool to help you connect with family, colleagues and learners.

Check out my research article on this topic:

Eaton, S. E. (2010). How to Use Skype in the ESL/EFL Classroom. The Internet TESL Journal, XVI(11). Retrieved from http://iteslj.org/Techniques/Eaton-UsingSkype.html


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Update – January 2018 – This blog has had over 1.8 million views thanks to readers like you. If you enjoyed this post, please “like” it or share it on social media. Thanks!

Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.

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