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Issue 435 – March 3, 2015

Dear Andy,

While at the Philmont Training Center for a week-long session on advancement a few years ago—which overall was very good—we spent part of one day talking about getting a new Scout to First Class in his first year. This topic keeps coming up. I understand that somewhere it’s written that making First Class in one year increases retention. But, to be completely candid, I’ve never seen a Scout accomplish this. It’s usually two; sometimes more. But we’re being told this, with no clear explanation as to why the National Advancement Team keeps pushing to get a Scout to First Class in one year.

When a Scout gets to First Class so quickly, what happens to him at
that point? It would appear that, if a troop has a weak program, this Scout (probably even if he didn’t get First Class) can get bored
and be gone. So how does a troop retain a Scout and keep him interested if he gets to First Class so quickly? (Chet Wickett, District Advancement Chair, Connecticut Yankee Council)

Many strands interweave to make up the fabric of the Scouting experience. While “advancement” is one of these, it is just one of eight; it’s not the only one, nor is it even the most important. The eight methods of Scouting are the Ideals, the Patrol Method, the Outdoor Experience, Advancement, Adult Associations, Personal Growth, Leadership Development, and the Uniform.

Advancement, the SCOUT HANDBOOK emphasizes, is always AT THE SCOUT’S OWN PACE. He’s in charge of his own advancement destiny…always. When a Scout advances in rank and by completing merit badges, he grows in knowledge, skills, and–perhaps most important–a sense of self-confidence and competence. He’s “prepared for anything”!

PROGRAM PRODUCES PARTICIPANTS. When a troop’s overall program is interesting, engaging, full of adventure, varied, and challenging, Scouts stay Scouts for as long as they can! The purpose of advancement isn’t to “keep Scouts in the program.” PROGRAM QUALITY and VITALITY keeps Scouts!

When a Scout achieves First Class rank, he’s mastered all of the skills and knowledge necessary to camp, hike, backpack, handle emergencies, and begun to lead his fellow Scouts. If a Scout accomplishes all that’s required to be First Class in his first year in the program, he’ll be competent–for the next six years!–to do anything, go anywhere, and have FUN, ADVENTURE, and CHALLENGES in the out-of-doors with his fellow patrol members and with the patrols of his troop.

When we artificially attempt to “hold Scouts back” from “advancing too fast,” we’re interfering with the intent of the Scouting program. When we use this “slowing down” as a way to “keep Scouts in the program,” we’re incorrectly overriding what his handbook told him he can do: Advance at his own pace, based on his own ambitions for himself.

“Oh, but still being 11 years old means a boy doesn’t have the ‘maturity’ to be a First Class Scout,” some will say. To which the response is: Show me a written requirement that says “be mature.” The cold fact is that, if a Scout has completed the stated requirements AS WRITTEN, he’s earned the rank and nobody–nobody!–has the right or the authority to deny him.

Conversely, troops aren’t in the “advancement business.” Troop programs aren’t built around the notion of “go on this camp-out and earn…” or “show up for this service project and ‘get hours’…” Troop programs are built around the broader aims of Scouting: To instill precepts of responsible citizenship, character development, and mental and physical growth. The primary “tool” of the Scouting program is the OUTDOOR EXPERIENCE.

When a Scout makes it to First Class in a year, he’s been ACTIVE! He’s gone on at least ten different troop or patrol activities (beyond mere meetings–which are supposed to focus on preparation for outdoor adventures, by the way) at least three of which are in the out-of-doors (hiking, camping, etc.). And he’s learned what knots to use for what tasks, how to navigate with map-and-compass, basic first aid, and a whole bunch of other great stuff! And he’s developed some important skills, like swimming, water rescuing, outdoor cooking, thrift, using the Buddy System, safe hiking, and the list goes on!

Let’s use the public education system as a way to reinforce the point here… Suppose your own son’s school told parents, “Fundamental Spanish can be learned in two semesters, but we’re going to stretch this out to six semesters…” or, “We’re not going to offer AP courses anymore, so that all students learn at exactly the same pace, regardless of individual capacities for learning.” Would this be acceptable to you or—more importantly—to your son?

So, back to your question: How does a troop retain a Scout and keep him interested? The answer’s pretty straightforward: Encourage the Patrol Leaders Council to constantly come up with new, fresh ideas for trips and outings that interest their patrol members and keep ’em coming back for more!

Thanks, Andy. I like what you said but I think the obstacle here is the limited knowledge of the Scoutmaster and what he or she is willing to actually do. Some of the ideas you mentioned would scare the heck out of a Scoutmaster who either hasn’t done the work himself, and so hasn’t sufficient knowledge to pass on to the Scouts (and maybe too embarrassed to ask for help). Consequently, many troops do the same things, year after year. Now I know I may be putting the onus on adult leaders, but I seldom see imagination on their parts—they each live in their own comfort zones. (Chet)

No Scoutmaster (or even ASM, for that matter) need have any concerns about “knowledge and skills,” except in the department of coaching and mentoring the troop’s Top Dog—the Senior Patrol Leader—and the troop’s Patrol Leaders. They simply need to stick to one of the most important things Scouting’s supposed to be all about: peer-to-peer skills training. Scouts teach other Scouts! There are even a few requirements directly aimed at this (e.g., First Class 4e: “Supervise your assistant(s)…” and Life 6: “…use the E.D.G.E method…”). And there are others, as well. For instance, Tenderfoot 11 says, “Identify local poisonous plants,” but it doesn’t say these can’t be shown or described to a Scout who’s more recently joined the troop, on his first hike in the woods. Or Second Class 3c: “Demonstrate proper care, sharpening, and use of the knife, saw, and ax…” Again, couldn’t this be Scout-to-Scout? In fact, wouldn’t it be EVEN BETTER if it were Scout to Scout?!

No one expects a Scoutmaster to be a reincarnated Daniel Boone or Kit Carson. We do expect him or her to take position-specific training, including Outdoor Leadership Skills, but there’s no expectation that a Scoutmaster is the next “MacGyver-of-the-woods”!

Where the leaders—the youth leaders, that is—of the troop need the most help is in learning and using leadership skills, so their patrols and the troop as a whole functions efficiently and happily, with every Scout pulling his weight. When a Scoutmaster focuses on being coach-and-mentor, a successful, happy troop will follow!

Okay, Andy, I’m starting to get it. I’ll be the advancement instructor at our council’s upcoming University of Scouting, which I’m very happy to do! But “Why and How to Get a Scout to First Class in One Year” is in the syllabus, and I’ve been struggling with this, so your insights are a help and very much appreciated. Any other thoughts, as long as we’re still talking here? (Chet)

You bet! If you step back and take a look at the larger picture—that of giving Scouts opportunities to advance, rather that pouring it into the tops of their heads, and realize that no one actually “gets” a Scout to First Class, troops will have better year-round programs and Scouts will be happier for it.

Baden-Powell put it this way: “Advancement is like a suntan—It’s something that happens naturally when you’re having fun in the out-of-doors!”

So what can a troop do to provide the opportunities? There are lots of ways, and most are pretty simple. Here’s one: Instead of adults planning the menus and buying to food for the troop, put menu planning and food buying where it belongs: with each individual patrol. Here’s another: Hike and camp in uniforms because Scouts behave more like scouts when they’re in uniform!

Here’s another: Get rid of those tents that can be set up entirely with flexi-poles and, instead, have tents with tent lines that require staking and knowledge of which knots to use. Another: Scouts bring their cell phones and use the compass app to go cross-country on pre-established lines of hiking (the PLC goes out a week in advance and sets up the coordinates and distances). Plan a swimming event and get your Scouts in the water (quietly do the “swim test” but not on a ‘pass-fail” basis; instead, encourage those who need improvement by having a registered Swimming MBC along on the trip (but don’t announce this–he’s just “a guest for the weekend). Learn “Moulage” to create situations where patrols have to respond to an injury—but DON’T tell ’em they’re completing a requirement. And more: Have flag ceremonies on camp-outs and establish a “spirit patrol” and a “service patrol” with self-evident duties; then rotate these patrol assignments.

In short, get out there and have some Scouting fun, and advancement will take care of itself!

In your training session, facilitate an open discussion of these and ideas from your participants on how to support the advancement process without getting all lathered up about it or dangling “advancement carrots” for the Scouts to come along and have fun!

Think about it: When Scouts have the fun of building a “monkey bridge” or “signal tower,” how many knots and lashings will they learn along the way!

When you approach “advancement” this way, instead of offering some sort of “Scout school,” you’re aiming at Scouting’s True North!
Dear Andy,

Where can I take my old American flags that I’ve retired? I want them taken care of properly. (Gail, Apache Junction, AZ)

You don’t have to take it anywhere. You can do this yourself. In fact, make a little family ceremony out of it on perhaps Memorial Day, Flag Day, Independence Day, Veterans Day… The flag can be burned on your outdoor grill (if it’s nylon, beware drippings that stick to the grill) or on a small “pyre” of charcoal laid over several sheets of aluminum foil (but over dirt or gravel; not grass or driveway blacktop).

