So, there I was sitting in the library of my oldest daughter’s grade school one evening. It was the early 1990s, and I was there to get her signed up for Girl Scouts. She had been in a Troop the previous year, so my wife sent me to take care of the paperwork and get the necessary information.
In the course of the meeting, her leader asked if anyone could sign up to be the “Certified Troop Camper”. In Girl Scouts this is a required position for any outdoor activity. No camping trip, or any other overnight event can happen without one, and it needs to be someone other than the First Aid person. I had been camping since I was a Cub Scout, and at the time I was a trainer of Boy Scout leaders. I thought I’d make a good Troop Camper for my daughter’s troop. After the meeting ended I approached the leader and offered up my name. She told me there was required training. I asked her if my experience would be a substitute for the training, and she said she’d ask.
A few days later she called to tell me that the folks at the Girl Scout office had laughed at the notion that I would be qualified to be a Troop Camper based on my personal and Boy Scout experience, and that I did, in fact, have to take their training. So, I arranged a vacation day for a Friday in early October, and headed out to the nearby Girl Scout camp for my day of training.
The training consisted of two parts: a classroom session detailing the rules and regulations, and an outdoor session with hands-on, practical experience. The idea was to train the women who were leading their girls into the woods on the basics so that they could have a safe, fun experience. By the time the training class had come up my wife had also agreed to take it, so we spent the seven hours together in training.
By the end of the day, I was appalled at what I had seen. It was easily the worst day of training I had ever experienced. The instructors were ill-prepared, made obvious mistakes, quoted incorrect “facts”, and generally disheartened many of the participants. I watched as women who were not versed in the outdoors, one-by-one, mentally checked out of the process and disengaged. Rather than helping these volunteers to become more confident, they had the reverse effect. During the day my wife (who was also an experienced camper), and I had started explaining some of the concepts on the side to others in the class, just to try to supplement the experience.
When it was done, we were handed an evaluation. The front side had 8 or 10 questions with space for answers, the back side was blank. I sat for at least 30 minutes writing by lantern light. I filled both sides of the page detailing what I had seen, and my concerns. Never one to complain anonymously, I signed the evaluation and included my email address and phone number, offering to help if they wanted to re-vamp the training and update their trainers.
Once the training was done, and my training card was signed, I quickly forgot about the evaluation. I went on several trips with my daughter’s troop that school year, and did my best to make sure that the girls were taught how to do things safely in the outdoors. A year passed, when one afternoon my phone at work rang.
It was the training director for the Girl Scout office. She was new to the post and had found my evaluation. At the outset of the conversation I expected her to be defensive, but she wasn’t. She had read the entire evaluation and had a few questions. I answered based on what I remembered of the day. Then she dropped the bombshell. She asked if I would agree to become a Girl Scout Leader trainer. Without hesitation I said yes, and then asked what was involved.
It was the fall of 1995, and I had to attend 6 evenings of classes – each 3 hours in length. I also needed to participate in a small group exercise to develop a 90-minute training module to be delivered at an upcoming training event. After all that I would be an apprentice instructor for at least two sessions before I would be allowed to be a lead instructor. Due to Girl Scout regulations I could never teach alone, and would always have a woman – other than my wife – as a co-trainer, and I would only ever teach adult women. All of that sounded great to me, so I scheduled the nights on my calendar and got to work. By the start of that Winter my classroom time was done, and my project was complete. When the Spring came along, I would be on the training schedule.
Over that Winter I had a discussion with the training director. I told her that I was only interested in lifting the level of training in the Council, and in helping her get more women trained to be trainers. Once that was the case, I would step away from the process.
Over the course of the next five years, I taught many classes. At the time I estimated that over 600 women had taken one or both of the two-part sessions. I always scored well with the evaluations from those in my class. At the start of each class, I told my class members that my goal was to help them to be more comfortable in the outdoors, to de-mystify some of the camp skills, and to make sure that they and the girls they led had enjoyable experiences they would want to repeat.
Some of the women who took the classes were very experienced as campers, and as Girl Scouts. I encouraged them to become trainers like myself. Some did, and the ranks of women who were qualified Outdoor trainers grew.
In the fall of 2000 I was a trainer for the weekend known as “Sink or Swim”. That weekend is set aside for all new and returning leaders to catch up on any training they may need to be successful. I had attended, and been a trainer at this event every year that I was a trainer. That weekend I trained both classes twice – once on Friday, and once on Saturday. On Saturday evening the training director (who had changed since I had started), and I were looking at evaluations. Once again, the evaluations that my training partners and I had for our classes were terrific. But, there in the overall evaluations of the weekend was one that left me sour.
A woman who had been in the campground for the weekend, but had not taken my class (we knew because she signed her evaluation and was not on any of my rosters), spent quite a lot of ink lambasting the idea that a “man” was out there teaching women. Without any knowledge of how I taught the class, or what those who took it thought, she assumed that I must be there to help these helpless women along. I was crushed. It wasn’t the first time that such a reference was made about me at an event. A few times earlier similar comments were leveled in my direction. Each time they stung. While sitting at the edge of a campfire on this particular night, sipping a cup of friendship tea, I had a conversation with the director. I was tired from two hard days of training, and my feelings were deeply hurt by such a rude, thoughtless person’s comments. This wasn’t a constructive set of thoughts on how I, or the course I taught could be better, it was personal.
The director and I talked for a long time. I reflected back on what I had told her predecessor some five years before about my goals. By this time there was a full roster of qualified, trained, excellent outdoor instructors. So, true to my word, I told her that my time was done as a trainer.
In my next post I will tell you about the important life lessons I learned as a Girl Scout trainer.