Rachael Mann on The CTSO Competition Companion & COVID-19

A week after launching The CTSO Competition Companion, Rachael Mann — author, keynote speaker and a member of ACTE’s board of directors — sat down with Techniques to discuss the book and its intended audience. And to chat about the ways in which COVID-19 has affected career and technical student organizations. (CTSOs).

What inspired you to write The CTSO Competition Companion?

I have been involved with CTSOs since I was a teenager. I was a DECA chapter president in high school, an FCCLA adviser throughout my teaching career and a state director for Educators Rising. I have served as a competition judge for most CTSOs at the state and national levels. After judging many events over the years, I gained a completely different perspective on how I should have prepared students for their events as an adviser. I also realized that there are many commonalities in how to approach any CTSO competitive event. A guide like this would lay a foundation for CTSO members, providing a self-guided experience and resource to truly own the competition experience.

Who is your intended audience, and what do you hope they’ll take away?

While The CTSO Competition Companion was written as a comprehensive guide for students, it is also an invaluable tool for advisers and family to support the CTSO member’s efforts throughout their competition journey. The book is designed to help students navigate competitions from start to finish. I want to help them succeed in their competitive events, and I also hope they gain skills that will help them to win at life.

There are common threads that apply to all CTSO competitions. Competitions can be scary. This book was written to address those fears so that competitors can be their best. The reader will learn to communicate more effectively, written and verbal, and they will become better equipped to be their best self when it matters most.

Some of the questions addressed in The CTSO Competition Companion include:

  • How do I select the competitive event that is best suited for me?
  • How can I best prepare for this event?
  • Who is my competition?
  • Who are the judges (and why are they so intimidating)?
  • How do I handle the anxiety I feel?
  • Why didn’t I win first place?
  • I won my state competition; what’s next?
  • How do I improve my communication skills?
  • How can I make an unforgettable first impression?

Will you please share what readers can expect in The CTSO Competition Companion? How will its use help students navigate competitions and develop essential skills?

This book is designed in a stand-alone chapter format. It can be read from cover to cover, or the reader might skip around to the chapters that are most relevant in the moment. The CTSO Competition Companion includes the expertise of eight former CTSO competitors, advisers and judges who volunteered to contribute their Guest Voices. These experts share guidance, resources and even contact information, should you have questions.

Another featured section — called You’re On Your Own! (YOYO) — consists of prompts for reflection or questions to answer, along with an area for notes. The reader is encouraged to use this space to journal their way through their CTSO competition.

Read a brief excerpt:

Being able to make decisions and then make those decisions work is a part of life. Sometimes it means not looking back or second-guessing if it was the best decision. When it comes to competitive events, in most cases, it’s best to commit to your decision and make the most of it. Don’t spend so much time trying to decide on the perfect competition for you that you lose out on time that could be spent preparing for the competition. Spending too much time pouring over the competition descriptions can also lead to decision fatigue, which could lead to not competing at all. Don’t let that happen to you!

How has COVID-19 affected regular CTSO activities in Arizona? How has it affected competitions?

Like in most of the country, our schools had to shut down in March and students finished the school year virtually. In-person conferences were canceled, but students were able to attend virtual conferences and competitive events. State officers participated in virtual leadership training over the summer.

Fall leadership conferences will be virtual, and students will have access to prerecorded workshop videos featuring leadership skill development and content-related topics. Attendees will have access to the videos via a digital platform until the end of April. I have talked to advisers who are planning their own virtual events, complete with keynote speakers and breakout rooms.

In what ways are advisers and students innovating to conduct CTSO activities while keeping everyone safe?

Just as educators have proven their resiliency and ability to pivot into remote learning, CTSOs worked hard to provide virtual options for conferences and competitions. CTSOs provide opportunities for students to develop their leadership skills. While the adviser holds the keys to what can be accomplished, the students are responsible for leading and executing the program of work. Giving students the agency to innovate during the pandemic is the best way for CTSO members to learn how to turn problems into opportunities.

Over the summer, I had the opportunity to moderate a webinar on the topic of CTSOs. Cathe Felz, a family and consumer sciences teacher and FCCLA adviser with Three Forks Schools in Three Forks, Montana, reminded the listeners to include students at every level of the decision-making process. Often, she said, they see creative solutions to issues before advisers do. Advisers should offer guidance but not solutions to the issues facing CTSOs in the upcoming school year.

Cathe’s students accepted the challenge. They completed their STAR events online, planned fundraisers, and developed a camping theme for the upcoming year with virtual campsites. Her students gained confidence in their ability to meet challenges.

Some chapters are able to meet in-person. In that case, reinforcing the CDC guidelines — social distancing, wearing masks and sanitizing surfaces — is part of being a responsible member of our society. Handshakes, a traditional part of the professional skills developed by CTSO students, may not return any time soon. Have students come up with innovative alternatives that have professional flair but that can be done six feet apart.

Is there anything else you’d like to share?

I asked advisers across the country to send me questions from their students related to competitive events, which I compiled and featured as a Q&A in The CTSO Competition Companion. In addition, CTSO members shared advice based on their competition experiences.

Here is another expert, with guidance from a CTSO student, Jaime Perez:

I would suggest recording your voice reading the speech as if you were performing it. Knowing how you want to say your speech will improve the memorization aspect of training before a competitive event. I personally recorded my speech for my state officer campaign. I was able to memorize the content of the speech and delivered of my speech effectively.

Learn more about The CTSO Competition Companion in ShopACTE.