By Joanne Robinett, MSA, SNS 2017-05-01 18:27:07
Plan now to make your annual back-to-school inservice match the excitement and energy of the start of the new academic year. BACK TO SCHOOL. Those three words can elicit a variety of emotions. For a parent, it might be relief or regret or both (with a little worry mixed in, given the many associated expenses of clothes and supplies). For students, there’s the reluctance to give up playtime, but there’s excitement, too, with a little trepidation about the change of classes and even schools. Teachers have a similar love/hate relationship that accompanies the end of vacation and the start of a new school year. These groups aren’t giving much thought to what’s happening in the department that provides the meals to everyone returning for another academic year. And yet, school meals are a constant that will be there on that first day when students arrive—happy, anxious, excited or reluctant; sporting new shoes or threadbare duds; on the yellow bus, a bike or on foot; having been kissed goodbye at home, in the drop-off lane or not at all. The dedicated providers of the often-overlooked-yet-essential-to-success school meals program will be there— and they will be ready. How does this group feel about the back-to-school season? Pretty much the same as everyone else. Anxious about challenges and changes. Enthusiastic to try new ideas learned at SNA’s Annual National Conference or state meetings or after catching up with a pile of School Nutrition issues. In the week before that first bell rings, school cafeteria staff have received initial food orders, tested equipment, cleaned everything and decorated the serving and dining areas. They’ve reached and stretched and kneeled and bent. Already they are tired. It is two more days before the students arrive. There’s still so much to do—and one of those days will be spent in an all-day meeting with peers from across the district to review rules, regs, procedures and protocols. The annual inservice day can set the tone for the weeks ahead. It can reinforce what everyone dreads about heading back to work and be an exercise in boredom. Or, it can be exactly what your staff needs at this critical time of the year. And what is it that these apron-wearing champions need, besides a muscle-relaxing soak in a hot bath? They need that first inservice meeting to be a mix of information, motivation and fun. Does your inservice day deliver that? THE INSERVICE MEETING MIX Back-to-school training days for school nutrition departments are inherently about business. You can’t afford to pay your team—small or large—for a day of play. But you can make it a day of infotainment. How do you achieve a balance and create a program agenda that engages your team in a way that will reinforce the positive anticipatory emotions associated with heading back to school? Let’s look at each component. Information. Inservice meetings are a traditional opportunity to relay a lot of details. Sure, it’s important to explain all that is new and mandatory, such as changes to regulations or clarifications in federal guidance. This meeting is also a good time to review areas that aren’t new at all, but are time-honored pitfalls that will crop up sooner rather than later if you don’t revisit them now. It’s also an ideal occasion to ensure your team earns documented hours toward annual professional standards training requirements. Given the complex scope of a school nutrition program, you may find yourself adding more and more to the agenda: new menu highlights, schedule changes, delivery receiving procedures, human resources policies, cross-contamination safeguards, customer service standards. Before you know it, you have planned a day of data dumping. To avoid this, look over that master list you just compiled with a highly critical eye to determine what’s really important to convey at this meeting, with this group you are assembling. Are there topics for which the circulation of a memo would be sufficient? Can certain agenda items be handled by each site manager conducting a shorter training or meeting with her or his own individual team? It’s inevitable that your annual inservice will include significant information sharing. But that doesn’t mean it must all be presented by the same speaker (e.g. you). Consider putting other “faces” at the podium to help break up the monotony of being in one place, listening to one person all day long. If your central office team is limited in numbers, consider asking others in the district to speak on related topics, such as a school nurse, a business officer or a human resources rep. Look outside the district as appropriate. For example, someone from the local health department can dish for 30 minutes about food safety. Motivation. Whether your school nutrition operation serves an enrollment of 100, 1,000 or 10,000+ students, it relies on the staff to get the job done. Find some way in your inservice to get across the message that each member of the team is valued for the job they do. Make it clear that everyone has an important role to play in the success of the mission. There are many ways to do this. Hire a motivational speaker, find a video to show or reward everyone present with a token of sincere appreciation. You know that there are many circumstances and thoughtless actions by individuals in the community that can leave school nutrition staff feeling defeated, dejected and disrespected. They need continual reinforcement to keep coming back to work each day with a smile and a spirit to serve. You can give them that. Don’t let your inservice get so focused on the rules and forms that this opportunity to motivate is lost or diminished. Dedicate at least an hour of the training day to different means of praise and inspiration. Fun. Injecting some fun into your inservice may not come naturally when