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Three pitfalls to avoid with your museum's teacher advisory group

When looking for advice, it makes sense to go to an expert. If you have a medical question, you call your doctor. If you are buying a preowned car, you ask your brother-in-law who keeps a copy of Kelley Blue Book on his bedside table. So when trying to decide how to serve K-12 classrooms, most museums try to seek teacher input, of course! After all, teachers are not only the experts in what they want and need - whether it be a new field trip opportunity or a set of online instructional resources- they also understand their students’ academic and socio-emotional needs.

Seems like an open and shut case, huh? Need advice about reaching classrooms? Talk to teachers. Not so fast, unfortunately. We’ve found that for our cultural institution clients, this is much easier said than done. The primary challenges are:

How do you find teachers who are willing to talk to you?
How do you connect with them in a systematic way?
How do you ensure you’re getting feedback that is representative of your target demographic- across grades, disciplines, and geographies?

The solution many museums implement to address these challenges is a teacher advisory council. While these groups exist on a continuum from quite formal (think: an official board that meets with regularity) to quite informal (an email list of teachers who have participated in professional development or other programming), they share a common goal of providing the museum with an accessible pool of teachers to tap for ideas, solicit for feedback, or promote opportunities. We at Wondrus fully support direct engagement with teachers and believe advisory groups are an important mechanism for museums to enact their commitment to classrooms. However, (you knew that the “however” was coming, right?), there are some common pitfalls about how to effectively use a teacher advisory council.

A group of teachers attends a training.

The biggest of these pitfalls is relying on teacher advisory groups as the sole means of honing ideas intended to scale to a diversity of classrooms. Let’s imagine a successful regional science center is under pressure from its board to expand its impact nationally. The working hypothesis is that they will do so by developing a set of lesson plans centered on the center’s unique collection of historical weather instruments. The education team emails the science center's advisory board and invites them all to attend an evening focus group (there will be snacks! And a behind-the-scenes tour!) to get feedback on the right approach. Fifteen engaged and enthusiastic teachers show up and weigh in on the concept for the lesson plans- confirming that idea is on the right track and adding a few requests for content and features they would love to see.

The challenge here is that these fifteen teachers represent only a tiny slice of the teaching force the lesson plans are intended to reach- the slice that was: 1) willing to be on the teacher advisory board; and 2) willing to put their evening plans on hold to go to the focus group. Don’t get us wrong. We LOVE these teachers. We WERE these teachers. But this group is predisposed to champion the science center, its content, and the ideas of its education team. In software parlance, they are the “power users.” Power users are important- they know a product, solution, or service inside and out, they recommend it to friends and family, sing its praises on social media, and alert you when something isn’t working. But the power users on this teacher advisory board don’t know what is best for the science center and its goals, what will best serve the diversity of classrooms the science center hopes to reach, and they are inclined to prioritize the features of a solution that will serve their unique needs.

Simply put: if your goal is scaled reach, a teacher advisory council is not the mechanism to achieve that. This challenge is exactly why we created the Wondrus Educators Council- it’s a group of nearly 500 teachers from around the country who teach in diverse communities, classrooms, and schools, and who are willing to be contacted to provide feedback to Wondrus clients. This spring, we’ve used the Educators Council to do surveys on topics like how social studies teachers approach teaching the Civil War; get feedback on specific example teaching materials; and test out early concepts before our clients make a larger investment.

A second pitfall is believing that fostering a teacher advisory group won't require time, effort, or money. Too many cultural institutions decide to form such a teacher advisory group on-the-fly, then fail to follow through with the resources needed to maintain it. Too often, the result is an impressive number of names on a spreadsheet— and that’s about it. We often see these organizations tacking the responsibility of recruiting and managing the group onto a staff member’s already full plate. (If you’re a newer team member, adept at social media, or have “associate” in your job title, we’re looking at you). Or, worse, they assume that the advisory group can be managed “collectively” and tapped as needed by various team members from across the organization. The truth is that fostering an engaged group is a commitment that requires a clear vision, plan, and the resources (including staff time and expertise) to enact that plan.

Finally, we see some organizations assuming that teachers will participate in an advisory out of the goodness of their hearts. Teachers already feel under-paid and under-appreciated for their day job, and are routinely expected by school administrators and parents to take on additional responsibilities. Museums and cultural institutions should not add to that. Incentives come in all forms and while as former public school teachers, we always advise offering money in the form of gift cards or stipends, cash is not the only way to go. What matters is that the institution forming the advisory board values the time and expertise of the professional educators it wishes to engage and demonstrates that value through clear and meaningful recognition.

So, what are some effective ways to use teacher advisory groups? If you have found an approach that’s working for you, please tell us all about it. In the meantime, here are a few ideas we love:

  • Have your teacher advisory group weigh in at strategic moments when developing new ideas for resources or programming- it’s not that their feedback doesn’t have merit, it’s that it should not be assumed to be representative. We find teacher advisory groups tend to be creative, blue-sky thinkers. Tap them for brainstorming, developing initial ideas or collaborating on prototypes– then vet, iterate on, and validate these concepts with a wider, more diverse group.

  • Invite teacher advisors to connect or collaborate with board members- this can be a powerful pairing. Many board members have children in their lives and care deeply about extending the knowledge of your institution to as many students as possible. Teachers can illuminate the barriers to that goal so the board and education team can work together more effectively to meet classrooms where they are.

  • Have your advisory group serve as co-trainers for museum-based professional development to better field questions about how to best integrate your resources into a teacher's toolkit.

  • Invite your advisory group to present with you at conferences or workshops. For many teachers, this is an enticing way to flex their professional muscles, widen their skill and experience set, learn new things, and make new connections...though please, if you do this, pay for participating teachers' conference registration and, if possible, travel and lodging costs.

  • Focus your advisory group efforts on local teachers. It may be easier to recruit a representative group that is keyed into local needs and opportunities to support teachers. The local focus may also be a key proving ground to test out certain ideas or approaches before devoting additional resources to scale them to a wider national audience.

  • Focus your advisory group efforts on a specific challenge, hard-to-reach group of learners, or high need demographic. Taking a more narrow focus with your advisory council, such as teachers of English Learners, fifth grade teachers, Special Education teachers, etc. may help ensure that you are tuning the group to your priorities and allow you to find the teacher participants that are the best match to those needs. You might even consider short term advisory groups of one to two years, to allow for focus on a particular topic or issue area, reduce and clarify the commitment required of teachers, and maximize participation.

  • Offer leadership or intensive learning opportunities to these teachers with the expectation that they will share their growth and lessons learned with others (this may be accomplished through turnkey in-school training or online or digital learning such as webinars, videos, etc.).

  • Lean on your advisory board as champions of your work and ask them to promote new opportunities and resources on social media, in guest blog posts, or within their professional networks.

Has your team struggled with any of these pitfalls? We can help- whether you need to figure out what teachers actually want out of those “lesson plans;” communicate the realities of 21st century classrooms to your leadership team or board; or articulate a realistic vision and plan for a newly forming (or reimagined) teacher advisory group, we’ve got your back.

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