Tips and Tricks for New, and Not-So-New, Leaders
Overwhelming, isn't it? There's all that "stuff" on the River Valleys website. Everything you read has links to four more things. You have a list of six or twelve or eighteen names of little girls. What do you do?
When I was a new leader, I suffered from "analysis paralysis" because I wanted to have a troop that would cause Daisy Low to rise from the ashes and scream with delight in her Georgian drawl. Well, Daisy hasn't appeared yet, my troop is doing fine and we are going into our fourth year together. What have I learned that I didn't realize or appreciate in year zero?
1) Team with a great co-leader or assistant leader(s), preferably someone with skills that are complementary to yours. For example, large groups of kids used to terrify me. My co-leader could walk in the middle of a stampede and not be fazed. I like to plan and organize -- my co-leader not so much. Two (or more) heads really are better than one. Two leaders and maybe even three can share equally; most people find that co-op troops with four or more leaders require one of them to be a focal point to keep everything coordinated since not everything can be done by committee in an efficient and timely way.
2) Make parents responsible. While some parents may truly not have the personal bandwidth to contribute very much, many are simply waiting to be asked.Pass around a list of meeting dates with the statement, "Please sign up for the meeting where you will be bringing snacks." If you want to be sure to get healthy snacks, model this by bringing appropriate snacks to the first meeting and by having examples of what you want listed on the sign-up sheet. Some parents will bring sugar-coated sugar cubes anyway, but then shift snack time to the end of the meeting and let them take their hyper kids home as a consequence.Follow the same approach for meetings outside your regular location or any other situation that needs more adults: "We need at least three parents to come along with us. Who would like to go with us on our hike in the park for our meeting in two weeks?" Remember to "ask for the sale," as they say in sales training. One can be perfectly friendly and professional and be more effective by avoiding sentences like, "If someone would like to come along on the hike, it would be nice." If you need three parents to step up in order for an activity to happen safely, then state this in terms that let them know that this is a requirement for the event to happen.Send reminders. Parents may be responsible, but not infallible.Make it easy for parents for be helpful by giving clear instructions where needed and information well ahead of time. Particularly for younger girls, communicate -- communicate -- communicate to parents. Talk to them at the beginning and end of the meeting when possible and email them updates. At times, we have had handouts for pick up at sign-in that show the calendar of meetings for the rest of the year and any new developments. Set up a troop website or Facebook page.
3) Prioritize the Council documentation. Of all the council information, what should you bother to print and know? Volunteer Essentials, particularly Safety-Wise. Anything else you can look up as you need it. Oh, yeah, have a parent sign-in form for each meeting and one for permission if you have an activity away from your regular meeting site. Collect a copy of the Health History form for each girl and adult member and have it with you at every meeting and event with your troop.
4) Use your local and regional resources. Go to the monthly leader meetings if you possibly can. The enemy of a connected troop and leader is isolation. Call anyone on the service unit management team if you have a question, a problem, or just want some Girl Scout conversation. Get access to our service unit website at and keep an eye on the calendar and postings. Read your emails from the service unit and from the River Valleys council.
5) Don't reinvent the wheel. Copy ideas from other leaders you meet. Sign up for events sponsored by Rivers Valleys, our Service Unit, other service units, Three Rivers Park District, etc. These are usually reasonably priced and accessible. Use the activity plans from the RV website as a guide and substitute an equivalent activity for anything that seems not right for your troop.
6) Don't be afraid to enhance and personalize by using your resources; replace passive activities with active ones. In my opinion, the activity plans for the younger levels include too much coloring, cutting shapes from construction paper, and talking about things that they could be doing. For example, one of the Brownie activity plans has a card matching game for the names of different types of medical professionals with the correct body part. Everyone knows someone in the medical professional at some level and can get somebody to stop by your meeting for 20 minutes. Isn't it more interesting and inspirational for a girl to ask a doctor about her work and try out a stethoscope than to match a card that says 'cardiologist' to a picture of a heart? When meetings drag, take a brisk walk, sing, or play a physical game. Given the choice, go with an active activity rather than a passive one. The steps on the activity plans are placeholders to assure that certain objectives are met. Substitute with equivalent activities where it works for you and fall back on the construction paper and coloring when that seems right.
7) Have a plan for leaders' kids. Co-leaders should establish a protocol where they are responsible for overseeing and disciplining each others' daughters. Explain this to your daughters before the meeting so that there is no confusion. I spent a few meetings with my Daisy attached to my leg thinking, "Everybody must think I'm a terrible leader because I can't even make my own kid behave" before I learned this trick from Penny and Danielle.
