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Professional development is money in the bank for youth-serving organizations

By Nancy Hegland

High-quality youth development programs rely on staff and volunteers to deliver programs that meet an identified need in the community. To do their work well, youth workers need high-quality professional development. But options are sometimes limited by funding, time and availability. We need to overcome these obstacles to ensure that youth workers get the professional development they need to keep programs valuable to the communities they serve.

Research has shown that it pays off in the form of:
  • staff retention
  • improved health and safety
  • reduced stress
  • leadership succession
  • improved program quality
  • reduced hiring and orientation costs
  • improved job satisfaction
  • faster more successful organizational change

Professional development also tends to improve teamwork, increase networks and improve work outcomes. As the need for professional development has increased, delivery methods have changed dramatically. There are traditional conferences, workshops, and coaching/mentoring that work well for certain topics and audiences. We have also added online education, discussion boards, communities of practice, blogs and personal learning environments. Online education is becoming very common; it offers learning on a focused topic and is available no matter where you live.

We know that professional development is beneficial and can be delivered in a variety of settings, but to be effective, there are some key elements that need to be included:
  • Presenting background information, theory, philosophy, and values of the program or practice to staff
  • Introduce and demonstrate important aspects of the new practice or skill
  • Provide opportunities to practice new skills and receive feedback
  • Provide ongoing support and follow up training
  • Allow sufficient time for training
Are these elements included in your next professional development offering? How can you build them into future online education or face to face training? Our center is offering an internal training for educators next month that incorporates these five elements; I'm looking forward to hearing feedback on how it worked for the trainers and participants.

When I started my career in Extension, I found the national conferences to be the best opportunities for me to learn and to network with others. It was always a week that re-energized me for the rest of the year and gave me many memories. As my role changed and I gained experience, my needs for professional development have changed. My options for accessing it have also changed.

As I have had time to reflect on the 2014 NAE4-HA Conference held here in Minnesota recently, I am once again re-energized. I am also excited that our organization is committed to adding virtual professional development offerings on a regular basis. Members will have more options for professional development, which will strengthen our youth programs. It is a wise investment that will return dividends to youth serving organizations in the future.

-- Nancy Hegland, Extension program leader, Youth Development

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  1. Thanks Nancy for your thoughtful comments about professional development for staff and volunteers in youth work. I believe individuals bear responsibility in seeking out professional development offerings, but it just makes sense for organizations to invest in quality professional development to grow staff skills and knowledge. Thank you for writing about this topic and leading our organization in this area.

  2. Thanks for your comments Melissa! It is important to provide professional development, however I agree that individuals do need to seek out offerings that will benefit them. What have been some of the best professional development opportunities that you have attended? As a supervisor, I am always seeking to learn more about what it available and can benefit staff in their development.

  3. I find immersion the most meaningful professional development for me. As I am changing offices, I'm rediscovering many resources where I was immersed in the learning and those are the ones that I have operationalized in my work. I prefer in depth and challenging development opportunities...just my style I guess! :)

  4. “You will be the same person in five years as you are today except for the people you meet and the books you read.”
    That has to be one of my favorite quotes. When looking for opportunities for my professional development I often turn to the internet. We need to consider the experience of the educator and the quality of the material not just the ease of access. I appreciate the level of quality control associations have.
    I also appreciate how connecting with a group of similar minded colleagues through regional, statewide or national conferences can have larger impact than learning a few new skills. I've met national colleagues that challenge my thoughts, provide new insights as well as teach their content.
    In my opinion the coaching/mentoring is just as important as the content. Do you agree?

  5. Melissa, It is a good reminder that people prefer different types of professional development experiences, I appreciated hearing that you like in depth learning opportunities, as it makes me think about future staff and professional development offerings that we either provide through our organization, seek to partner with others, and recommend to our staff. The staff development team is also exploring piloting a Leadership Academy for staff, which would model the NELD program, which is hosted by the University of Minnesota. What do you think of this idea? Do you think that program staff would benefit from this type of experience?

  6. Mark, Thanks for your comments. I appreciate you sharing this quote, as we can learn so much from networking and reading. It is also great to hear the connection with colleagues from throughout the country is critical to your own development. I am working with others on a national level to explore updates to the 4-H PRKC. Through this experience, I have learned about their roles, state, and benefited from their wisdom. It has also been beneficial to see how our work in MN is influencing other states thinking about youth development.
    I do believe that coaching/mentoring can be beneficial, if you are connecting with the right people. When I first started in Extension, I was assigned a mentor, who was wonderful to connect with and learn from his experiences. We met regularly and it worked well. I am also aware that if your mentor is assigned to you, it may not work as well as it did in my situation. As I work with new staff, I try to provide some options for individuals who both known for their work in a specific area (i.e., STEM, Animal Science, Supervision) and are known for the quality of their work. I hope people will talk with a variety of individuals and decide who will work best with them.
    What qualities do you seek in a mentor/coach? How do you work with others to decide on a coach?
    Do you think the key elements of professional development can be incorporated into a mentor program? If so, how do you see this working?

  7. Nancy, thanks for this article. I think it would be interesting to see if there was a tool to help staff identify what kind of staff development works for them. Some sort of inventory to help direct (especially a new staff) their staff development path. I wonder what research says about different generations and what kind of way they like to learn.

  8. The staff development team has talked about what types of staff and professional development work for different individuals. We are in the process of sharing a staff development calendar with the offerings and the time to take it during your career. As a supervisor, it is important to have the discussion with staff to explore the best methods for each person. We did have great response to the PRKC self assessment last fall and it would be wise to have a tool that could be used to help individuals match up their needs with what is offered not only locally, however through distance education.
    The research does indicate that different generations learn differently and we need to explore ways to provide training in a variety of methods. What do you think about the key elements that should be included in all professional development offerings?

  9. Some of the best professional development opportunities I have had in the past have been done with the colleagues I work closely with. We cannot underestimate the power of building positive relationships with those we work closely with, especially in today's age when collaboration happens so much via the internet. Having events where staff can be challenged together in new environments (outside of the 4-H bubble) would be an interesting thing to consider, and it doesn't have to be big and profound. Sometimes the best experience is simple and right around us.

  10. Thanks for your comments Jeremy! I agree that it is helpful to have "like" experiences with colleagues, as you develop your skills and competencies. I appreciate your comment about working with others who can challenge your current way of thinking, as well as share their wisdom and insight. Do you have some ideas on what could work in this area? The staff development team is open to hearing your thoughts and ideas.


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