My scoutmaster was a great guy. He was tired a lot because he would come straight from work, stay with us for a couple hours, and then head home afterwards. When I first met him he appeared gruff, strict, knowledgeable, and no-nonsense. He loved camping. He was a “get it done, boys” kind of leader, setting up his own tent and getting his coffee on the fire. When he said lights out…it was lights out!
Even though I was a kid in the 80’s, I still vividly remember my scoutmaster conferences. They started off pretty rough. In the beginning, when I finished all my rank requirements, I would hand him my Scoutbook. He’d grunt…then he would start asking me questions on the requirements I had already passed. He asked me to demonstrate some skills he thought was most important about the rank. I’d say this describes the process between us for the first couple ranks.
But then something started to change.
As time went on we got to know each other better. He knew stuff about me that I didn’t think he noticed. He knew what motivated me. He knew what was hard for me. He knew when to let me go and fail. But he always instructed me to reflect on how I could make something better next time. He was more funny, sarcastic, and friendly as time went on and I advanced. By the time I made Eagle Scout he was as proud of me as my dad. He was proud of all his eagles that way.
Did my scoutmaster employ a perfect “by the book” conference? Nope… not by a long shot. But there are a lot of great nuggets to discover by this example. Add some training insights in the mix and you’ve got a recipe for a timeless format for scoutmaster conferences that will work for most young scouts today.
- Attendees: A scoutmaster conference is usually the scout and scoutmaster, but parents/legal guardians can request them too.
- Timing: Scoutmaster conferences can come any time. It can be requested by the scout, parent(s) or scoutmaster. It doesn’t have to occur when all the rank requirements are done. It can be scheduled whenever one of the three feels like something needs to be worked out. It can also be done multiple times a rank. It all depends on the situation.
- Location: These definitely need to be in a public place to keep within Youth Protection Training guidelines. They also need to be off to the side where you can have some privacy of conversation.
- Confidentiality: As a scoutmaster, you may hear some pretty funny stuff coming out of your scout’s mouth! And then you may hear some stuff which could be very personal, private, or scary…basically, content that needs to be followed up with the appropriate people (Youth Protection Training covers this). To the point: if your scout catches you chit-chatting about what was said in the scoutmaster conference then you will surely have some trust issues to mend with that scout.
- Intent: The scoutmaster conference is supposed to be a checkup of how the scout is doing in the patrol, troop, or unit. It’s the “how are things going” or “I noticed… ” type of chit-chat. The requirements have been passed so there shouldn’t be a retest here. In fact, not all the requirements may be done since it could happen at any time.
- Expectation Setting: This is a reset of expectations from the last scoutmaster conference. This shows you are expecting to have the scout follow-up on any outstanding conversations which previously happened. This is also where new expectations moving forward are discussed and agreed upon by all parties.
- Tone: Baden Powell has been quoted to say “A fisherman does not bait his hook with food he likes. He uses food the fish likes. So with boys.” Coming in grumpy without cause is sure to detract from being successful. There is a time for seriousness but never meanness. My scoutmaster was never mean. He was a bit rough but never mean. This is a time the scoutmaster has a chance to make a difference with this particular scout. Most scoutmasters cherish this time. Some delegate this responsibility off to others. And this leads me to my last point…
- Direction: To keep the troop/unit direction consistent, the scoutmaster should do the scoutmaster conference. That is the benefit, privilege and duty of being the scoutmaster. It’s awfully hard to keep a solid direction of the troop focused when other people than the scoutmaster conduct the scoutmaster conferences. It’s nearly impossible to convey the same things in the same way with multiple people leading these meetings. Troops with really big numbers may need to have to delegate this to assistant scoutmasters just out of time concerns. Those scoutmaster delegate(s) should be in absolute lockstep with the scoutmaster in the direction of the troop. There may be times where a scout has a better relationship with an assistant scoutmaster and that’s ok. That assistant scoutmaster and the scoutmaster should confer over it. That doesn’t change the fact that the scoutmaster is the one who has to see how the wind is blowing and a scoutmaster conference is how s/he measures it. I would recommend not to short your scoutmaster by taking that away or diluting it.
I do believe that my scoutmaster conferences closer to Eagle Scout were more like these 8 points than my first couple of conferences. Since my scoutmaster was very aware of who I was in the beginning and that by seeing me mature he was able to help properly set or reset direction when needed. Our conversations turned more into advisor sessions as we got to know each other and time passed. My wish is that if you are reading this I hope that there is something here which will improve your scoutmaster conferences. Good luck out there scouters!
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The author, Tony Zizak, is a long time scouter, Eagle Scout, and a scoutmaster. He has been to scout camps across the country and was a certified Program Director, Aquatics Director and a Scoutcraft Director. As a youth Tony received his Vigil Honor and served as a Lodge Chief for Tseyedin Lodge #65. Reach out to him for any questions you may have on this article.