A decade ago, I was District 57 Governor. At the District Officer training that year in Southern California, we were told that the education system was going to be substantially overhauled in the coming years. Actual instructional designers had been hired, and we should watch for big changes.

The manual-based training that many of us had used to achieve our Distinguished Toastmaster had some distinct disadvantages. To reach the first level of recognition, the Competent Communication award, required 10 speeches. In a typical club with a one-hour meeting held weekly, there are about 100 speaking slots per year (particularly if one or more meetings are canceled due to holidays or other reasons). If the club has 20 members, which Toastmasters considers the optimal number, that would mean it would take two years for a member to receive any acknowledgment of their progress. In fact, fewer than 10% of members ever earned a Competent Communication award before quitting Toastmasters.

Another problem is that Toastmasters International couldn’t track the printed manuals to know whether the member had paid for them. I, for example, always filled in a manual for my 8 Competent Communicator awards, but a couple of the manuals had been given to me. I also know that many Toastmasters didn’t purchase manuals, but made photocopies of the evaluation pages and used those to turn in their awards. This meant that Toastmasters International was losing millions of dollars in revenue due to copyright infringement, the culprits being well-intentioned Toastmasters who were working and promoting the educational program.

Pathways did not appear overnight. It took years of research, writing, and testing. It was not perfect when released, not by any measure. I, too, was dubious when it first rolled out, and chose to complete a second traditional DTM before I signed up. When I once again was tapped to become a Vice President of Education, I warily signed up for Pathways, if only so that I could properly demonstrate its use to the other members.

I found the interface clunky and difficult. I voiced my complaints to world headquarters, as did many others, and found that TMI was receptive to the feedback. I have seen continual improvements in the program over the course of the past couple of years, and find Pathways quite useable at this point.

More than that, there are some intelligent, intentional changes to the program. In the legacy program, it was understood that a member should give three speeches before starting to evaluate others. That was a guideline that not everyone knew about. Now, it’s baked into the program as the second lesson in every path. A strong mentoring program is essential to the health of any club. Now, mentoring is explicitly covered in the second level.

Within a path, members have the opportunity to work on lessons specific to their interests (such as humorous speaking projects) starting at level 3, after 6 speeches, rather than waiting until they had completed the CC manual to get to the advanced manuals.

The video lessons and enhanced descriptive text improve the curriculum, which includes everything that had been in the earlier manuals and more. I completed the traditional manual program twice, and appreciated it at the time. Now that I’m nearing the end of my second path, I can clearly see the advantages of the new program.

What’s important for all Toastmasters to understand is that we are an educational club. We’re not a service club like Rotary, or a social club like the Moose Lodge. The educational curriculum of Toastmasters is the Pathways program. The educational program is built on a foundation of members giving speeches based on requirements in the lesson. The member receives a real-time evaluation based on criteria in the lesson. Everyone in the meeting learns from seeing a goal-based speech given a thoughtful evaluation. Every speech must be based on a lesson and receive an evaluation specific to those criteria, or your club is not a Toastmasters club. It might be a perfectly nice group of people who enjoy one another’s company and give speeches, but the club is not working the program, and is not representing the Toastmasters brand.

No one would pay to sign up for Dennis Dawson’s Talky Club. No one’s heard of me, no one knows what they’d be getting. When people sign up for Toastmasters, it’s because they’ve heard of our brand in popular culture. They might know someone who is a Toastmaster, and they’ve heard about the benefits. If your club signs new members with the promise of becoming better speakers and leaders, but the club doesn’t use Pathways, you’ve just sold the new member a bill of goods. You enlisted them under false pretenses. They will not be getting what they paid for. They’ll stay a while, maybe do a couple of speeches, but then they’ll quit, because they didn’t get what they were looking for. Worse, they might stay, believing that they’re learning something, when they’re actually becoming confident speakers who lack basic skills: that can result in humiliation, and negatively impact their professional and personal lives.

Toastmasters, today, is Pathways. Without Pathways, there is no Toastmasters organization. Pathways is a big ol’ train that has rolled through. You can climb aboard, you can stay behind at the station, you can stand in the middle of the tracks and let it run you down, but Pathways is here to stay. It’s the coin of the realm, and the price of admission.

If you haven’t done so already, it’s past time to embrace the Pathways program.

Experienced members, if you choose not to use Pathways, that is your decision. But please do not discourage new members from working the program. Pathways is Toastmasters.

New members, if you hear a member disparaging the Pathways program, pay attention to that member’s speaking skills and their level of achievement in the educational program. In my experience, members who earned Distinguished Toastmaster status in the legacy program and have embraced the Pathways program recognize the improvements and are enthusiastic about the new materials as they continually improve.

Bottom line: Pathways is here to stay, so come on and join us. There is no better program for enhancing your communication and leadership skills.

Written by Dennis Dawson, Distinguished Toastmaster (DTM), of San Jose Toastmasters and Big Basin Toastmasters