“It’s like picking berries,” concluded the woman sitting next to me on the plane. I had just explained my seasonal commitment to provide in-person staff training for 22 camps and summer schools in the 35 days between Memorial Day and the Fourth of July.
“There is an annual rhythm to my work, but it’s very different from picking berries,” I offered.
“In any type of harvest, the idea is to time the picking for peak market freshness. In staff training, everyone needs to be ready for opening day, but that’s just the start. I’m actually never sure when the people I train will … ripen.”
We both furrowed our brows at the inadequacy of my metaphor.
“Think of it this way,” I continued. “I work hard to ensure that the mostly college-age staff members I train understand child development, leadership, supervision, safety, and behavior management. Some have one summer or two of camp leadership under their belts; others are new hires.
“They are all adding the content I provide to their existing skill set. Then those skills are continuously challenged and refined throughout the year.”
“Throughout the summer,” she corrected.
“No,” I replied. “It really is throughout the year, throughout their whole lives, in fact. What I teach–what staff members are learning–are life skills: conflict resolution, appreciation of diversity, team management, and youth development.
“Believe it or not, I learned the most about being a good father and a good husband at summer camp.”
The woman stared at me. The conversation had ballooned from berry picking to skillful parenting fairly quickly.
“You really love what you do,” she noted after a pause.
“It’s very gratifying to help. Sometimes, a camp counselor will write to me in the middle of winter with something like, ‘Hey Dr. Chris! Thanks so much for that workshop on collaborative problem-solving. I’m a resident adviser in my dormitory this year, and I’ve just discovered how well that approach works with college kids.’
“Or someone else will write, ‘I just started coaching youth soccer, and I’m using all of those strategies you taught us for dealing with demanding parents.’ In those moments, I feel most effective.”
“But there must be some frustrations,” she probed.
“There are in any job,” we said together.
“Let me put it this way. I most enjoy working with the camp directors who share my long view of staff education. These are the directors who understand that a yearly review of essential topics is important; who know that although principles of youth development remain the same, the children who attend camps have different issues every summer; and who commit to year-round education of their staff.”
“Year-round education? This is sounding less and less like a summer job.” The woman winked and offered a don’t-take-yourself-too-seriously smile.
I leaned in a bit.
“At camp, we’re caring for other people’s children. There’s no greater responsibility.”
Her smile faded and I continued.
“Camp professionals are working against a pop-culture image of camp as a trivial enterprise. People who don’t know camp think it’s all about food fights, panty raids, and crazed killers. We really don’t spend all summer flying underwear up the flagpole.”
She thought about that one for a minute.
“I think I get it” was the last thing she said before the plane took off.
We spent the rest of the flight in polite silence. I wondered whether she had children and whether she would ever send them to camp.
Take The Time To Train
I’m sometimes surprised by people’s ignorance about the importance of staff training.
Most parents would spend 30 minutes telling a new babysitter about their child’s idiosyncrasies, but barely two minutes talking with a new camp counselor. This is particularly ironic when one considers that a babysitter will spend only a few hours with a child; a day-camp counselor or resident-camp cabin leader will spend hundreds.
To heighten professionalism, camp directors should promote the year-round education of personnel in the following ways:
1. Emphasize pre-season training. More and more, directors of camps, summer schools, and summer travel programs have answered the call for better-trained staff by initiating training in the months prior to opening day. Leading programs now complement on-site training with intensive online training. No longer is there a learning void between hiring and arrival. Instead, customized staff training begins online, immediately after hiring.
2. Pay for certifications. When you reimburse staff for taking first aid, CPR, lifeguarding, and other certification courses, you demonstrate a commitment to specialized training. It is also more likely that employees will organize their time to take these courses … because they’re free (to them). Many camp directors also add bonuses to staff contracts for each additional certification.
3. Provide post-season feedback. All staff at a high-quality camp will receive a regular combination of formal and informal feedback, which, of course, accelerates professional development. The best directors also take the time to summarize supervisor and parent feedback for each staff member. This gives everyone food for thought (and fuel for improvement) when it comes to the following summer.
4. Suggest reading. Articles and books on leadership and youth development abound. A few are actually helpful. So, when you find excellent written material in the off-season, share it with staff members. Do resist the temptation to spam them with links to everything you find online that is somehow related to their job. They will quickly start deleting those emails without ever reading them. Send only a few, high-quality pieces.
5. Suggest coursework. Typical camp staff members are students, so most of them have a choice of classes. Directors should discuss coursework with the staff, not only as a point of interest, but also as an opportunity to suggest classes in education, psychology, human development, leadership, management, business, biology, ecology, and environmental science. Remember, tomorrow’s directors are at work in today’s summer programs.
6. Bring staff to conferences. One of the best ways to professionalize staff members and further their education is to sponsor their attendance at professional camping, education, and leadership conferences. Most professional associations have both national and regional conferences, so extensive travel is not always required. A quick Google search will reveal a wealth of one-, two-, or three-day conferences within geographical and financial reach that will inspire and inform employees.
7. Initiate off-season discussions. Keep the great conversations about leadership and youth development that you start this summer going. Arrange a few conference calls, Skype sessions, or online chats that will allow staff members to probe challenging issues in depth, with you as the moderator. Alternatively, encourage returning senior staff to contact and connect with younger staff to facilitate online discussions of key topics.
8. Arrange retreats. When you have identified a cluster of staff in a certain geographical area, it is a cinch to arrange a weekend retreat. Some simple food and accommodations–either at camp or somewhere centrally located and affordable–are all that’s needed to start. Existing friendships will ensure that the reflecting, brainstorming, and planning for the next season will flow just as smoothly as the laughter and casual conversation.
With all of these opportunities to introduce novel content in a fresh format, it might be tempting to believe that the only important information is new information.
Many topics deserve annual, if not more frequent, review. I’ve been a father for nine years, a clinical psychologist for 15, and a teacher for 25 … and I’m still learning the best ways to resolve conflicts and discipline skillfully. You can imagine my frustration then, when some directors respond to my invitation to reprise a crucial topic with “They had that last year.”
When staff members become part of the commitment to year-round learning, they not only improve, but return to camp in higher numbers, eager to learn more. Naturally, this tenure begins a new cycle of intensive on-the-job training that further strengthens their abilities.
As professional directors, we reap what we sow. If we train staff members who understand the value of camp, then we have also created future parents who understand the value of camp.
Those parents–your former employees–are the ones who will begin the first off-season discussions with their children–prospective new campers.
Indeed, the commitment to continuous professional development nurtures both the present and future of your camp.
Dr. Christopher Thurber is a board-certified clinical psychologist, father, and educator. He co-wrote the Summer Camp Handbook and co-founded ExpertOnlineTraining.com, a source of video training modules for camp staff. Chris also created a DVD-CD set titled The Secret Ingredients of Summer Camp Success, which reportedly lowers the intensity of first-year campers’ homesickness by 50 percent. He can be reached at email@example.com or follow him @drchristhurber.