For the past 21 years, the first night of camp orientation has ended the same way: by verbalizing a personal goal or lofty wish that I want my campers (and over the last decade, my program staff members) to experience during the short week that they spend with us. Our goals are breathed to life around the campfire (weather permitting), sometimes accompanied by a symbolic action, like tossing a Popsicle stick or slip of paper into the fire so that our wish joins those from years past. This opening campfire and the community it creates among staff are building blocks of a successful camp week, but at the end of this year’s senior week camp session, I was struck by an odd thought:
Who met their goals or had success with their wishes? Who didn’t? And does it matter?
In that initial exercise in getting our staff acquainted with each other (not a difficult task since upwards of 80% of our camp staff have worked their way up from camper to CIT to program staff for any given year), many of them echo their peers’ sentiments around the fire ring: they want their campers to feel a part of the camp family, to create their own memories and have meaningful experiences that linger when they return to the real, after-camp world. What they want for the campers, in general, and the camp program, in specific, is obvious. But less evident is whether or not they felt an individual sense of success in meeting that objective.
We’re not talking feedback here. Whether or not staff enjoyed the Wednesday evening program or have suggestions for new relay games doesn’t quite get to the heart of the matter–which is, quite honestly, do they feel their actions and presence mattered? To their campers, to their cabin, to the camp program as a whole?
But with the amount of paperwork and physical tasks camp directors and program directors have to complete, is this reflection process even necessary? Should we care that our staff spend time reflecting on individual experiences, as long as the kids stayed safe, had a blast and can’t wait to come back next year?
I say yes, without a doubt. And here are four reasons why.
1. Reflection helps us learn from our mistakes.
This is the biggest reason to implement some type of reflective activity with our staff members. If a staff member feels particularly unsatisfied with their work at the end of a camp session, probing their thoughts to find out why is far more important than our opinion why. This is not to suggest that personal reflection take the place of feedback and evaluation of a staff member’s performance. Rather, it’s a suggestion to have the staff member internalize and express their opinion of how well they feel they met the personal goals they set for themselves prior to the camping session.
2. Reflection can create solid connections between actions and outcomes.
While a number of causal factors combine to create either a positive or negative experience within the life of a single camper, it’s easier to turn a laser-like focus toward the campers who have less memorable weeks. I present this from the point of view of a teacher, knowing that in 21 years in the classroom, I tend to focus more on the student having a difficult year. What could I have done personally to help him have a better year? When counseling staff reflect on their campers who left with less-than-stellar camp weeks, it’s easy to internalize the camper’s lack of success and take it personally when, in fact, there are most likely a number of other factors not taken into account. Did they arrive with home problems? Were there health issues they couldn’t manage? Did they have a bad experience at an activity? Reflecting on all the possible factors that could have dulled a camper’s experience is one way to get to the reality of the situation.
3. Reflection builds leaders.
Ultimately, camp directors want to hire the best of the best when hiring camp staff. After all, we are in the business of spending nearly 24 hours a day with a parent’s most precious commodity. Inviting reflection encourages staff to think through issues in a relaxed, contemplative manner while turning an eye toward self-improvement. Even great leaders who claimed not to care what others thought of their actions involved themselves in regular reflective practices to refine their behaviors and thoughts toward making leadership gains.
4. Collaborative reflection builds community.
Although staff member turnover occurs each year, creating a community among current staff goes a long way in making everyone feel a valuable part. Reflection doesn’t always have to be an individual endeavor. Some of the strongest community-building moments take place when staff members process together. The act of sharing internal thoughts in a safe, supportive, understanding environment encourages collegiality in a way that camp administration can’t teach.
Having staff reflect on their personal actions at the end of a camp session doesn’t need to be lengthy or involved, but it does go a long way in building community, trust, self-knowledge and leadership skills in a meaningful way. Consider adding a component of staff reflection to your end-of-session evaluation procedure and see where it can lead.
Beth Morrow is a middle school educator, blogger and program director for Camp Hamwi, a residential, week-long camp for teens with diabetes. Reach her at Beth@BethMorrow.com.