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Developing and Keeping Great Counselors
It takes a great staff to make a great camp. Jack Weiner once said: "With the right counselors, camp could be held in a parking lot." When one looks at all of the possible aspects of camp in which to invest, I say "Your staff." Staff retention is an investment; an investment of both money and time. Let's start at the beginning . . . .
Before you begin your search, know what you're looking for. Skills can be taught. Character is already fairly established by the time young adults reach "counselor age." When you choose to hire character and personality, you strengthen the inner core of the staff. Look for potential counselors who demonstrate that they have good decision-making skills. Look for staff who value caring for others. Look for staff who have had good role models themselves, and therefore have learned how to be a good leader.
Where do you look? Great counselors can be found in some of the most unlikely places. Keep your eyes open for talent and personality. Your waiter or waitress is great at connecting with everyone at the table? The childcare worker at your gym knows how to get down to a child's level and really play? These are people who camp directors should talk to about the joys of camp counseling! University job fairs are another great place to recruit. Directors have an opportunity to speak face-to-face with candidates and watch them interact in a comfortable environment.
Let's talk about the interview. In-person interviews tell a director so much more than a phone interview can. Whenever possible, try to have a face-to-face interview. The addition of sparkling eyes or a genuine smile can say so much more than words. Conversely, a candidate could be great on paper, but show no warmth when face-to-face.
Remember that an interview is as much for the candidate as it is for the interviewer. This is a great opportunity to share as much information about the position as possible. Give the candidate a complete picture of what his or her days at camp will be like. Most disgruntled employees are unhappy because the job didn't meet their expectations. By offering camp literature and a camp DVD, directors can close the gap between their expectations and the candidate's expectations.
An additional way to screen a candidate, as well as reinforce accurate expectations, is to have the candidate talk with a current staff member. Not only will you get another person's perspective on the potential candidate, but the candidate will get a first hand account of what the job is like.
When formulating and organizing questions for the interview, consider what you really want to know. What skills do you need the candidate to have? For example, at my camp, we sing before each meal. I need to know that my counselors are comfortable singing in front of a group. This doesn't mean they need to sing well! They just need to be comfortable doing it. Therefore, near the end of an interview, I ask candidates to sing me a bit of a song . . . any song. Their reaction tells me quite a bit about their personality. Some sing with gusto! Some whisper a song as quickly into their chest as possible. Some are very clever and make me do a "repeat after me" song.
Consider what is important at your camp. How comfortable do counselors need to be in the water? Do they understand what the living environment will be like? Ask questions about their role models. Ask questions about mistakes they've made. Organize the interview to move from easier questions to more difficult, thoughtprovoking questions. Some of my favorite questions and talking points include:
- Tell me about your family.
- What do you think makes a good parent?
- What would you do differently from your parents?
- If you had a day to yourself, how would you spend it?
- What is your favorite sport?
- Who is your best friend? Why?
- What was the best job you ever had? Why?
- What was the worst job you ever had? Why?
- Who is your role model? Why?
- What do you think the best part of being a camp counselor is? What do you imagine is the worst?
- Tell me about the last time you spent some time with a child.
When choosing the candidates you wish to hire, consider the "Wow Factor." Did that candidate make you sit back and say, "Wow, I'd love to have him/her on my staff "? Think long-term. Is the candidate open to the possibility of several summers?
Finally, avoid the typical hiring pitfalls. These include:
- Legacy hires (the candidate's whole family worked here, the candidate is the son of one of the board of directors, etc.)
- Breathers (it's May and I still need staff )
- So-so counselors from the previous year ("maybe he wasn't that bad . . .")
Raising Your Own Staff
There are a number of different names that camps use such as LIT (Leaders in Training), CIT (Counselors in Training), and JC (Junior Counselors) to describe programs that develop staf f. When analyzing your program, ask yourself, "Are we developing counselors or are we building a senior camper program?" Both are valid choices and valid programs. The question is whether or not you are meeting your camp's goals.
If you are interested in developing counselors, your program should be geared toward developing the skills that counselors use and having an accurate picture of the experience of being a counselor. For example, counselors usually live with campers. If your CIT program has your CITs living together as a cabin group, they are not learning about how to care for younger campers. Instead, they are having a senior camper experience.
Here are some key elements of creating a CIT program that develops counselors:
- Set aside time every day to develop the skills of a counselor (see Table 1). Break apart the pieces of staff training that are most critical to creating successful counselors. These pieces may include: child development, behavior management, emergency procedures, health care, lesson planning, event planning, creating cohesive cabins, abuse training, and risk management.
- Give CITs both privileges and responsibilities. Often times, the difference between a senior camper program and a counselor development program is that the former gives only privileges and the latter gives both privileges and responsibilities.
