13 Days To the Future
By Sally Bell
At the BSA's Center for Professional Development, new professional Scouters launch their careers by learning the critical district-level role of a unit-serving executive.
New Scouting professional Mark Hooper strides to the front of the classroom where instructor Linda Hughes drops a table tennis ball into a large bowl of water. The ball represents his volunteers, she tells him, and, as a district executive, it's his challenge to keep it under water.
No problem. Hooper of the Hiawatha Seaway Council in Syracuse, N.Y, places his hand over the ball, and it submerges obligingly. Then Hughes plunks another ball into the water ("this represents good organization") and another ("for fund-raising") and then another and another, until the bowl nearly overflows.
Now Hooper, getting increasingly wet, begins to look worried. To the hoots of classmates, he scrambles to keep the balls dunked, but they scoot free between his fingers.
Hughes calls for help, and five of Hooper's classmates rush forward. "Hold as many balls down as you feel comfortable with," Hughes tells them. But even with 12 hands at work, some balls persist in popping free.
Finallyfor a momentall balls are safely under water. Then Hughes sends three students back to their seats, announcing that one "was transferred," one "gave up," and a third is "recovering from an auto accident." The little balls burst to the surface again.
"I need help!" yelps Hooper, and this time so many classmates rush to his aid that many can't even touch a ball.
Only after the laughter subsides does Hughes make her point.
"You can't do your job all by yourself," she says quietly. "Things happen to volunteers, or there are so many [of them that] there isn't enough for them to do, and they lose interest. Your job as district executive is to make sure every volunteer has only one job and support each of them in it."
Engaging, interactive fun
This is the Boy Scouts of America's Professional Development Level I (PD-LI) training for new district executives. It's learning that's engaging, interactive, even fun.
Three months after being hired, new district executives (DE's) come to BSA's Center for Professional Development, northwest of the Dallas-Fort Worth area in Westlake, Tex., for training that often can be entertaining, but definitely is intensive.
Ahead for the nine women and 31 men in this group are classes from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. and again 7 to 9 p.m., Monday through Friday, plus half of Saturday. And that grueling schedule continues for 13 days.
Absorbing so much in that time can be "like taking a drink from a fire hose," acknowledged Marty Kadel, one of the center's half-dozen associate directors who lead the course.
But by the final day of the course, the DE'snewly commissioned as professional Scouterswill be inculcated with the values and ethics of Scouting. They also will have learned the workings of all Scout programs, how a district and its major functions should operate, and how to organize new units.
"We want to give them as many professional Scouting experiences as possible," Kadel said, "so they [will develop] a broad understanding about how to work through volunteers to provide top-quality Scouting and district administration, plus being able to recruit and cultivate the best volunteers."
The BSA has conducted training like PD-LI in some form since 1925. Nearly 400 new DE's now take the course annually. They will return in their second and third years as professionals for additional training in problem solving, management techniques, and the challenge of setting a career path.
But why wait three months to take PD-LI rather than right after a new DE is hired by a local council?
Before attending the CPD, Sarah Whiteman, 29, of the Crossroads of America Council in Indianapolis, Ind., had the same question.
Her perspective was different after the course. Like most new DE's, in her initial months on the job, she had stumbled over basic questions, such as how many leaders does a Cub Scout pack need and how do Boy Scout patrols work.
"It's really good to go to training several months later," she said, "because by then you know what you don't know [but] need to know."
Kadel underscored her comments, noting that "the training wouldn't be as meaningful if they didn't have exposure to their districts. They need that taste before coming here."
Dramatic learning points
The class is broken into Boy Scout-type patrols to work together and share responsibilities. Wherever possible, teaching occurs subtly through breakout sessions, individual or patrol projects, role-playing, games, brainstorming, hands-on demonstrations, and other techniques not found in most classrooms.
The idea is that fun engages all the senses, holds attention through long days, and most importantly, provides "dramatic learning points" that help new DE's remember what they've learned.
"Lecturing is sort of a dirty word around here," Kadel noted. "We have to sometimes, but we minimize it to make learning enjoyable."
The style was a perfect match for George Hill Jr., 22, of Asheville, North Carolina's Daniel Boone Council.
"I'm a hands-on person," he reflected after completing the course. "I have to be doing something. The way they teach at PD-LI, I was able to learn better and retain more."
During one session, Chief Scout Executive Roy L. Williams addressed the DE's, telling them that they can't hope to do their jobs alone.
"You will surely fail if you try," he warned. "Far greater is the person who can get 10 people to work than the person who can do the work of 10. That's the secret to your success."
Volunteers, he said, should be appreciated as "special people who go from their own jobs to caring for someone else's children." The picture of a successful district is like a jigsaw puzzle, to which volunteers enjoy "putting in the pieces."
And that makes the DE's attitude critical. "No matter how you feel, it's always 'show time' because your volunteers feed on your enthusiasm," Williams said.
Learning by doing
Among a DE's most important duties are running Key 3 meetings, Friends of Scouting (FOS) fund-raising events, and participating in district committee and commissioner staff meetings.
Rather than just being told how, however, they learned by doing, through role-playing.
For example, during lunch one day, each table of students ran a mock Key 3 luncheon, the twice-monthly meetings during which DE's discuss district issues with their top two volunteer leaders, the district commissioner and district chairman.
Between salad and dessert, each DE acted out a scenario involving seeking out a strong FOS chairman, helping recharter a struggling Cub Scout pack, and ensuring follow-up.
That demonstration made a big impact on Sarah Whiteman, who had been a special events manager for Junior Achievement before joining the BSA.
"I learned how to make Key 3 into effective meetings that stick to the task and don't go off track," she said several months after completing the course.
The training helped her as well in setting up a new unit using the 12 organizational steps, from identifying prospective chartered partners through ongoing monitoring.
"It's time-consuming," Whiteman said, "but doing it the way it's planned makes it easier because you're doing the spade work to make it a healthy unit."
Whiteman also gained empathy for her volunteers. "I learned how they feel and got more knowledge to answer their questions," she said. "I also know more [about] how the district should operate so we become stronger."
Confidence, skills, knowledge
The most powerful thing George Hill Jr. learned was how to recruit the right volunteer for the right job.
"Before [attending CPD] I would say [to potential volunteers], 'What do you want to do'?" he said. "Now I just ask for people who want to help kids. After they volunteer, I tell them [about the different] position functions. I was surprised how well it worked."
Another member of the class, Peter Brown, 28, employed by the Great Salt Lake Council in Utah, also reflected on the benefits of PD-LI training.
Although he earned the Eagle Scout Award and has always been a "true believer" in the benefits of Scouting, Brown said the training, by providing knowledge, had "put a sword in my hand."
Before attending PD-LI, he would frequently apologize for his lack of knowledge. Now, he said, "When people come to me with questions, I can answer them, and that's a big change. If I don't know an answer, I know where to get it."
Most importantly, PD-LI graduates say, the training gives new DE's the confidence, skills, and knowledge to help volunteers help youth.
And that's the point. "It's the BSA mission to instill values in youth," said course director Marty Kadel. "We can make a major difference, but if we're doing it all ourselves, we'll fail."
Professional Scouters "must be bold" in seeking the right volunteers to share that vital mission.
Freelance writer Sally Bell lives in Boulder, Colo.
Copyright © 2005 by the Boy Scouts of America. All rights thereunder reserved; anything appearing in Scouting magazine or on its Web site may not be reprinted either wholly or in part without written permission. Because of freedom given authors, opinions may not reflect official concurrence.