Making Generalists Out of Specialists

by Jon C. Malinowski, Ph.D.

Even a casual stroll through a camp staff fair makes it very clear that many, if not most, camp directors fill their ranks with specialists. They are looking for young men and women to lifeguard at the dock, run the tennis program, or drive the water-ski boat. Rarely do you see advertisements with lines such as,

Wanted: Well-rounded college student to do a little bit of everything at a Northeast summer camp. Must be willing to adapt to changing program needs and be able to handle any camper crisis with a smile. Goofiness a plus. Modest pay included.

Yet, the merits of the generalist are great. They allow greater flexibility in programming because they can be utilized in many different areas; they face less risk of burnout because they are not doing the same thing every day; and they are tuned into the pulse of the entire camp, not just one small dimension. Without throwing away your entire camp structure, you can take concrete steps to turn your specialists into generalists.

Leadership Structures

Staff training materials, and some staff trainers, tend to lump camp counselors (or “leaders,” the term I prefer) into one homogenous group. The reality of the modern camping industry, however, is that counselors are often hired to do vastly different things. The needs of a staff member working all day on a ropes course are different than those of a cabin counselor who moves from activity to activity with his or her campers. Some staff live out of cabins; some spend time away from camp on trips; and others are expected to change hats on an hourly basis. The needs of different types of leaders can be addressed, but it requires a careful examination of staff training procedures and a clear understanding that specialists and generalists are not equal.

Today, camp counselors come in three basic forms: specialists, cabin leaders, and generalists. Specialists are hired to do one thing all summer, such as oversee the ropes course or lifeguard on the dock. They often do not live with campers. Cabin leaders are hired to live with campers and often move with them from activity to activity during the day. Generalists live with campers but also run a variety of activities.

In the way they use these three types of leaders, camps seem to fall into two basic structures. The first structure, hereafter known as the specialist camp, refers to those camps that use program specialists to run activities and cabin leaders to manage campers. This structure seems to dominate the camping industry today. A second structure, the generalist camp, utilizes generalists to both live with campers and run a variety of activities. These camps are rarer, but arguably offer a greater opportunity for leadership development.

Specialist camps
What are the benefits of a specialist-dominant leadership structure? First, this structure seems to insure a better, or at least more consistent, level of program instruction. Hiring a college soccer star to teach soccer every day may expose campers to a quality of sports training that they might not otherwise experience. If campers go home with noticeable skill improvements, many parents will be happy and will send their campers again next summer. Also, specialists are easier to hire, because directors can easily advertise, interview, and screen for discrete qualities. These structures also offer easier summer planning because a program director knows before the season opens what staff will be doing for the entire summer. If hired to be a lifeguard, a specialist can expect to guard the majority of each day.

Specialist camps, however, also face significant leadership challenges. From my experiences as a staff trainer, I often hear specialists complain about burnout. Spending six to eight hours a day in a water-ski boat can get old very quickly. Without a change in environment, leaders get bored, and the quality of their instruction often suffers. In addition, I have witnessed significant bitterness at those camps that have program specialists and full-time cabin leaders working side-by-side. Cabin leaders often complain that program specialists are unaware of camper problems and unhelpful in managing difficult campers. Quite frankly, at some camps specialists spend very little time with campers other than at their activity area. Interacting with a child at an archery range is quite different from interacting with the same child before bedtime or at a meal. I have also heard senior staff complain that specialists are hard to find because they tend to spend most of their time away from cabin areas. “When I need to pass along information, they're never around!” complained one group leader I interviewed.

Generalist camps
Generalist camps offer their own positive and negative qualities. If staff members are hired to do a variety of things, they will not do them all equally well. This sometimes translates into less advanced skill instruction. Campers may only have a good tennis coach, not a great one. Also, placing and scheduling leaders for activities becomes more complicated because one counselor might be involved in a dozen different program areas in the course of a single week. Hiring is often more difficult as well, because directors need well-rounded, flexible staff. On the plus side, leaders are doing a variety of different things, and this constant, or at least cyclical, change keeps leaders from tiring of their summer duties. Also, a multi-talented staff allows for more flexibility to deal with changes that need to be made mid-summer if staff numbers change.

Naturally, there are camps that fall somewhere in between, employing program specialists who live in cabins with campers, or generalists who spend a significant amount of time in one program area. For example, at the camp with which I am associated, we employ generalists, but many are designated as program heads and are expected to spend more time than non-heads at their designated activity area. But which system is better?

The Case for Generalists

The generalist approach is better in many ways for the camper. Generalists have to be involved in more aspects of camp life. They need to play parent, entertainer, and teacher to a greater degree than the leader who spends all day in one program area. The generalist must be able to adapt quickly and be willing to change gears on the fly as needed. To do this requires an easy-going personality, the ability to improvise, and a deep love of children. Program specialists need to have some understanding of children and the ability to improvise, but their main competency is in a particular skill.

The skill of a camp leader can be judged by his or her ability to safely entertain a group of children in a non-traditional area. What makes a camp is not the quality of the equipment or facilities, but the quality of the staff. There is face validity to this statement. Most would agree that great facilities and a mediocre staff is much worse than shoddy facilities and a great staff. Sure, a cool ropes course might bring a camper back one year, but probably not for many years if the staff is bored and uncreative. This shifts the emphasis away from hiring to fill program needs and towards finding staff who know how to interact with children.

Successful specialist-based camps need not abandon years of tradition for a 100 percent generalist approach, but camps can encourage program specialists to become more generalist in their outlook towards camp life in several ways.

