A Scoutmaster has many responsibilities. BSA does a pretty good job outlining most of them here and they include holding meetings, training scouts, supervising camp outs, etc. Mentoring the SPL is not listed as a specific responsibility. I’m sure BSA would contend that monitoring the SPL is implied in several of their listed Scoutmaster responsibilities (train the scouts, etc.) But I think mentoring the SPL is a top Scoutmaster responsibility and should be the first one listed in any job description.
Through several trial-and-errors, I seemed to have developed a decent process for mentoring my SPLs. I never considered it that formal until I sat down to write this blog post. And my recommendations are more formal here than I actually implemented with my SPLs. But I hope that you can massage as needed and add your own flavors where appropriate.
Step 1 – Meet with the new SPL and their parent(s). I tended to have the SPL and at least one parent to my house for pizza or burgers to discuss what the SPL’s responsibilities are at the very beginning of their term (our troop uses a 6-month term). Key points to make:
- Parents play a vital role in supporting their son as SPL. But that doesn’t mean they should interfere during, or even show up for, Troop activities. This is a chance for the SPL to be independent and show leadership. If mom or dad is running interference, the SPL’s authority will be undermined. The SPL job takes a lot of time so other responsibilities and activities have to be scaled accordingly. Parents should realize that, as the leader of the troop, the Scoutmaster and SPL will have continuous and in-depth discussions about each scout in the troop and, occasionally, even some scouts’ personal or family situations. The SPLs parents are entitled to know about those discussions but aren’t required to know. We come to an understanding about how involved they want be. [BSA Rules of Youth Protection are always observed.]
- As SPL you must lead all scouts, even your friends. This is one of the hardest parts of being an SPL. Friends always, intentionally or otherwise, take advantage of friendships when possible. Be fair and insist that your friends respect your decisions.
- Your job isn’t to be a prefect SPL; it is to be a better SPL at the end of your term than you were at the beginning. You accomplish that by making Patrol Leaders better at their job at the end than at the beginning. Your success is best gauged by how well your Patrol Leaders perform.
- If the Scoutmaster makes a suggestion, you should consider it. If another leader makes a suggestion, it is totally your call whether to even consider it. You are only required to obey the Scoutmaster and adult leaders on issues of safety or discipline. (Our troop has many great leaders but a new SPL will twist in the wind if required to satiate all adult leader’s desire to guide; to do so would also encourage adult intrusiveness.)
- You must maintain confidentiality. I discussed many matters with my SPLs that were best to have a limited audience. Topic included discipline, occasional family challenges of individual scouts where I deemed appropriate, and occasional issues with parents/adult leaders who were being intrusive. More sensitive issues were handled between the Scoutmaster and Committee Chair. Common sense and confidence in the SPL’s judgement dictate which path to take.
- Patrol Leaders maintain discipline and make the troop effective – you don’t. Your job is to train and support the Patrol Leaders.
Beyond this first parent-and-SPL meeting, I found that a few keywords whispered quietly to the SPL during the throws of running scout activities were effective in reminding him of important advice that had been previously discussed.
“PATROL LEADERS” – this keyword says to the SPL “You don’t run the troop – no one does. Patrol Leaders run their patrols. If the patrols work, the troop works.” I would say these two words any time the SPL was shouting for the entire troop to come to attention or otherwise stepping on the Patrol Leaders’ responsibility.
“HOVER” – this concept is natural to some SPLs, and a big struggle for others. It means to roam clandestinely around the room/camp/whatever and listen to what is happening in the patrols. Try to figure out if they are struggling, etc. Some SPLs tend to assume everything is going well and they get lost in socializing with their friends while patrol activities fall apart. “HOVER” means to forget your friends for the moment and pay attention to what is going on without being intrusive.
“YOU GOT IT” – it means to make a decision. The worst decision is no decision. It usually matters little what an SPL decides to do – any path they take can work if they give clear direction and follow through on what they decide. In the best scenario, the first half of an SPLs term has me telling them “YOU GOT IT” with decreasing frequency – then the second half has them telling me “I GOT IT” with increasing frequency.
“SCOUTS ONLY” – a keyword to remind the SPL that Scouts is boy-led and an indicator that an adult is overstepping his bounds in contributing. I like the SPL to deal with those situations with me as a backup. I find that most adults appreciate the SPL dealing with it too and will take measure of their intrusion with just a slight hint from the SPL.
“SIGN ONLY” – one of my biggest pet peeve’s in Scouting is when someone (usually an adult) yell’s “Signs up!” Issued as a reprimand to unruly scouts (or chatty adults) it is a horrible habit. It empowers unruly scouts by letting them know they can get the attention of leaders any time they want. The way to get the troop’s attention is for the SPL to stand up straight with a perfect Scout Sign and stare into space for as long as it takes for the troop to come to attention – what I call “Sign Only.” NEVER chastise the troop for not coming to attention. Just wait them out. A leader’s patience is the best source of his authority. It won’t take long until the troop learns there is no way to move forward until they respect the SPL and that there is no way to get under his skin. It works. If a problem persists, it will usually be because two scouts are standing next to each other and continue to whisper. Have an older scout very deliberately stand between them without making eye contact or offering commentary. Then have their patrol leader speak to them individually – not before the entire troop. DON’T REWARD DISCIPLINE ISSUES WITH ATTENTION!