Summer is over, the last bus has left, and the last counselor has said goodbye. Somewhere between wrapping up the season and a nice, long vacation (I hope), one might wonder if there is a way to prepare for the next camp.
Is there a class to take? A book to read? Some type of continuing education to pursue?
Self-improvement is a fundamental theme of any camp, and the example should start at the top.
But who are the most effective teachers for camp directors and permanent staff?
Remember that old song lyric by Oscar Hammerstein: “If you become a teacher, by your pupils you’ll be taught.”
Of course you learn new things every season, but did you learn everything you could? During the rush of summer, it’s difficult to think seriously of ways to improve the camp experience and your own skills–problems of the moment always seem to take priority. But now that camp is settling down, it’s the perfect time to seek feedback from campers, their families, and staff.
Not only are you sure to learn something, but you’ll find doing so has several additional and unexpected benefits.
Feedback And Leadership
Asking for honest feedback can be tough. But consider asking:
• How did I do last summer?
• Was there something that I did that made your summer better? (Be sure to include positive questions!)
• Was there something I did–maybe something I didn’t even notice–that caused a problem for you?
• Was there something you think I should have done that I didn’t?
• What do you think I can do to improve for next summer in the way I do my job?
Instead of asking generic questions such as, “How was camp last summer?” asking specific questions about yourself focuses on your actions and conduct, and acquires feedback that is likely to be more practical and relevant.
It is difficult to ask these types of questions because one might appear weak or uncertain. Yet, asking for feedback with confidence actually strengthens the way people perceive a leader. After all, only a confident person would ask these questions without being afraid to face the answers.
Asking for feedback also sets a powerful example to campers and staff. If you can do it, so can they. And it makes you look wise and intelligent. Why? Think about it–isn’t it flattering when someone asks for an opinion? It shows they respect you–an obvious sign that they are perceptive individuals.
Not only does asking for feedback help you learn, build stature as a leader, and set an example, but it’s also a powerful recruiting tool.
If people see that you care about their opinions, it means you care about them, and they will be more likely to want to return to camp. So be sure to ask for feedback not only from campers, parents and counselors whom you want to return, but especially from older campers whom you would like to see return as Counselors in Training.
When approaching people for feedback, be sure to stress:
• That you want them to be honest.
• That they can speak openly without fear of any consequences.
• That you will keep what they say confidential, if they wish.
Setting the questions up correctly will garner good feedback. Kids especially may surprise you. For many, this will be the first time an adult (or employer, for the staff) has ever asked for this type of feedback, and they will treat the request with respect.
Techniques and Technology
Given the wide variety of communication techniques and technologies that exist today, how do you go about obtaining feedback?
First, let’s look at what to avoid. Do not use open surveys on a website, forum or Facebook, especially surveys where people can see the results. There is a value to that type of survey when it involves evaluating camp as a whole–it will tend to gather results that build positive feelings and act partly as a marketing tool.
But an open survey lacks all of the benefits discussed earlier, and if used for personal feedback, will reflect poorly on you. Letters and emails are not really conducive to honest feedback. They are easy to ignore, hard to respond to, and permanent–people are more likely to second-guess and edit what they write more than what they say.
The best results for personal feedback will come in discussions with individuals and small groups (no more than three or four people). There’s a tradeoff here: some individuals will be more comfortable being honest in a one-on-one discussion, while others will find that too intimidating.
It also depends on the venue–an individual who might be too intimidated to speak in person might feel comfortable being honest in a chat session. Use your judgment based on the individuals and the approach.
While obtaining feedback in person can be the most effective technique, it is also the most difficult–if only because campers and staff scatter after summer.
If possible, try to meet in person with at least some staff and parents, and small groups of campers. For campers and parents, meet at their homes. For staff, choose a neutral place like a coffee shop. Your office is your turf, and that location is more likely to intimidate than promote honest feedback.
Speaking of turf–one of the best venues for obtaining feedback is online, using instant messaging and chat. Older campers and staff will probably have Facebook accounts (the rest will likely have AOL instant messenger or Skype). Use chat to connect with individuals or small groups. That segment has grown up with this technology, and is accustomed to having serious conversations there. It is less intimidating than an in-person conversation.
Skype has become increasingly popular, and has the added benefit of offering video chat as well. It is the next-best thing to being there in person.
SurveyMonkey is a tool that allows you to create surveys with up to 10 questions for free. It can be used in conjunction with direct contact–send out personal invitations to take the survey (as compared to merely posting it on a website). Do not display the results! One advantage of a survey is it allows you to gather anonymous feedback.
Whichever approach you use, you’re certain to end up learning something. You may discover areas that you need to work on. You may discover problems that happened last summer of which you weren’t even aware. And you may discover that you’re actually doing a good job.
Along the way, you’ll have opened some new communication channels and strengthened some connections that will serve you and the camp well for years to come.
Dan Appleman is the author of “Developing Teen Leadership: A practical guide for youth group advisors, teachers and parents.” His 30 years of youth work experience ranges from camps to retreats to classrooms to youth groups. www.TeenLeadershipBook.com.