Training days get a leg up

26th September 1997 at 01:00
UNITED STATES. Beauty queens and celebrities are cheering teachers on to higher standards. Tim Cornwell reports

"If you're teaching for the money, you are too stupid to be a teacher, " is one of the gambits used by John Powers, one of a new breed of "cheerleaders" who are called in to spice up teachers' training days.

He was chosen by the Conejo Valley school district to kick off its staff development day for the new school year. Mr Powers, is a former teacher who is now a "motivational speaker", specialising in just this kind of gathering.

Before an audience of about 1,500 teachers and administrators, Powers spoke for about an hour. His talked about education from the perspective of the "worst kid in the class" - the D-minus student he claims to have been. In a polished and practised performance, he throws in a few favourite one-liners.

Many other US school districts, mostly in small towns or suburbs, says Powers, have turned to professional speakers to add extra oomph to in-service days at the start of the autumn term. They run from former actors, international yachtsman or beauty queens to the authors of books like 100 ideas for successful study techniques.

Typically they talk about leadership and self-esteem, working as a team or coping with change, showering teachers with upbeat messages and some comic touches.

"There's a lot of laughter and sharing and storytelling, you get some good belly laughs going," said Karen Ise, an assistant to the superintendent in Conejo Valley, in California.

In previous years, the district has hired a futurist professor from Arizona, and a man who talked on the values of the American heartland, and brought his family along to prove it. It has paid them about $2,500 to $3,000 for the pleasure, plus expenses.

"If there's one group that needs motivation, it's teachers, because it's such a demanding job," said John Powers. "When you've been a teacher for 15 to 20 years, it takes something to get your engine going. We all need to hear a new voice."

A teacher himself for about 14 years, he side-stepped into producing a musical comedy and then into writing and speaking. He holds close to what he calls the three "ens": entertaining, informative, and enlightening.

The practice of hiring speakers is not new, but the "in-service" market is getting busier. School organisations are coming to terms with the price, said one speaker on the circuit, and the fact you "get what you pay for". Colleges, meanwhile, are increasingly hiring motivational speakers to rouse first-year students.

Ralph Archbold is a high-class Benjamin Franklin impersonator, who started out playing the famous American patriot 24 years ago at a historic village in Michigan.

He recently appeared at a US school board convention; he is soon to address the retired teachers' association, the National Council on Teacher Retirement. He talks to teachers on the challenge of change, and the spirit of co-operation, even techniques of getting matching grants, using examples from Franklin's life and thought.

He usually works with school children, however. "The one thing I can teach teachers," he said, "is how to do what I do. Historical interpretation, to bring a character into the classroom, makes history come alive."

Americans, of course, have always liked to talk their problems out. But the question remains as to what, exactly, these speakers do for working teachers. "I wish that I could make as much money as they do," said one Los Angeles area teacher, largely unimpressed by an hour's talk on making relationships work. "At the beginning of the year, people really just want to get into their rooms."

Diane Prichard, principal of a Los Angeles charter school, said the better ones can "really remind teachers what they are all about". But she recalled one who got a negative reaction. "Teachers felt like they were being lectured, being told they didn't do a good job," she said.

When the Sonoma County Office of Education planned a back-to- school conference for special education teachers in August, it turned to local talent - Jennifer Gunter, a former Miss Sonoma County and Miss San Francisco. Mrs Gunter, 26, delivered a talk whose main focus, she said, was "how you make a difference this year".

Mrs Gunter, a one-time medical student, has no teaching degree. But she chose "developing self-esteem in our youth" for her mission as a reigning beauty queen, and has since spoken to schoolchildren and youth conferences from Guam to Canada. It has put her on the circuit as a speaker for adults as well.

In Sonoma, she was facing teachers who have some of the toughest jobs in the business: working with children with learning difficulties, foster teens, students in juvenile prison or on drugs.

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