Summer has arrived, and with it comes the need to train your student officers so they can hit the ground running when they return to class in the fall. Many advisors find this the perfect time to train officers in essential skills, nail down next year’s calendar and build a cohesive group that can help grow the chapter.
Chuck Gallinger, an agriculture instructor at Berlin High School in East Central Wisconsin, has been reaping the benefits of summer officer retreats since 1979. His students create the agenda for the four-night trip to the state FFA camp. “We work from the students’ agenda, and when we’re done, they can swim or play horseshoes or boat. They work off their energy, and they get their whole year laid out for the coming school year,” he says. The group also works on service projects while there, repairing and building essential camp structures.
“I keep them busy physically and mentally, and they learn to get along well together. They have to learn to work together to get it all done,” he observes. “Kids come up with the best and most unusual ideas, and that’s what I look for. Sometimes we can adapt the off-the-wall stuff, and it makes things real entertaining!”
It also keeps a group growing. Jay Bohnenblust, agriculture teacher at Clay Center High School in Clay Center, Kan., has seen the benefits of officer retreats for the last 24 years. “When you have buy-in from your officers, they share it with your chapter members. There are lots of strategies the kids have thought of over the years to increase our active membership,” he says.
Like Gallinger, Bohnenblust appreciates the benefits of an off-site retreat. “For the last eight years, we’ve gone to a place 8,800 feet up in the mountains of Colorado. It gets them away from home and cell phone reception, and it lets them concentrate on what’s going on with the chapter – not with their boyfriend or girlfriend,” he says.
With more than eight hours in the car each way, Bohnenblust’s group does most of its year-round planning on the road, including training in specific skills they’ll need as officers. Once at the retreat, students work on problem solving together in activities such as horseback riding, river rafting and hiking. “We’ll put six kids in a raft with a professional, but they’re responsible for navigating the boat. It makes them work together. After an activity, we always talk about what went well, what went wrong, how everyone contributed, to make sure they’re on target with what we want them to understand,” he says.
As executive secretary for the Georgia FFA, Ben Lastly is responsible for the entire state’s officer training. He says the best training programs are those that get the students involved. “If your training is conducted by students, it keeps it student-oriented. If you’re presenting technical information, you might want a presenter with technical expertise. But there’s a lot of value to students hearing from other students. They have a lot of enthusiasm.”
More important than even the content of the retreat, says Lastly, is the camaraderie. “You can have eight really talented individuals, but they’ll just be eight talented individuals if they don’t have a point where they can come together and become a team,” he observes. “Sometimes that involves putting them in a situation that makes them uncomfortable, where they can only get out of it if they work together. It forces them to realize and appreciate each team member’s strengths.”
In addition to state training programs, national FFA has a number of resources available to improve your officer training and member skill-building. Many FFA advisors have used the association’s personality profile tools to explore the differing strengths of the various officers’ personality types. Many also use the LifeKnowledge® online tool as well as Mpower to help build skills.
“LifeKnowledge began with the cry from business and industry that students needed to have specific leadership and skill sets to be successful in the workplace,” says Christine White, team leader of the LifeKnowledge Center for Agricultural Education. The online tool includes precepts, or broad topic areas, with 257 lesson plans. It allows advisors to assess each student’s skills and identify areas that need development—both individually and in officer and chapter groups. The many lesson plans address those areas and are pre-scripted, so they can easily be led by student officers. Once a chapter subscribes to the online LifeKnowledge tool, the lessons continue to be updated.
Mpower is another tool that specifically develops the chapter officer team. This book and CD-ROM includes activities and planning sheets for teachers and officers to use together. “Both LifeKnowledge and Mpower can be very helpful—you just need to pick and pull from both, depending on what you want your officers to do,” White says. “Once your officers are trained, they can use LifeKnowledge to work with students at the chapter level through the year.”
(For more information about LifeKnowledge, Mpower and other FFA tools for summer retreats and chapter officer training, please visit The Core catalog link at www.ffaunlimited.org.)
Advisors can find many ways to conduct a summer retreat. Whether you choose to go off site, take a road trip, host a camp or use FFA or local tools, the key, says Lastly, is to do something.
“Don’t start your year without having taken the time to train those officers and get them empowered. Advisors will drive themselves crazy if they try to do everything, and they shouldn’t have to,” Lastly says. “Most students are smart and creative and energetic, and they want to do these things; they just need some guidance. Let the students be part of setting the goals and objectives for the year, and empower them to lead the chapter.”
For more information on the teachers in this article, please click on the links below: