What Are We Forgetting?

When it comes to selecting staff and volunteers, more often than not the list of ideal skills and traits is supplanted by the reality of who we determine has enough of what we’re looking for to be “trainable,” and who will accept the job for what we’re able to offer. This is a less-than-ideal situation, and I personally have experienced both pleasant surprises and significant disappointments, resulting in someone quitting or being terminated, and the cycle starting again. As much as we would like to believe the reason for individuals not working out is a “them” problem (i.e., not enough skill, commitment, or passion), the reality is that all too frequently staffing decisions are based on one set of skills and traits, and we forget another set that is essential for anyone teaching or coaching young people.

Let’s look at the “typical” selection criteria for someone who will be instructing, coaching, or supervising a youth program. First, we all want someone who has had experience working with kids. Basically, we want an individual who can manage challenging behavior and not do any physical or emotional harm to the children. After that, we want staff members who are knowledgeable in the focus area of the program. Want someone to coach softball? Find someone with softball or baseball experience. Need an art instructor? Look for someone who is good at crafts or studies the arts. While at first blush this approach makes sense, it is based on a fundamentally flawed assumption that just because someone has a skill set and is good with kids that person can meaningfully impart knowledge.

Back To School

Rarely do I encourage out-of-school youth programs to look at their classroom counterparts for guidance, but in this case traditional schools are hip to a concept that many of us fail to recognize. What are we missing, you ask? What we so often forget to consider during the hiring process, or in staff training, is what Lee Shulman coined (http://www.leeshulman.net/biography) and educators refer to as pedagogical content knowledge (PCK).

So, what exactly is this concept, and why is it important for park and rec programs? Before I answer that question, let’s revisit the two kinds of knowledge that we typically look for. The first is pedagogical knowledge. In a classroom, this term refers to knowledge and skill in teaching information to others. In park and rec programs, it’s both the ability to instruct and the ability to relate/connect with youth in a meaningful way and also supports their development across multiple domains. The second area we look for is referred to as content knowledge—activity-specific skills and knowledge.

What’s That Got To Do With Me?

Let’s imagine we’re looking to find a basketball instructor/counselor for a day camp. Typically, we want someone who has some experience working with youth and also playing and ideally coaching basketball. A candidate who had never worked with children would be less desirable because the ability to maintain a safe and positive environment would be an unknown. At the same time, someone who has never picked up a basketball wouldn’t have the content knowledge necessary to lead a team. Find someone who has played a lot of ball and worked with children, and you have yourself a winner! Or do you?

Suppose you find that seemingly perfect fit named Josh. Josh worked for several summers as a camp counselor and played basketball in high school. Certainly he appears to be a great fit for your U8 boys coaching vacancy. But does he have the skills or ability to make his basketball knowledge accessible and relevant to 6- and 7-year-olds? The ability to teach/coach and effectively impart new knowledge or skills is PCK.

Let’s follow our hypothetical new coach to his first practice. If he is similar to one youth basketball coach that I employed, he might arrive at the first practice with a whistle around his neck, a mesh bag of properly inflated basketballs, pennies, and a 25-page photocopied playbook (most likely the same one his high school coach gave him). Our well-intended and highly motivated coach is about to present information that is so far beyond what a typical 6- or 7-year-old is capable of assimilating that he’s doomed to fail before he even gets started.

What’s Next?

I recognize that it is not uncommon for someone who has both content knowledge and pedagogical knowledge to have developed PCK along the way, but it is far from a given. The good news is that a prospect can be evaluated for PCK during an interview and that skill can be improved with practice.

Now let’s look at a hypothetical interview and some of the questions that can help you get a handle on someone’s PCK. How well can the candidate customize and scale his or her (likely expert) knowledge to help a more novice learner interact and ultimately improve understanding or skills? Questions like, “Have you ever taught/coached basketball before?” may be a fine starting point, but there isn’t much information available to assess how successful that person will be at imparting knowledge. Better suggestions would be, “Can you describe your expectations for players from the beginning to the end of the season?” or “What would I expect if I was a player on your team from the first practice to the first game?” Those responses will give you much better answers as to how the prospective staff member is able to make that understanding accessible to youth.

Finally, think about that current staff member or volunteer who is lacking the PCK your program necessitates. Fear not, for in most cases, with a little training and coaching, you will likely see significant improvement. The first step is simply to share with the individual, in whatever manner you see fit, the idea that being an expert in a specific activity or knowing how to work with kids does not equate to successfully sharing that knowledge. In my experience, this first step is the most difficult, and after the individual recognizes the need for improvement, he or she typically is open to ideas, discussions, or training to become more successful. After all, most of the people who choose to work in park and rec programs do so because they want to have a positive impact on young people (certainly not for the monetary rewards), and if they see value in what you are offering, they will be more than willing to embrace new ideas or suggestions. Regardless of where you and your staff are currently, being mindful of PCK and working to increase staff members’ competence in that area will take your youth programs to another level.

Dr. Zachary Mural is a professional educator and youth-development professional with more than 20 years of experience. He holds a Ph.D. in Educational Psychology and Technology and a M.A. in Youth Development, and is currently the CEO of Youth Development Consulting, Regional Director of Private Schools for Minnieland Academy in Manassas, Va., and an Expert Online Training faculty member. Reach him at zach@youthdevelopmentconsulting.com.