Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Advice for New Extension Master Gardener Coordinators

Congratulations!  You've just been hired to coordinate the Extension Master Gardener Program in your county or region.  The work that you will do has the potential to make a real and positive difference in your community.  Master Gardeners help folks understand how to grow their own food, conserve natural resources, use gardens as living laboratories and natural classrooms, and much, much more.

I love working with Master Gardener volunteers and for Oregon State University Extension. However, I've recently been reminded of just how challenging it can be to coordinate an Extension Master Gardener Program.

To share a bit of my story, my first three months on the job (in 2007), I sincerely thought about quitting  . . . every . . . single . . . day.  Some days, I felt like I was being hazed, or at the very least, tested.
  • There was the time I was introduced at a local Master Gardener Association board meeting with a poem that read something like:  'The problem is, the old can't do what they know, and the young don't know what to do'.  
  • There were the whispers I heard in corners: 'Who does she think she is?!?  She's overstepping her bounds. She doesn't know what she's doing.'.  
  • There were the more direct confrontations (which I sincerely appreciated much more than the whispers in the corners), from folks who were upset that they were not consulted about my hire, and who demanded to see my credentials to make sure that I was qualified.
  • There was the time that some members of the Association that I was working with uninvited me to their meetings, and told me that I was not welcome to attend.
Ouch.  I'm not going to lie.  It all hurt.  I had moved cross country to take this position.  By myself.  I felt alone.  I felt small.  I felt a fool for giving up a great job that was much nearer to my family ~ to start a new life where I didn't seem to be welcomed.

Despite all of this, I can now say that I love the Master Gardener Program and the great work that University Extension and our volunteers do together.  We really do help to make the world a better place by gardening.

For example, in 2012, 400 people were surveyed about their experience with Master Gardener classes.  Folks reported that they have taken steps to attract beneficial insects into their garden (64%), are more tolerant of spiders in the garden (58%), planted a pest-resistant cultivar (71%), decreased or eliminated pesticide use (68%), disposed of a pesticide at a community hazardous waste removal event (54%), and are more tolerant of insect pests (58%) as a direct result of what they have learned in our classes. Still, in those early days, I could have used some advice on how to survive and thrive in a challenging position.

When I Googled 'advice for new Master Gardener coordinators', nothing came up that fit what I was looking for.  Thus, I thought I would write my own little advice column ~ to communicate those things I wish I would have known when I first started, or to share those things that have helped me to survive and thrive in my current position.

If you're a Master Gardener coordinator, please feel free to add your own advice in the comments.

1)  Know that you're not alone!:  I initially thought that the fact that there seemed to be so much discontent meant that I was a failure.  But then I started talking to others, and realized that my experience was fairly typical.  I've found the National Extension Master Gardener Coordinators Community to be particularly valuable for support and professional development.  They have a listserve, host a conference for Master Gardener coordinators (every even year), host monthly webinars on professional development topics, and much, much more!

Talk to your colleagues, and cultivate your support network ~ locally, regionally and nationally.  They can be great resources for information, advice and understanding.

2)  Not everyone thinks you're awful at everything!:  I also initially thought that I was doing a fantastic job of upsetting just about every volunteer that I worked with.  And then I realized that the discontent seemed to be coming from a very small portion of the volunteers that I worked with.  In fact ~ according to the feedback that I was getting from anonymous evaluations of my classes ~ most people seemed to think I added value to their education.  According to my annual reviews and peer evaluations of my efforts, I seemed to be doing a decent job.

Look for objective reviews of your work ~ to find those areas where you may improve and to celebrate those areas where you've had success.

3)  Stay mission-focused:  In Oregon, we have a mission for the Master Gardener Program, as well as for Oregon State University Extension.  Let your organizational mission(s) guide your activities, collaborations and decisions.  Not everyone will like every decision that you make. But, if you can get people to understand the importance of staying mission-focused (particularly where limited financial and human resources make it impossible to take on every good project) ~ folks may be able to understand that a decision they don't like isn't personal.  Decisions are being made using the mission as a guide.