- Mentor and coach CITs as they learn to instruct. A large part of being a great counselor is learning to instruct activities. Teach CITs to develop a lesson plan with a strong introduction, outcomes, and a strong conclusion. Give them an opportunity to practice-teach under the tutelage and supervision of an experienced instructor. Then, give them feedback on their lesson and teaching skills.
- Offer CITs an opportunity to work with different age groups and different counselors. Help them to analyze the differences and the strengths of each age group and counseling styles.
Finally, there is value in choosing CITs, rather than simply accepting anyone of that age. First, it gives candidates an opportunity to experience filling out an application and going through a selection process. Also, it is important to distinguish the difference between being a camper and being a CIT. There is nothing wrong with loving your camp and wanting to remain a camper there. The CIT program is for campers who wish to pursue the job of being a counselor. That's not a choice for everyone. The CIT program is meant for people who wish to work with younger children.
By establishing a strong CIT program, you are developing strong counselors. By the time the CIT is old enough to become a staff member, he or she will have had a year or two of training and a very clear picture of what the job of being a counselor entails. Again, when the expectations of the counselor match the actual job, job satisfaction is likely to be very high and you're likely to have counselors who return year after year.
A key part of the rehiring process is the performance evaluation. Performance evaluations should be conducted at least twice during the summer. The first evaluation should take place a week or two after camp has begun. This is the time to talk with the counselor about how things are going and whether or not he or she is meeting your expectations. It is also a time to set goals for the following weeks. The next evaluation should be a bit briefer, more of a follow up. At this time, the supervisor should recap the goals that were set in the first evaluation and check-in on the counselor's progress toward them. Both evaluations should serve as an opportunity for the supervisor to understand where further training needs to take place. Finally, the evaluation serves as a rehiring tool. How did the counselor respond to feedback? Did she improve on shortcomings? Is she meeting the camp's expectations in her job?
Saying "no" is difficult for most camp directors. We're people pleasers. However, saying "no" is critical to weeding out staff who do not make the grade. Setting a high bar for performance will only keep your staff performing at a high level. Say "no" to low performing staff. Say "no" to hiring people who you feel you "owe it to" because they've been at camp a long time or because they're related to another camp person.
It is easier to retain great staff members than it is to find new ones. Invest in your staff. This means empowering your staff to make good decisions. This means allowing creativity and a "let's find a way to do it" attitude. This means showing your staff that you value them through your actions and words. We value our staff when we invest in their education. Find opportunities for your staff to further their "camp education." Pay for certifications. Send your staff to conferences and educational opportunities. In other words, treat them as professionals.
Create a sense of ownership within the staff. This is "our camp." We care about how camp is doing. Show the staff that you, as the director, care about their personal wellbeing and care about helping them reach their goals, both within camp and outside of camp. Create opportunities within camp to further their "outside of camp" goals. For example, if you have a staff member who is working toward a marketing degree, give him opportunities to assist with the camp Web site or production of the camp DVD. Take him to a camp fair. These are experiences that will translate to a résumé and help staff move toward their future career.
Camp directors can also show that they care by remembering the little things. Pick up a box of a counselor's favorite cookies. Do an administrative staff member's laundry while she's out on a trip. Step in and teach a lesson so that a staff member can have an extra hour of time off.
Camp is meant to be a safe place, both for kids and staff. Be sure that your environment is both physically and emotionally safe for everyone. There should be a sense of family — everyone is taken care of and no one should feel like there are favorites. Be aware of the daily interactions you have with staff. If you have a large staff, you may need to note who you've interacted with on a daily basis and whether that interaction was positive or negative. Work to catch your staff doing things right!
Encourage the camaraderie that occurs with staff. Develop opportunities for staff to get together during the off-season. Just as campers often come back to camp because of the relationships they have built with other campers, staff come back to camp for many of the same reasons.
Finally, have high expectations of your staff. This isn't a summer job, it's an opportunity to change lives for the better. What higher purpose could a person have? Set the standard with your own behavior and work ethic. There shouldn't be a job in camp that the director isn't willing and able to do. Educate yourself to have a full understanding of the stresses and difficulties of each position in camp. You will be in the best position then to develop and keep great staff!
Kelly Byrnes is the owner/director of Camp Eagle Ridge, a co-ed leadership camp located in the north woods of Wisconsin. More than half of her staff has been at her camp for ten years or longer. Camp Eagle Ridge has one of the highest staff retention rates in the nation. Kelly is also the public relations spokesperson for ACA, Wisconsin. Contact Kelly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Originally published in the November/December 2010 Camping Magazine.