Scoutorama.com spoke with succesful roundtable commissioners and asked them what makes their roundtables better than most. The commissioners we spoke to identified a number of challenges and suggestions for meeting those challenges. Not surprisingly, they identified the same kinds of problems. We've grouped them in 6 general categories, with an introduction on roundtable history.
As early as 600 a.d., history begins the fantastic legends of King Arthur, the illegitimate son of King Uther. Whether through his upbringing or by nature, Arthur was known for reform and justice.
The monument of his work is the roundtable, where all were united without head or foot. Each lordship in his kingdom was represented at the roundtable, and committed to serve those they represented.
The BSA's Roundtable training meetings are a monthly in service training meeting. The allusion to Camelot's roundtable conjures up images of errant knights assembling to discuss the problems of the people (Scouts) they serve.
There are two groups of people who struggle with punctuality at a rountable: the staff and the participants. (Yes, that's just about everyone...)
The Staff's tardiness is a major complaint of roundtable goers. When they don't know exactly what happens next, or when the commissioner is tied down with last minute details, volunteers' time is wasted. In business terms, it's called inefficient. Who would pay 100 people to sit and wait for 15 minuites? There are two ways to fix this problem.
- Carefully plan the meeting in advance, and stick to the plan. Follow the programmed agenda from preopening to after the meeting. Everyone should know "what's next".
- Stick to time limits. Budget 10 minutes for the opening and then watch the clock. The participants will enjoy the fast pace and appreciate the value you place on their time. The section on Quality will give some ideas for maintaining a brisk pace.
Participants' tardiness was the number one complaint of roundtable staffs. We were not surprised at this, but thought that it was an unsolvable problem. The Commissioners disagreed. They gave us two terrific ideas.
- Door Prizes. Give tickets to anyone who comes early. The drawing is held after the opening ceremony so that latecomers saw what they were missing. What should you give as prizes? Ask a local merchant to donate something of value (lantern, axe, compass, knife, etc.).
- Top Twenty. Give tickets to the first twenty people to arrive. After the opening ceremony, call the "Top Twenty" forward and give them their prize (a flashlight, notepad, signal mirror, or other donated item.)
Were they successful? You bet. Not only did tardiness end, but people started arriving early in hopes of winning. This gave the staff time to get extra teaching in during the preopening, and put the participants "in the mood" for the rest of the evening.
The Third Dimension
Most presentations are two dimensional: a presenter (1st dimension) stands and lectures on a subject to the audience (2nd dimension). The third dimension is the Scouts.
You can teach an adult about knot tying by giving him a rope and walking him through a few examples. But when he enters the third dimension (in troop meeting) he'd better be ready with knot games, stories, and a few candy bar prizes. Why not prepare the Scouter by teaching him in the third dimension?
One district completely eliminated the lecture mode by requiring the the presenters to convey their messages entirely in skit form. This increased audience participation and taught adults to relate to youth.
Another district decided to make all presentation "live". When they taught firebuilding, they went to the trouble of building a platform out on the church lawn where they met so that the Scouters could sit around a real fire and get hands on experience. A lot of trouble, but they all remember it!
When a person is given responsibility in a meeting, they become committed to its success. To stimulate this commitment, one district brought a shovel and bugle to each roundtable.
The "Service Patrol" got the shovel, they were responsible for setting up and cleaning up for next month's meeting. The "Program Patrol" got the bugle. They ran the closing ceremony for the next month's meeting.
Stiff penalties punished the group who forgot their duties or left the shovel and bugle home. They usually had to come up and perform some embarassing dance or feat in front of the entire group.
(A side effect of this increased participation is the lightening of the staff's workload.)
How do you know what Scouters need to hear? A roundtable staff is not representative of the entire district. Scouters may be facing unique challenges completely foreign to the staff. Placing a suggestion box near the door, and keeping it supplied with pencils and paper will give the Scouters a chance to voice their opinions. (Notice that nearly every page in Scouting Online has a link to our suggestion box! We want to meet your needs.)
One district mentioned that they put up a suggestion box, and after two months received only one suggestion. They didn't think it was that great, but did it anyway, and made a point of mentioning that the change came about because of a suggestion in the suggestion box. The next month they received several suggestions that really improved their meeting. People are skeptical, you must prove that you are open to change!
A number of Commissioners commented on their initial urge to recruit their "friends" as staff members. With some effort, they reached out and pulled in staffers from across the district, which gave more power to the roundtable because it then represented all the interests in the district, not just a select group.
Roundtable participants are commonly divided into groups by chartering organization or geographic location. Many districts carry this idea to maturity by dubbing each group a patrol and requiring them to have a name, flag, yell, and a patrol leader. Competitions are held between Roundtable patrols.
This experience gives Scouters good insight into the challenges their boys face and lets them see what a patrol should be like.
Adults have a hard time relating with boys because they can't stop "acting their age". Glen Parker, in Brigham Young University's Department of Recreation Management and youth Leadership relates the following story.
Ministers attending a Scout campout were called to the floor for a skit. The particular skit was rather embarrassing, and brought hoots of laughter from the boys in attendance. One particular Minister was rather "stiff", and had never been able to relate to the youth he had stewardship over. Acting the fool in front of the boys was very difficult. But the boys saw a new man before them. In the next few months the Minister grew closer to the boys and helped them through a number of personal challenges.
