I came to Shelby County prepared to be an educator. I knew 4-H and I was confident in my ability to be a good educator. I can develop and administer programs all day long. 24 third graders and a lesson on the rock life cycle? Check. Adults volunteers and club management? Sign me up. I love teaching! I chase down programming opportunities like a ghost after Pacman. The part of the job I wasn’t prepared for? Being a mediator.
Being an Extension Educator isn’t always sunflowers and belly laughs. It’s not always filled with classrooms and willing participants who are excited to see you. In agriculture, we bridge the gaps between producers, consumers and legislators. In 4-H, we represent the common ground between fair boards and families. In community development, we serve as the power lines that connect people with places. And, in family and consumer science, we are links in the chain that bring knowledge to those in need. When things go well, being the mediator is empowering. When things go wrong, it’s downright uncomfortable.
In the “off” season (p.s. there is no off season), I spend a lot of time alongside youth and adult volunteers while we take a hard look at our program. We review survey feedback, enrollment numbers, policies, procedures, rules, regulations… so on and so forth. I truly believe that the only way to get where you want to go is look at where you have been. As painful as it can be to ask people to fully evaluate how OSU Extension does x, y, z, the reality is we need to know! Living in some fairy tale world where we assume everything we are doing is working is not where I want to be. Unfortunately, some people have been resistant to the idea of taking such feedback seriously. This past week, I had several meetings in which we unraveled a ball of yarn to get to the center of an issue. It’s a daunting task. Here, take all these people from different backgrounds and of different opinions who have different wants and needs and lead them to the same water hole. Oh and make sure you throw in the feedback, expectations, comments, etc. of all the people who aren’t at the table. See how quickly this gets very messy?
I have left my share of meetings exhausted and with criss-crossed eyes, as have our youth and adult volunteers. I have spent hours wondering if we made the right decisions. I have questioned whether my leadership inhibited or encouraged growth. I have worried that I am not meant for this mediator role. But then, before I know it, I am standing in the center of a room of 30 outstanding teen leaders and I am educating them on the very topic that I worry I don’t do well enough. How’s that for irony?
On Sunday, the Junior Fair Board and I reviewed a litany of feedback from our constituents, some good and some bad. We also spent a great deal of time talking about how the number six is also the number nine, depending on where you are standing in the room. I asked them how we could make the person who sees the six agree with the person who sees the nine without moving them. The answer: a mirror. We reflect what we want people to see. We aren’t mediators, per say. We are mirror-diators. If our goal is for people to understand each other, then we also have to understand them. We have to be open to their ideas, suggestions and requests as opposed to shutting them down and saying, “It was always done this way,” or “That will never work.” For this reason, I will continue to be a proponent of feedback, communication, constructive criticism and open doors. Next time you find yourself in a conflict or disagreement, be a mirror-diator. You may very well find you see a six and a nine.
The writer can be reached at the OSU Extension office (937-498-7239) or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.