Staff Training: Planning for Next Summer Can Start with Recruitment and Retention Now

by Gwynn M. Powell, Ph.D.

How can you begin the process of planning for staff training next summer while building a core of returning staff who are moving forward with you? How can beginning this process now have an effect on your staff selection practices? The process of designing and implementing staff training is a process of making choices. What will be included and when? How much time will you allot? What form will you choose to impart the information? Reflect upon last year . . . what process did you use to answer those questions? What can be done to broaden the foundation of information used to make those decisions?


Staff members arrive at camp with a set of beliefs, attitudes, knowledge, and skills. Once on-site, a precamp orientation is provided, but the outcomes are rarely formally assessed. The content and methods vary greatly because they are primarily functions of the director’s personal experiences, training, and judgment. After the formal staff orientation, staff begin work and apply their skills while “unlearning” and “relearning” information based upon interactions with both peers and campers. Thus, traditions passed on through informal and incidental learning appear to modify learning acquired during formal staff orientation. In spite of the positive role that training can play in providing a safety net for campers and staff, little is known about the process camp directors use to develop staff training or the essential components of the training. Educational research has identified links between teacher effectiveness and student outcomes (Cooper, 1983) and a relationship between coaching education and coaching efficacy (Malete & Feltz, 2000). Given the parallels between teachers and students, coaches and players, camp counselors and campers, it is important to think about the process of staff orientation and training.

Where Should Directors Begin When Planning Staff Training?

When answering this question, the most common response is “with last year’s schedule.” While the schedule may or may not contain the best direction for the upcoming season, the challenge is to begin with the decision-making process in order to clarify teaching topics and facilitation during staff orientation. Additionally, the challenge is to conceptualize the vision beyond the orientation period to include ongoing training throughout the season and year.

What Does Your Staff Need to Know and Be Able to Do to Be Effective?

One framework with which to begin is to think about the skills and knowledge that you expect your staff members to have in order to effectively accomplish the goals and mission of your program. There are several steps you can take to begin answering these questions: examine existing documents, talk with the experts, use available resources, and project the future.

  1. Examine your job descriptions, performance-review tools, and past incident and accident reports. Many of the skills you value will be spelled out plainly in these documents as well as points of stress and under-performance from past staff members.
  2. Talk with the experts . . .your former staff members and supervisors, both the stellar ones and those you would rather forget! Each group will have a unique perspective about what they wish they had known, what they felt was too much information in a short period of time, and what they felt they already knew. Insuring involvement from potential returning staff just might be the factor that convinces them to come back for another summer.
  3. Gather your available resources . . . look at the American Camping Association Standards, outlines available in the text of the Basic Camp Directors’ Course (Basic Camp Management), and workshops at regional and national conferences. The collective information of the “industry” can provide you with a new lens through which to view the information gathered as it applies to your own camp materials.
  4. Project the future . . . if you could assemble your strongest staff ever, what would that profile be? Taking all this information into account and using the team of individuals you have involved in this process, create a draft of the specific skills and knowledge you feel your staff needs to accomplish the job effectively. This list is one that can constantly be updated and changed and then serve as a springboard for future discussions.

The conscious decision-making process
Once you have generated this list, it can serve as a template and outline for your decision-making process. Begin by simply categorizing the items by expectations for mastery. Look at each of the items carefully. Is it something they could come to camp already knowing? Is it something that is tough to understand until one has tried it? Is it something specific to your camp that, unless they are returning, needs to be communicated? Is it something that one can never fully master, so in-service training would be helpful? Is it something everyone in camp needs to know or only a subset of specialists? Is it something that is helpful, but not necessary, so could wait until the first staff meeting? With this categorized list as a baseline, the decision-making process can become more thorough. This tool will serve as an asset to make conscious decisions rather than ones based only on scheduling or tradition.

What Do You Expect Staff to Know and Be Able to Do When They Arrive at Camp?