8) Do not be the bank for your troop. It's a slippery slope from buying a few supplies and tossing in a few dollars for an activity for a child who did not bring an event fee (but shows up anyway) to realizing what all this can add up to by the end of the year. If you need $5 per girl to attend an activity and it has been agreed that each family will pay the fee, then hold firm to that, even if it is painful -- the children who have met the requirements are the ones who will be attending and those who have not are unable to go. Use the grant process confidentially to help parents with limited means. Collecting dues has been a logistical nightmare for my troop. Collecting a sum of money from the parents once or twice per year is easier. You might have to experiment with different approaches until you have enough cookie money built up.
9) Get a great Cookie Manager. If at all possible, do not do this job yourself. Pick someone who is diligent and organized if you can. This is not the job for the mom who has duct-taped the badges on. Since ultimately you are responsible for what happens in your troop, talk with your volunteer up front about how frequently and in what way she or he is going to keep you in the loop. In our first year, our troop cookie manager was a sweet woman who was the only one who would volunteer. She was a project manager for a large company whose name you would know, so it seemed like this was a great choice. I ignored that voice in the back of my head that mentioned, "She frequently brings her child to the meetings late, doesn't show up when she says that she's going to and she owes me money." Long story short, she "lost" enough boxes by turning the parents free to swap among themselves and being lax in keeping the leaders informed that most of our profits for that first year were lost in having to pay for the missing boxes. The next year, we got a much more organized and motivated volunteer and set expectations in the beginning; the process has been nearly stress-free for the leaders ever since. If you have a great Cookie Manager, recognize her or his contribution with bounteous praise and an appropriate gift.
10) Girls don't need a patch for everything that they do. Do a lot of recognition but save the fun patches for events of special importance. Costs mount up and we don't need to train the girls like Pavlov's dogs to expect a reward at the conclusion of every occurrence.
11) Let girls contribute to planning and goal-setting. How does this girl-leadership work? The answer is, "Well" if undertaken progressively and age-appropriately. Daisies can pick between two and eventually three to four choices that are presented to them in the same way that you might present a choice of two outfits to your fashion-conscious daughter to prevent her from wearing a tutu, a football jersey and her brother's soccer socks pulled up to her thighs as happened that time her father took her to school. Over the next years, the questions change from limited option ("Do you want to go to the horseback riding or the canoeing event?") to open-ended ("If we choose to perform a Take Action project this Fall, how should we develop the project objective, plan, and budget?"). Let girls lead and make choices wherever appropriate.
12) Commit to personally attending one adult training event per year. This doesn't take much extra time and by the time your troop is old enough to start going camping and taking trips, you will have the leader requirements completed to be able to do that without having to rush through training. It's also fun and you'll come back energized and with new ideas, whether from the class itself or from the other adult members whom you meet. The more training you attend, the more you may end up wanting to attend. Ironic, isn't it? This is something to do to reward yourself.
13) It gets better. Daisies cry. They may also sit on tables, stomp, and hide under tables and refuse to come out. Our first year, we had five meetings until we had one where no child cried. My own daughter spent her investiture ceremony hiding in a cupboard in the corner of our meeting room. Eventually, they get passed that and so will you.
14) New troop leaders, you already know a lot of what you need to know to be successful as a troop leader. You just may not realize it yet. It's like being a parent. There are many things that you just know are the right things to do. You already know to pair a shy child with a kind, friendly child or how to keep a disruptive child busy by giving her a "special job just for you." You can see which children may have stressful home situations and need extra encouragement. You just know these things and this is what a Girl Scout leader does that is way beyond whether another badge gets earned or not.
15) Have fun and be silly when you can. If your troop is painting with shaving cream, get in there and get messy. If you've never shot off a rocket, tell your girls that and learn together. If the only way you can teach a song is to sing off-key, then do your best. Ask Tabitha what happened when she was "volunteered" to set off the big bottle of Diet Coke and Mentos. The behavior that you are modeling for your troop is not about never falling, it's about always getting up. And with a laugh, if you can manage it. If you want them to have fun, you need to have fun, too.So you've got that list of names, right? Set a meeting time, find a meeting location (contact the service unit for suggestions), notify the parents, make a sign-in sheet, pick the activity plan for the first meeting and plunge into the experience. By the second meeting, you'll feel a little more confident and after a few more, you'll be working with your girls to create your own agendas and wondering why this seemed so daunting at first.
~Laurie Powell Anderson