By Nicole Keller
The FFA advisors of the Model of Innovation award-winning chapters have figured out one thing: The more time put into training chapter officers, the better your Program of Activities (POA) and your chances of receiving recognition for the chapter. Darryl Matherly, co-advisor of the Spencer County FFA Chapter in Kentucky and the 2010 Model of Innovation award-winning chapter for student development, and Paul Larson, advisor for the Freedom FFA in Wisconsin and a finalist for the same award, share their top four practices for facilitating outstanding chapters.
1. Take summertime as training time. To serve in a leadership role, the 30-plus officers and committee chairs from Spencer County must attend FFA camp, dedicating an entire summer week to creating the next year’s POA. In addition to learning the duties of their new office, students spend a daily chapter hour—sometimes two—setting date-specific S.M.A.R.T. goals and deciding which activities will help them meet those goals. The resulting year-long plan hangs on Matherly’s classroom wall and is reviewed at the next summer’s camp.
“We have officers who are seniors who won’t even be at camp next year, who don’t have a real stake, who always want to achieve those goals,” Matherly said.
This year’s officers were so fired up after camp about a future “hillbilly Olympics” activity they had planned, they continued to meet throughout the summer, a first for Matherly. When it came time for the event, the advisors “didn’t have to do anything,” Matherly said. “The ultimate indication you’ve done a pretty good job training your officers is if you don’t have to do anything other than show up.”
Larson’s Freedom FFA officers take advantage of the Washington Leadership Conference to build their role-specific knowledge. Then Larson uses a two-day summer workshop to get ready for the year (while anxiously awaiting Wisconsin’s new C.O.L.T.—Chapter Officer Leadership Training—summer program to launch). Since Freedom only has around 110 members, they skip the get-to-know-each-other activities and focus on the POA. “We tried not having (the workshop) one summer and it was a miserable year,” Larson said. “Just having a chance to get together, to sit down and focus on just FFA, is vital.”
2. Use time-management tools. Freedom FFA officers are required to keep a calendar just for FFA activities, as well as their personal calendar at home, stemming from the POA created during the summer. “Once we implemented that, it really ramped up the organization of the officers,” Larson said. “The president we have now has become tremendously good at it” by mimicking the color-coded system his mother uses for the family. “If we do it right and break down each project and activity by date, we ratchet down the program pretty tight and bring their ideas to the ultimate goal,” Larson said. He’s also considering a free online program suggested by another teacher called Edmodo (http://edmodo.com) to arrange meetings and otherwise communicate with his texting-savvy officers.
3. Tailor roles to free up your time. Both chapters have adapted the FFA constitutionally recommended leadership structure to fit their needs. Spencer County FFA elects 10: the normal six (president, vice president, secretary, treasurer, reporter and sentinel) plus parliamentarian, chaplain, historian and a student advisor. “Since adding the student advisor three years ago, to let a student do the advisor’s part of any function we have, it’s worked out really good,” Matherly said. He uses his extra time to give officers added personal attention, plus the roles provide more chances at leadership for his 280 chapter members.
Though some clubs limit leadership to juniors or seniors, Larson has found success electing sophomores. “With the whole group as all new last year, we really had to take a deep breath and spend a lot of time with them,” Larson said. “We banged our heads when they weren’t willing to say ‘I don’t know,’ but it’s much better this year.” All that time training younger officers is letting Larson reap the rewards now with experienced officers who understand expectations. “It can be a battle when they’re young, but then you can step back a little and see amazingly good things the next year.”
4. Make weekly face time. The danger of officers serving multiple years, like in Freedom FFA, is burnout. But then Larson relies on his other training strategies: face time and weekly executive meetings. “I’ve got good kids, and I’m praying that next year they stay with me,” Larson said. “And I’m big on the personal conversation.” If students start to get lazy, they get a quick two-minute chat in which Larson explains “here’s what I see, here’s what we want to happen” so they clearly understand what’s needed.
A weekly executive committee meeting is as crucial in Freedom as it is in Spencer County. Matherly’s committee chairs work with younger committee members during class to ready reports, then attend the officers’ meeting to prepare for the larger monthly chapter meeting. “It’s been really effective to work directly with the officers that way on everything we need to do, every single month,” Matherly said.
Time invested makes all the difference in officer training, the advisors agree. “It will make your life a lot easier during the course of the year if you do everything really well from the start,” Matherly said.