Roundtable is a good place to learn to stop acting your age. Through skits, stories, and songs an adult can suffer a damaged pride, but the experience just might open the door to a boy's impressionable mind. (for ideas on helping adults regress, click here.)
Some of the best things I've learned from roundtables didn't come from the presentations. When Scouters sit around the cracker barrel they ask the questions that are on their minds, and get answers from peers.
In a good roundable the cracker barrel is not held after the meeting, it is a part of the meeting. A warning though, if Scouters stay out late socializing, spouses get upset, so turn the lights out when the time is up! Don't be afraid to leave them wanting more.
We read a lot about the ideal troop, with an effective committee, dedicated leaders, and excited boys. In your preparation, don't foget to lay the manuals aside and consider the troop with 4 boys, or the group of boys with single mothers.
One district opens the floor for 10 minutes of troubleshooting. Scouters bring up current problems they have, and the whole group works together to solve them. There is never time for more than 3 or 4 questions, but the results are tremendous.
New Scouters struggle because they do not know the ins and outs of local camping or other activities. One district spends 5 minutes on a mock trip. The leader stands and says, "Okay, I am taking my troop to hike Mt Timpanogos. What do I need to know?" The group contributes their information and experiences.
As a Scout, I spent many summers at Camp Freedom (Transatlantic Council). Staff members were extremely careful not to use the word "announcements". Because that summer camp has a song with at least 15 verses, and it can only be set in motion by the word "annou___". If you slipped, there was nothing to do but sit down and wait it out.
The song reflected the boredom an audience experiences when announcements are repeated are repeated are repeated. In a roundtable, the announcements should be printed in the newsletter and read once. (If you repeat them in another section, I hope you have someone from Camp Freedom in your audience. Just once would teach you a good lesson...)
Quite often a key person will be unable to come at the last minute. This really tests the roundtable staff. Each district had a unique way of preparing for the inevitable:
- Insist on team teaching.
- Collect outlines and handouts before the meeting. If the presenter falls out, the information will still be available to the participants.
- Assign a staff member to prepare a back up lesson.
- Assign a discussion leader to conduct a "talk show", covering the theme with their own resources.
What do you do when someone says, "I have 3 rolls of slides from our trip to Mt. Vesuvius that I'd be willing to show next month...if, uh, you'd like me to." Say no, and spoil the enthusiasm. Say yes, and tell everyone to bring pillows...
One commissioner has the perrfect answer. Invite the person to share only 10 slides. Express your sincere interest and explain that you can't budget more time than that. After the slide show, jump up and say, "Okay, we have time for three questions!" After the third question, explain that the presenter will be available for questions after the cracker barrel.
This establishes a precedence. After two or three such experiences, everyone "knows" that a slide show means 10 slides and 3 questions.
Convincing leaders to enjoy campfire singing like boys do is no easy task. Commissioners had two great suggestions:
- Get someone who is naturally enthusiastic to get up and lead a song. Example is always the best teacher.
- Start with a snowball song. The leader stands in front of one person and sings, while hopping on one foot, "Oh do you know the muffin man, the muffin man, the muffin man?" The person then stands and repeats the actions singing, "Oh yes, I know the muffin man..." They each go to two other people, and so on until the entire audience has joined in.
Slow moments in a meeting give people a chance to think about what they'd be doing if they hadn't come. A brisk pace is essential, but you don't want to offend someone by cutting them off.
Each district had their own way of addressing this problem. We combined them and think that this could be a lot of fun for the whole group.
- Establish and announce time limits so everyone knows that this won't "go on all night".
- Use a timing device like an alarm. If the audience remembers the gong show, you might want a pan lid and a wooden spoon. The gonging job could be awarded to the most punctual person.
- Prevent people from being offended by announcing the rules at the beginning in a fun manner. Someone should be secretly assigned to violate the time limit rule at the start, and "get gonged" to set the example!
- Contrary to popular belief, there is such a thing as a stupid question. Establish the "3 Question Quota", and defer all other questions to the cracker barrel.
To maintain high quality, remember the purpose of roundtables. Many districts read over their objectives at the beginning of each planning meeting. The two questions they consider most important are:
- What is our purpose this month?
- How can we keep things lively?
Ideally, Scouting is a movement driven by people dedicated to developing character in boys. But just like boys (who register for FUN, not character building), Scouters find a social club where people with similar values meet to have fun.
Leaders stay involved when they find acceptance among friends with similar interests. This poses a problem when the same staff conducts the roundtables year in and year out. Each district offered their suggestions to regularly "change the guard."
- Insist that 10% of the people involved in the monthly roundtable be new to the staff.
- Involve the roundtable "patrols" by giving them a chance to teach on a regular basis.
- Spreading the responsibility through several dozen people makes everyone feel needed and keeps things fresh.
Tradition is stronger than law. If your roundtable needs a little work, remember that people must agree that a change is necessary before they will do something about it. Make change itself a tradition. If you are in the habit of evaluating your progress, and everyone understands whose responsibility it is to act on those evaluations, your roundtables will improve on a monthly basis.
Do you need to change? One district found that their Scoutmasters averaged 3 months in office before quitting. Why? Because their needs were not being met. Working with boys is hard, people need high quality training to succeed at it.