10 things I learned staffing Wood Badge at Philmont

Just like your favorite film, Wood Badge is even better the second time around.

Last month, I served as a Troop Guide for Wood Badge course S2-571-13-3, known within the Dallas-based Circle Ten Council simply as Wood Badge 106.

Loyal blog readers will remember I had a mountaintop experience as a participant of Wood Badge 102 last summer at Philmont Scout Ranch. (Read my five-part recap here, and send to those who haven’t yet taken Wood Badge but should.)

But this time I was a Wood Badge staffer, again at a course held at Philmont. And this time I learned even more. Staffing Wood Badge is like having a backstage pass. From that new vantage point, you know what’s going to happen, how it happens and why it happens at that exact moment. That new perspective comes with a greater appreciation for why this is Scouting’s top training course for leaders.

I learned a lot more than I could put into one blog post, but I thought I’d share 10 lessons I learned staffing Wood Badge. If you’ve staffed, please share your own takeaways by leaving a comment. 

10. A Scouter’s creativity is limitless

It’s not spoiling the course to say that each Wood Badge patrol must participate in a project and present it to the group.

At WB106, the Bobwhite Patrol created one of the most innovative visual ways to show how all the Scouting programs work together.

You’ll see what I mean in the pictures below. The prop starts as a pinewood derby car, representing Cub Scouting. The wheels of the car are merit badges, for Boy Scouting. The car unfolds to become a V for Varsity Scouting, and it further unfolds to form the Silver Award, Venturing’s highest honor.

Big props to Emily Demarest and the rest of the Bobwhites for this creative prop.

WB106-8 WB106-9 WB106-21 WB106-22

9. A patrol full of Brians: cohesive, convenient

WB106-10Call it fate or simple luck, but the Beaver patrol at Wood Badge 106 had three members named Brian. (My alternate spelling must explain why I wasn’t their Troop Guide.)

The two non-Brians in the five-person patrol underwent temporary name changes for the week. Sherri became Brianna, and David became Brian David — they even had freshly reprinted nametags to show off their new monikers. The Beavers’ unified name helped them bond quickly and became a running joke for everyone.

And as for the rest of us, it sure made it easy to learn the Beavers’ names. Your odds of calling a Beaver the wrong name were zero.

8. The stages of team development are real

WB106-11If you’re not a believer in the four stages of team development — forming, storming, norming, performing — staff a Wood Badge course.

As a staffer you get to observe as patrols take that journey, each at a different rate. At our nightly staff meetings, we Troop Guides discussed our patrols’ current stage. The conversation was positive, healthy and judgment-free. It helped me see the importance of going through all four stages as a group of strangers becomes a high-performing team.

This all happens in just six days, and that accelerated process is intentional. The creators of Wood Badge have purposefully constructed the course to add stress at times and guide Scouters through each stage. Does that mean we, as staffers, actually wanted our patrols to clash, or storm? Yes. It sounds almost sadistic, but it isn’t. In actuality, that storming passion comes a more effective team. After all, “Out of the hottest fire comes the strongest steel.”

The takeaway to your home unit is pretty obvious. Your dens, patrols and crews won’t advance from one stage to another quite as quickly as a Wood Badge patrol will. That’s mainly because patrols don’t spend 18-hour days together for six days. But by allowing the natural progression, and stepping in to support when needed, you’ll see a real team blossom.

7. The Wood Badge creators are geniuses

WB106-14A magician never reveals his tricks, but if you staff a course, the secrets of Wood Badge magic will be revealed to you.

I’m talking about the Wood Badge course syllabus, with its detailed explanations of why each element of the course happens when it does. When I flipped through my copy way back in February, I found myself saying “ah-ha” frequently. My understanding of the course increased exponentially.

The course creators, to put it simply, were geniuses. Each element builds off the one before it. And, to build on my point in No. 8, the creators have intentionally crafted what I’m calling “a crescendo of stress” that tests nerves but builds character. I’m being vague so I don’t give away any of the methods here, but I will say that the creators give patrols too much to do and too little time in which to do it.

That’ll ramp up anyone’s stress level, but at Wood Badge, it’s done with purpose.

6. A chance to practice the patrol method

WB106-1The Senior Patrol Leader calls the troop to order, and the program patrol leads everyone in the Scout Oath and Scout Law. The troop guides explain the opening game and then sit back and let the patrols play. The Scoutmaster only leaves the back of the room once: for the Scoutmaster’s Minute at the end of the troop meeting.