you are so focused on simply how to pack in a lot of information. But if you don’t engage your audience, they are unlikely to remember what they’ve been taught. To retain, you must entertain! Think about the many training classes or professional development workshops that you’ve attended over the years. Which ones stand out in your memory? They are likely to be the ones where you laughed, participated in a hands-on activity or group work, played a game, watched a skit or saw a presenter in costume. Now, how many lectures and PowerPoint presentations come to mind? All of this may be easy to say—is it similarly easy to do? There are many “mavens of motivation” working in school nutrition who sure make it look easy! And what’s great about school nutrition is that you can steal any idea that works in another school or district and make it your own. Start with some of the ideas that follow. LET US INFOTAIN YOU Marci Franks, director of School Nutrition for Warsaw (Ind.) Schools, is an inservice infotainment pro. First, she makes planning the inservice training the first thing she does for the next school year and not a last-minute rush job. Starting now, before the end of the current school year, she brainstorms a few theme ideas for this training. Use of a themed concept helps her organize how she will weave information, motivation and fun into a brief day or two of training. Franks schedules one inservice just for managers and a second for the rest of the staff. She typically applies the same theme concept for both events. Franks held “Boot Camp for Super Heroes” one year and featured “Health and Wellness Lessons from Dr. Seuss” another. When she chose “Lead like a Pirate” for her manager training, the program included a chartered boat trip in the afternoon. That particular theme was inspired by a vendor at an ANC in Boston who gave away black pirate hats to attendees in the Exhibit Hall. At the end of ANC, she inquired about leftover hats and they donated enough for her to bring home to supply her staff. Inspiration for inservice themes are all around you if you keep your eyes and mind open! The school nutrition inservice events in Warsaw feature serious lessons packaged as an adventure. The all-staff day features a short general session, followed by breakout sessions that prompt everyone to get up, move around and hear different speakers. A midday food show is set up in a common area. What’s up her sleeve for SY 2017-18? Franks has identified her theme: “We Are All Circus Performers.” At April’s press deadline for this article, she was already busy working to build training sessions that emphasize “walking the tightrope,” “keeping several balls in the air at the same time” and “we are not clowning around”! Once the theme is selected, it is much easier to build the agenda; the sooner her team starts thinking about school nutrition “Under the Big Top,” the better the chance of identifying ideas that connect serious training issues to a fun presentation. AWAKEN THE FORCE WITHIN YOUR TEAM Judy Estrada, MS, RD, LD, assistant director, Food and Nutrition Services, El Paso (Texas) Independent School District (ISD), settled on an out-of-this world theme to kick off SY 2016-17 last summer. A new generation has embraced the “Star Wars” universe in recent years (see page 9), so Estrada capitalized on this pop culture phenomenon for the department’s inservice day. Management staff from 84 schools showed up for training wearing Jedi robes, Darth Vader masks and Princess Leia hair buns. The professional development agenda featured important sessions on sanitation, computer training and nutrition but were appropriately titled: “Keeping the Millennium Falcon Spic and Span”; “Tech Tips—Have No Fear: Conquer the Death Star!”; and “5-a-Day, the Star Wars Way.” What a clever way to make the “same old stuff” feel fresh! Estrada turned to the district’s print shop to make posters and other decorations to enhance the atmosphere. She played movie soundtracks during registration. A slide show featuring staff pictures from the previous school year flickered on the big screen. It was quite the production—and very successful. Estrada was confident, finding her own inspiration in a quote from Star Wars character Qui-Gon Jinn: “Your focus determines your reality.” The previous year, the El Paso ISD “Eat Smart” school nutrition team enjoyed an Academy Award-themed meeting. During the annual recognition segment of the meeting, staff award winners walked the red carpet and got to kneel beside their very own “Hollywood Walk of Fame Star” on the ground while having their photo taken by the “paparazzi.” Regardless of the specific theme, each year includes a recognition segment on the agenda. Supervisors read a series of comments praising nominated award winners. Each honoree receives a gift card and a “Shining Star” wall plaque (created by the district print shop) to hang in their kitchen office. Estrada doesn’t devise the theme ideas all on her own. Everyone on the school nutrition team is encouraged to submit suggestions. The administrative staff reviews these and the selected idea is rewarded with a small prize. Upon occasion, SNA’s National School Lunch Week theme is used for the inservice program. When that happens, planning is a little easier, since SNA has already developed graphics and suggested campaign ideas. But if starting from scratch, the central office team simply rolls up their sleeves, reviews the training budget, puts on their thinking caps and begins planning for a day of learning and fun. In the immortal words of Yoda: “Do. Or do not. There is no try.” MESSAGES MATTER Terri Whitacre, SNS, director of Food and Nutrition Services, Champ’s Cafe, Charlotte County (Fla.) Public Schools, enjoys both the planning and the execution of training day. A year-round schedule of blended calendars and summer feeding