Make sure you have a solid understanding of your organizational mission(s), and use the mission(s) as a guide when making decisions and when making long-term programmatic plans.

4)  Become familiar with 'Founder's Syndrome':  No matter the context or the organization, change is often difficult.  Professors Paula Huff and Sue Pleskac wrote a fantastic article on Founders Syndrome in Volunteer Organizations ~ what it is and how to approach the issue in a way that helps organizations move forward.  And, Dr. Huff was kind enough to give a webinar on Founders Syndrome to the Extension Master Gardener Coordinators in September 2013.  I think that this webinar should be required viewing for all new Master Gardener Coordinators!

Take time to view the webinar!  You won't be sorry.  [The content on Founder's Syndrome starts at around 5 minutes, if you want to fast forward.]

5)  Take time to listen and learn before making drastic changes:  Sometimes, drastic changes need to be made right away.  But, I was a new coordinator, coming from out of town, who had never worked in Extension before.  My personal rule for myself was to take 1 year to travel around the state (my position is a statewide position), listen and learn.  I wanted to give folks a chance to get to know me, and I wanted to get to know them and the program.  I **think** that taking this time helped folks to better trust me and my judgement.

Don't be shy.  Get involved.  Get to know people.  Develop an understanding of what is going on (and how long it has been going on), to see where you can celebrate established successes as well as where you can provide value.  

6)  Understand roles, policies, expectations:  The Extension Master Gardener Program is probably a program of your local Land-Grant Institution.  In Oregon, I am tasked with making sure that the Extension Master Gardener Program follows applicable policies and procedures of Oregon State University.  I also serve as, and work with, content experts in a variety of fields to ensure that our educational resources are up-to-date and research-based.  If a problem occurs in the Master Gardener Program, it ultimately falls at the feet of Oregon State University.  With ultimate responsibility for the program also comes ultimate authority.  This has sometimes created problems with the 501(c)3 that was founded to support the work of the Extension Master Gardener Program in Oregon.  There is sometimes confusion over roles and responsibilities.  I've tried to clarify this by writing out roles and responsibilities for the Extension Master Gardener program in Oregon (page 21 in this publication).  Nonetheless ~ issues still arise.

Help people to see that working with Extension has many benefits (e.g. access to high quality educational opportunities, and to local and statewide experts in the field) ~ but also comes with many responsibilities (e.g. insurance, legal, procedural) that must be followed. Once again ~ it's not personal.  

7)  Remember that You're AWESOME!:  This can be hard to remember, when it seems like you have someone telling you that you're not at all awesome.  But, you were likely hired after a rigorous and competitive search that involved University personnel, Master Gardeners and other stakeholders.  You were hired because you have a valuable and important set of well-developed skills that will serve the program well.  Be thoughtful about how you can leverage your skills to improve the program and to do the most good.  For myself ~ I eventually realized my training as a scientist could benefit the program.  I thus work hard to read the primary literature on a regular basis, and to update my talks to reflect the latest science.  I also realized that I needed to improve my leadership skills, and have worked hard to do so at every opportunity.

Don't let yourself get down.  Remember that YOU were hired for a reason.  YOU have important skills and can and will make important contributions to the program.

8)  Have a life outside of work:  Working in Extension can be all-consuming.  We often work outside of regular business hours.  We often take work home or work on the weekends.  Take the time to develop friendships, hobbies and fun outside of work.  This can be hard to do ~ but it is so incredibly important.  Because I love my job so much, I had a really bad habit of doing it all the time.  But my sister would always remind me that 'those folks at work won't be pushing you in your wheelchair when you get older.'  Over time, I've learned to draw a line in the sand.  I will not let my job negatively impact my marriage.  I will not let my job negatively impact my health.  And if I feel like my job is encroaching on one or both of those things, I take the time to re-orient my priorities.

Take time for you.  Do things you love.  Find friends, confidantes and hobbies outside of work.