Counselors Are Teachers

by Seth Herschthal

As Ms. Olsen questioned her captive audience about the digestive functions of a shark, her student campers actively participated with one arm raised as the symbol of the Socratic method while the other arm was busy dissecting the shark mold on the table. Ms. Olsen had effectively transformed the outdoor park pavilion into an interactive biology laboratory where campers learned by doing. In her staff tank top, khaki shorts, and Birkenstock sandals, Ms. Olsen could express herself among the canopy of oak trees and fallen palm fronds as the camp science instructor. She engaged her campers in a hands-on biology lesson because she had done it numerous times previously in her other life as a classroom teacher.

Why Is it Beneficial to Have Certified Teachers as Lead Counselors and Instructors?

Teachers often transmit an air of control amid the organized chaos that is camp. They have taught social studies and geometry and still managed to find ways to hold the fleeting attention span of students in a classroom. Now, at summer camp, their mission to hold attention spans becomes easier because all of the activities are inherently fun — it's camp! When things start to verge on out-of-control at a scheduled activity, a teacher emits enough authority to calm the situation. After all, this is what teachers do all year round, and if they like it enough to apply for a position at a summer camp, then their summer evolves into a logical extension of their working lives. It's second nature to them; the surroundings simply turn more natural. Furthermore, who better to have in charge of discipline than a certified teacher?

Discipline as a Crucial Element of Teaching
With child abuse at the forefront of child care issues, parents can breathe a sigh of relief knowing that a teacher will be the lead counselor of their child's bunk group for one to nine weeks of the summer. Of course, all American Camping Association-accredited camps meet high standards for staff training before camp starts, and college-age counselors do learn the art of constructive discipline. They also add a special dimension to camp staff as they relate extremely well to their campers and bring endless storage units of positive and creative energies to camp. To have a blend of college-age and teacher-counselors represents the ideal role models for summer campers.

Cooperative Precamp Training Remains Vital to the Lifeblood of Camp

As camp owners, directors, unit heads, and other lead staff plan precamp orientation for the entire incoming staff, the administrative team cannot forget about the power of "camp consulting." Past counselors and specialists often have gems of pertinent knowledge they like to share with new staff members. Remember to consult with your top returning staff to gain valuable input regarding the training sessions. Former counselors who are teachers during the school year possess the natural ability to do just that — teach. Let the returning teacher-counselors teach some of the areas of the orientation, whether leading role playing simulations involving homesick camper scenarios or showing new staff how a day-in-the-life of a counselor really is out in the field. Strong lead counselors and specialists who are strong teachers love to teach — that is why it is important to keep teachers in mind in the staffing and subsequent training process.

At Camp Live Oak . . . .

Can teachers adjust to the more lax settings of camp and get down on their much younger campers' level? Does it work when a staff is comprised of counselors ages fifteen through fifty? Yes! At Camp Live Oak, it has worked for fifteen years. Actually, certified teachers form the core of the staff at Live Oak and come back year after year to spend their summers outdoors and still be in their element. For example, Ms. Olsen has been the science instructor at the camp for five years and is assisting in the precamp training for the upcoming summer. Based on past parent evaluations, many parents were reassured to hear the calming voice of their children's teacher-counselors as these staff members performed their routine precamp calls to parents. Teachers put everyone involved with their camp at ease.

Are Teachers Learning, Too, and Becoming Better Leaders While at Camp?
While it may be clear to those in the camp world (and what a world it is!) that camp has a positive learning effect on the camper, it is equally intriguing to look at the possible effect on the teacher-counselor. What can a certified teacher who interacts with children year-round take away with them from camp? Besides the intangible and awesome emotional growth that invariably manifests at camp in those adults who fully open up on the mountain or lake, teachers learn novel approaches to reaching children at camp as they often receive more degrees of freedom. The art specialist can finally experiment with that candle-making project because even the weirdest things at camp find a way to mark that summer's unique culture. The lead counselor of the oldest boys' cabin may try different methods of encouraging campers to try a new activity or perform on stage at a talent show. Teachers have room at camp to explore alternatives to what they have been previously comfortable with at school. Furthermore, a camp leader must find ways to motivate, entertain, and discipline twenty-four hours a day with a group of children who are present to push the boundaries and have fun, fun, fun. If a teacher can successfully lead a group of campers in the outdoors all summer long, he or she will probably find the walls of the classroom to be a bit smaller than they once appeared.

Quotes from the Trenches
Having utilized certified teachers for the past twenty-two years at camps, Ken Evans deeply believes that teachers are crucial to a camp's everyday risk management practices as they have been trained previously in knowing the individual needs of children. "A teacher can recognize the child that is being 'left behind' and can consciously work towards molding that unique child into a comfortable camp niche. Sometimes it takes an experienced teacher to take the extra time to show the unique child, and every child, that someone truly cares. To be a teacher is to understand the human soul and to be able to seek out the 'good' in children. The teacher has taken classes in developmental psychology, etc. — and this is their life mission, not just a summer job. For campers with learning or behavioral disabilities, special needs teachers again are trained to deal with these specific and complex issues. Moreover, teachers help not only their campers but also the younger counselors, as they are interspersed among programs. I have used teachers for twenty-two years in all of my programs at Camp Nova at the University School of Nova Southeastern University and at Camp Live Oak, and for the small impact on the camp budget, it is well worth the cost for the excellent safety record."

Also an avid teacher-proponent at camps, Diane Dicerbo of Lynn University's Pine Tree Camps, feels strongly that certified teachers represent an integral piece of the camp puzzle. "Teachers help make camp a fun and educational experience at the same time. Not only are teachers role models to their campers, but they are also role models for the other counselors. A teacher can effectively deal with the diversity of children in a group or bunk and their varied backgrounds. Bringing a variety of tested programs that have already proven to be exciting for children is also a huge plus for having teachers as lead counselors and instructors — they know what works based on the trial-and-error method. And, teachers are true professionals who exude a good old-fashioned work ethic."


Seth Herschthal is currently the administrative director of Camp Live Oak in South Florida. After graduating from Duke University with a B.A. in public policy in 2001, he taught at a bilingual school in the Dominican Republic for one year. Herschthal has worked in camps as a counselor and in outdoor education programs. In 2004, he will begin a master's program in school leadership at Harvard University's Graduate School of Education.


Originally published in the 2004 March/April issue of Camping Magazine.