Sound familiar? It should. That paragraph describes a unit employing Baden-Powell’s patrol method perfectly. It’s youth-led, and at Wood Badge, we don’t just learn about that troop method, we use it.

From my vantage point as a staffer, this became even clearer. On several occasions I saw our outstanding Scoutmaster, Debbie Sullivan, quietly chatting with our amazing Senior Patrol Leader, Ernie Carey. I noticed she resisted the urge to give the troop instructions, instead relaying them through Ernie when she needed to. But most of the time, she was able to sit back and watch the course she had spent years preparing for unfold beautifully. A well-run troop in action is one of the signatures of Wood Badge.

5. Games should have a purpose

WB106-12Pretty much all games are fun (though I’ve been in some Monopoly tussles that didn’t feel like it). In Scouting, games should also serve some sort of higher purpose.

Wood Badge demonstrates that well, and it provides Scouters with plenty of easy-to-run games they can take home with them.

Games in the Wood Badge syllabus showcase different leadership styles, test a person’s communication skills and challenge the ability of a patrol to execute a plan. Afterward, we were sure to leave time to reflect on what was learned.

4. Tradition matters

WB106-2The symbols of Wood Badge — beads, tartan neckerchief, ax and log, kudu horn, Gilwell Field — remind us that many have come before us. Even more will follow in our footsteps. Thinking that 100 years from now another group of Owls will be walking (or teleporting?) around Philmont gives me goosebumps.

In fact, you could say the same holds true for the 103-year-old Boy Scouts of America. Just like Wood Badge has evolved, so too has the BSA. But the traditions remain the same. Those physical symbols, like elements of the Scouting uniforms, have evolved but still have remnants of the originals.

My takeaway: Don’t let tradition box you in, but always honor those who led the way in past generations.

3. Philmont has still “got it”

WB106-17Philmont makes 75 years old look good.

Wood Badge shines anywhere, but taking the course at the Philmont Training Center in New Mexico amplifies the experience.

This was my eighth visit to Philmont, including two treks as a teen. Each time I find something new to appreciate. This year it was the Rayado Ridge Leadership Camp, a new facility that was our backcountry home during the course’s second half. Our Wood Badge course was the first to inhabit the camp, making it extra special.

Circle Ten Council is one of a handful of councils that offers Wood Badge at Philmont.

2. A generationally diverse group will soar

WB106-4Something amazing happened at the Wood Badge presentation called “Generations in Scouting.” As each generation was named, Scouters from that generation were asked to raise their hands.

That’s when I realized each member of my Bear patrol was from a different generation. Four Bears, four generations. What a great opportunity to see how someone who was born the year Bing Crosby’s Going My Way was released could work with someone born the year Forrest Gump won Best Picture.

I’m biased, yes, but I submit that the Bears were a perfect team. They embraced their diversity and turned their differences into advantages.

I won’t reveal who was from which generation, but I’ll just say that Craig, Judy, Ricky and Scott impressed me all week. Putting a 19-year-old and a 60-something in the same patrol turned out to be a recipe for success.

1. People make the difference

WB106-3Wood Badge, like the Scouting organization as a whole, is great on paper.

You can read the Wood Badge syllabus or the Boy Scout Handbook cover to cover, but without real human beings, each is merely kindling.

People provide the spark. So I want to thank everyone involved with Wood Badge 106, including my fellow staffers, the members of the Bear patrol and all of the participants, for being a part of an experience I’ll never forget.

During our monthly staff developments, in which we spent entire Saturdays indoors preparing for the week at Philmont, it was difficult at times to envision the actual course with actual participants. We practiced games with one another, presented in front of one another and painstakingly went through each day’s schedule line by line.

It was a little like sitting in a high school chemistry class. The explanation is important and necessary, but really you’re itching to move to the lab tables to try it out. Once Day 1 arrived, it was even better than I had imagined. And it’s the people that made it so.

Staffed Wood Badge? Do tell.

If you’ve staffed a course, answer me this: What did you get out of it as a staffer that you didn’t get as a participant? Share your experiences below.

Photos by Don Wendell. Yes, we’re related, and sharing this course with my dad was awesome.

About Bryan Wendell 3282 Articles
Bryan Wendell, an Eagle Scout, is the founder of Bryan on Scouting and a contributing writer.