Here’s what the VFW has to say…
1. The flag should be folded in its customary manner.
2. It is important that the fire be fairly large and of sufficient intensity to ensure complete burning of the flag.
3. Place the flag on the fire.
4. The individual(s) can come to attention, salute the flag, recite the Pledge of Allegiance and have a brief period of silent reflection.
5. After the flag is completely consumed, the fire should then be safely extinguished and the ashes buried.
6. Please make sure you are conforming to local/state fire codes or ordinances.
Dear Andy,

Do you happen know the training code for an older Scoutmaster training course called “Cornerstone,” which I took back in 1973? Seems that today, nobody’s heard of it. On the list of BSA training codes, there’s no listing for Cornerstone. I have a Cornerstone Guide and also the Coach/Counselor Training Manual (both are official BSA publications), so I know for sure it really did exist at one time.

I’m asking because, during our troop’s re-chartering process, several of us were flagged for “not fully trained,” and I’m trying to clear up the records and make sure we get credit for what we did. As it happens, in 1981 I also completed another training course, this one titled, “Scout Leader Development,” and that one isn’t listed in the training codes either, even though course modules correspond to S01 through S06 in the current training codes.

I also completed Wood Badge in 1981, and, luckily, can find that one in the training code list, but I’m having trouble with the council folks who want “verification.” Any ideas? (Rick Baldessari, Golden, CO)

If you completed Wood Badge (What’s your “critter”? “I used to be an Owl…”), that alone should give you a “bye” on all lower-level courses especially including Scoutmaster position-specific training of any name. Just show your necker, woggle, and wood badge to your district or council training chair (or registrar, if necessary) and that should be the end of the matter. (Maybe they’ll ask you to sing “The Gilwell Song”…).
Dear Andy,

Despite 35 years as a Scouting volunteer, I’ve never encountered this sort of problem before, so maybe you can help me…

My grandson, a 15 year-old Life Scout who’s “ABP” (“All But Project”) for Eagle and is very active in his troop and he’ll be going to the next Jamboree. He’s written up his Project Proposal and submitted it to his Scoutmaster for the first round of signatures, but his Scoutmaster refused to sign off on it because, he says, my grandson “lacks Scout spirit,” Now it’s true that my grandson did get into trouble a couple of times this year (twice, to be literal), for which he subsequently apologized and has since moved forward. Can a Scoutmaster actually refuse to sign off on an Eagle Project Proposal under circumstances like this? (Marty)

Of course, I don’t know what “getting into trouble” means, but if your grandson’s been approved to attend the next Jamboree then I have to guess the “infractions” were pretty minor. Perhaps confirming my guess, since the standard Jamboree application process includes the Scoutmaster’s signature, it seems inconsistent at the least that his Scoutmaster would sign him off for a Jamboree and then hang him up on his project proposal on a vagary like “Scout spirit.”

What this Scoutmaster perhaps doesn’t quite understand is that the Eagle Scout Service Project provides an opportunity for the Scout to “demonstrate Scout spirit” in a very tangible fashion, and to demonstrate clearly that he “lives by the Scout Oath and Law.” If ever an opportunity presented itself for a Scout with any sort of “history” to prove he’s moved beyond this and has straightened himself out, THIS IS IT! Consequently, I’m urging you, or your grandson’s parent(s), to have a personal conversation with this Scoutmaster. Perhaps this might include sharing this email conversation we’re having. After all, we’re in the business of growing young men into responsible citizens; we’re not here to “punish” but to help young men find and stay aimed at Scouting’s True North.

If the conversation I’m suggesting fails to produce a signature, then it’s time to have a personal conversation with the troop’s Committee Chair. The third level, following this, would be the head of the chartered organization (aka sponsor). The fourth level is, of course, a heart-to-heart with the district advancement chair.

Happy Scouting!


Have a question? Facing a dilemma? Wondering where to find a BSA policy or guideline? Write to Please include your name and council. (If you’d prefer to be anonymous, if published, let me know and that’s what we’ll do.)

[No. 435 – 3/3/2015 – Copyright © Andy McCommish 2015]


About AskAndy

Andy is a Board Member of the U.S. Scouting Service Project, Inc.

Andy has just received notification by his council Scout Executive that he is to be recognized as a National Distinguished Eagle Scout. He is currently serving as a Unit Commissioner and his council's International Representative. He has previously served in a number of other Scouting roles including Assistant Council Commissioner, Cubmaster, Scoutmaster, Den Leader, and--as a Scout--Patrol Leader, Senior Patrol Leader, and Junior Assistant Scoutmaster. His awards include: Kashafa Iraqi Scouting Service Award, Distinguished Commissioner, Doctor of Commissioner Science, International Scouter Award, District Award of Merit (2), Scoutmaster Award of Merit, Scouter's Key (3), Daniel Carter Beard Masonic Scouter Award, Cliff Dochterman Rotarian Scouter Award, James E. West Fellow (2), Wood Badge & Sea Badge, and Eagle Scout & Explorer Silver Award.

Read Andy's full biography

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