Use this outline of skills and knowledge as a tool during the interview process to ask questions to determine what skills and knowledge the individual already has prior to coming to camp. If specific individuals need some extra attention in an area, are there resources available to help them prepare before they arrive (i.e., take first aid/CPR at the local affiliate; participate in the on-line course “Camp is for the Camper” available through ACA; meet with a former staff or alumnus to understand more the philosophy of your program; etc.)? Can you identify an individual with exceptional skills and ask him or her ahead of time to prepare a specific training module for the orientation or in-service training? During the interview process or pre-arrival phase, you might want to have staff complete a questionnaire asking them to express the areas they feel more confident in and those where they feel the need for more help. The bottom line of this step is to articulate the baseline expectation you have for staff arriving on site and then begin to develop a plan for how to improve those who are below expectations while still challenging those who are above expectations.

What do you expect to teach them?
The categorized skills, with content that is specific to your camp and needs to be communicated, should be a priority in your planning. The question then becomes how to impart the information. In addition to the “formal” training sessions, there is a layer of informal learning occurring at the same time, simply by the nature of the summer-camp experience. The camp program often emphasizes counseling and instructional skills that build upon previously gained life experiences. These skills can be as complex as interpersonal communication skills or as simple as helpful hints, such as the best way to bait a hook that was learned as a child from a grandparent.

Additionally, staff member interaction will most likely be high because of the nature of the community and generally magnified by the unique setting. Exposure to novel settings leads to greater reliance on peers who have experience in that type of setting (Slater, 1984). If you are thinking of training as simply a schedule of sessions, you are missing an opportunity to guide the informal process and use it in ways to support the learning goals. Challenge your key leaders and returning staff now to brainstorm ways — specific to your camp and in keeping with your goals and philosophy — to impart the information in creative and meaningful ways.

What do you expect them to learn on the job?
Those skills categorized as difficult to master hold the potential for exploration all season long. And the most basic skills can serve as a foundation on which to build in both formal and informal ways. For example, dealing with a homesick child and aiding conflict resolution are two skills reported by staff as ones where learning was modified during the experience of trying to manage these situations on the job (Powell, 2001). Therefore, after an introduction during staff orientation and some hands-on experience in the first week or two, staff members will have a better context and foundation for assimilating the information. This zone of readiness is generally tied with greater internal motivation to learn and experiment with the new knowledge (Vygotsky, 1978). The in-service training could take place in small learning groups facilitated by peers or supervisors during camp sessions or in large groups in a variety of formats in-between camp sessions. The climate of continuous learning can be reinforced through peer feedback and supervisory conferences. As strengths and areas of improvement are identified, opportunities to both share and learn are natural follow-ups that can build the community and learning atmosphere.

Back to the Schedule

Now it is time to review last year’s schedule. You may be pleasantly surprised when you re-examine the schedule, or you may need to re-align and start with a blank page. Regardless of the judgment, by utilizing these steps, you will have a different perspective and a core of staff who will have thought about staff training in a different way. After implementation this year, the planning can begin anew for next year by talking with new and returning staff during their first two or three weeks of work and asking questions similar to those presented in this article. In addition, the job descriptions and performance review tools can be updated annually to reflect the growth of the body of knowledge created during this examination and planning process.

Cooper, J. M. (1983). Basic Elements in Teacher Education Program Development: Implications for Future Research and Development. In K. R. Howery & W. E. Gardner (Eds.), The Education of Teachers (pp. 211). New York: Longman.
Malete, L., & Feltz, D. L. (2000). The effect of a coaching education program on coaching efficacy. The Sport Psychologist, 14, 410-417.
Powell, G. M. (2001). Seasonal staff member perceptions of the learning process in summer camp staff training. Unpublished dissertation, Clemson University, Clemson, SC.
Slater, T. (1984). The temporary community: Organized camping for urban society. Sutherland, Australia: Albatross.
Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in Society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Gwynn M. Powell, Ph.D. is an assistant professor in the Department of Recreation and Leisure Studies at the University of Georgia. Please contact Powell through e-mail, for further information regarding article content or to share research ideas.

Originally published in the 2002 November/December issue of Camping Magazine.