Staffing
Look to your own ranks to find competent generalists. A leader with five years of camper experience at your camp, a great attitude, a concern for youth, and trainable leadership qualities will almost always be better than a stranger with the same attributes. Why more directors do not understand this is beyond me. The best camps I have encountered have only former campers in their leadership. Even if they are expected to work as specialists in the riding program, former campers know the camp’s traditions, have experienced every program area the camp offers, and have internalized the camp’s mission. If, as a director, you cannot identify a handful of your campers who you would want working for you, you are not doing something right. Think about what that says about the success of your mission.

If you must hire externally, look for applicants who have diverse interests. Find the athlete who plays guitar or paints. Find the crafts expert who also captained a high school team. When you interview or hire these diverse young people, let them know that you expect them to do a variety of jobs. I was recently shocked by a specialist who lived in a cabin but refused to clean up an unwanted mess in the bathroom because it was not what she was hired to do. All camp staff should be hired with the understanding that anything goes.

As for skill expertise, remember that a ten-year-old athlete does not necessarily need a college coach to help her improve her game. Even a high school athlete knows enough skills and drills to keep a less experienced and younger sportsman busy for a few weeks. And, remember the teacher you had who was brilliant but could not teach his way out of a parked car. Interest in working with children should always come before interest in running a particular activity area.

Programming
No counselor should do only one thing all summer. Imagine how boring it is to do only archery five or six days a week for two months! Or, from the cabin leader's perspective, picture spending most of each day with the same ten children, following them from one activity to another. If a leader gets a difficult cabin, monotony will certainly lead to inappropriate anger or other ways of lashing out.

So, how can you move specialist-based programming towards a more generalist paradigm? What follows is a brief outline of steps you can implement:

1. Have each leader in camp, including cabin leaders and senior staff, express his or her program area interests. and indicate his or her degree of skill.
2. Identify those activity periods that require the most skilled instructors and use your hired specialists to fill these times. Use other staff members, including cabin leaders, to staff other times. A sailing expert might be necessary to teach younger children to sail for the first time, but a competent staff member with appropriate minimum certification might be adequate to oversee older, more experienced campers. Pairing up experienced and non-experienced staff members also provides in-house training that can pay off during the following summer.
3. Allow program specialists to cover activities outside their own area of expertise each and every day. Again, this is a guard against boredom and burnout. If you do not believe me, go sit on a rifle range for an entire day.
4. Provide in-house training at periodic intervals during the summer. For example, if you have only a few competent archers, offer non-archery staff the opportunity to shoot at the range under the tutelage of the experts. This technique has worked well for the camp with which I am associated in waterfront skill areas such as sailing and boat driving. Learning how to rig a sailboat or dock a power-boat requires hands-on practice that is tough to get in the off-season. Leaders will enjoy learning new skills, and directors get a more flexible staff should someone need to leave during the season. In all cases, staff leading specialized activities must have their skills verified before leading activities and must be observed periodically to be sure they are providing appropriate supervision and instruction. For aquatic activities, a minimum level of aquatic safety certification is always required.

Meetings
Representatives from all areas of camp need to be present at all meetings. If your senior staff meets daily (and it should), make sure that specialists and cabin leaders are both represented. Insure that issues discussed filter back down to those leaders in the trenches. If cabin leaders, for example, feel that specialists are not being helpful enough with camper behavior management, the program staff needs to know that a perceived problem exists. Weekly staff meetings with the entire staff should focus on issues applicable to all leaders and avoid discussions that apply to only parts of camp life. More specific problems can be addressed in smaller scale meetings at other times.

Camp life
All staff (who interact with children regularly) should at some point live with campers. Ideally, this means that both specialists and cabin leaders share cabin or bunk duties. This might seem redundant because cabin leaders are hired to do this, but it is necessary for a thorough understanding of camper psychology. If a cabin leader or general counselor is supposed to spend most of the day with a specific group of campers, that is fine, but specialists can share duties at critical times such as before breakfast, at meals, and before bedtime. This lessens the burden on the primary cabin leader but also helps the specialist understand the children showing up each morning to his or her program area. These times when cabin and program staffs are together also promotes bonding because it offers common experiences, problems, and moments of fun. Finally, it promotes a transparency from the camper's perspective. You might know that your staff is functionally divided, but campers will not if they see their favorite leaders in their living areas and at meals.

The off-season
The off-season is a great time to diversify the skills of your staff. Make funds available for staff to take certification courses. Encourage a lifeguard to get a ropes certification, or a cabin leader to take a rifle safety course. The small investment on your part will pay off in two ways. First, you will get a returning staff member who is fired up to try something new and flexible enough to be used in several program areas. Second, the staff member will have acquired a skill that he or she can use during the winter. This makes the camp staff experience a positive force and increases the likelihood that a staffer will return for another season (which of course saves you time and money). Also, boost staff salaries based on off-season training they take. This means you pay twice, for the training and in higher salaries, but you encourage diversification and help boost your return rates. Remember that, in general, the more staff who return, the stronger the camp. If your staff does not want to return, you are probably doing something wrong.

The Principles of Success

Frederick Gunn, arguably the founder of summer camp, believed in four principles of youth work: character building, education, physical activity, and outdoor education. One hundred and forty years after Gunn first went “gypsying” with his students, organized camp still embodies Gunn's four ideals. As a camp professional, you should not try to staff your camp to cover each of Gunn's four domains but rather to find individual staff members who embody all of them. This is a distinction that should not be ignored.

Jon C. Malinowski, Ph.D. is a college professor, camp program director, staff leadership trainer and consultant, and the co-author of The Summer Camp Handbook. He can be contacted by sending an email to jon@campspirit.com.

 

Originally published in the 2001 November/December issue of Camping Magazine.

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