leaves her with one, and only one, day that her entire staff can get together. Last year, she had even less than that, compelled to fit her entire agenda into a single afternoon. Though short on time, Whitacre still prioritized a balance of information, motivation and fun. She set up information-specific tables with resource materials. She hired a motivational speaker and recognized staff members who’d gone above and beyond in the prior year. Working with vendors, she developed and served a meal that highlighted new reimbursable and a la carte menu items. She gave away prizes to amp up the excitement. Like Estrada and the El Paso team, Whitacre regularly solicits input from all staff members. The supervisory team works together to develop a unified theme, which often is incorporated into other meetings, activities and promotions throughout the year. These might be as simply powerful as emphasizing “Kindness” or “Patience.” Small tokens can reinforce your message. When “Smile More’ was a theme, each of Charlotte’s school nutrition staff received a mirror as a tangible reminder. At last year’s “Empowerment”-themed event, “empowerMINTs” were distributed. Another year, a candle was a reminder that “when we light another’s candle, we do not diminish our own light,” while a thermometer giveaway served to encourage staff to “give that one extra degree more of effort.” Whitacre often uses music to keep an inservice fun. One year, she asked participating staff to bring two serving utensils, such as spoodles or spatulas, to the meeting. Later, they used those utensils as maracas while performing a choreographed dance around the cafeteria tables! (Managers had rehearsed the dance at their own pre-school manager meeting, so that at least one person in each group knew how to lead.) Sometimes, Whitacre and her team write alternate lyrics to current pop favorites. For example, the “No Treble” line in Megan Trainor’s “All About the Bass” was changed to “No Drama.” It was so popular that staff sang that verse in their kitchens throughout the school year. Whitacre’s personal favorite was the year that the men on the management team performed as “The Singing Cockroaches,” donning hippie vests and sunglasses and strumming mops while singing “You Gotta Wash Your Hands” to the tune of the Beatles’ “I Wanna Hold Your Hand.” TIMING IS EVERYTHING Look to seasonal or other timely occasions as inspiration. Last year, when the National School Lunch Program turned 70, several directors around the country devised a birthday party-themed training day. Party invites were sent, rather than “mark the date” notifications. Programs began with a presentation on the history of the school meals program. Training was structured as party games. For Kristen Hennessey, director of Nutrition Services, Plymouth-Canton (Mich.) Community Schools, balloons and party hats were the name of the game, as were decorated bakery cakes declaring “Happy Birthday School Lunch”! RESOURCE TREASURE HUNT Infotainment-focused inservice events require an investment of time and money. Franks, Estrada, Whitacre and Hennessey agree that this cost is an important budget line. You need to invest in the individuals who form the backbone of the program, they insist. All referenced the value of a paid professional motivational speaker and the lasting effects of such presentations on staff all year long. All are experts at stretching their dollars. Be resourceful, they advise. Find partners within the school community and outside of it to provide services or goods. For example, there may be other district departments that have purchased motivational videos you can share—or will split the purchase cost with you. If you work in a small district, consider joining forces with other similar-sized neighbors to present a combined event. Piggyback on regional training offered by the state agency or state association. Check your state agency for free resources it has available for loan. Even your local library might have targeted training materials you can put to use. Remember that the training agenda doesn’t have to be completely focused on school nutrition-specific topics. For example, Marci Franks always makes a point to include a focus on maintaining a heathy or safe lifestyle. She invites speakers from the local extension, Red Cross, police department and so on to share tips and advice with staff. Some of these topics really resonate, including sessions on CPR instruction, self-defense training and diabetes education. Reach out to area hospitals, which also train large groups of staff on related topics, such as teamwork and customer service. They may have resources they are willing to share with schools free of charge. GET AHEAD OF THE GAME The key to success is to start planning now. Some school nutrition teams have a basic outline of the back-to-school inservice meeting in place before spring break. Others plan within a few days after the last school lunch is served for the year. Many directors and supervisors who attend association conferences over the summer specifically seek out inspiration and resources to use for their inservice events. Don’t procrastinate. It is hard to be creative when you are stressed and juggling last-minute details. Advance planning always pays off. The calendar might say “last day of school,” but “back-to-school” should be at the top of your to-do list! BONUS WEB CONTENT That’s Infotainment! Prepping your next inservice? Review Robinett’s 10-step checklist online. Plus, Judy Estrada shares ideas from her mid-year holiday managers’ meeting. Visit www.schoolnutrition.org/snmagazinebonus to access. JoAnne Robinett is owner of America’s Meal (www.americasmeal.com), providing training, speaking and consulting services in school nutrition. She can be reached at email@example.com.
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