Mission Impossible: Staff Orientation at Warp Speed

by Greg Cronin, C.C.D.


Article Sidebars
What to Include in Orientation
Three Different Learning Styles

Each year, thousands of camps begin their season by gathering a special group of people together — some returning, some new — for a seemingly impossible task: camp staff orientation. With a very short time to prepare counselors, specialists, and unit leaders, the camp industry will collectively entrust young adults with the unbelievable responsibility of nurturing campers through challenging experiences.

What other industry does this? Can you imagine leaders in the corporate world working with their staff for a few days and telling them to go be proficient at all levels of their operation? The implosion would further be felt if you added the pressure of dealing with unknown responses from an ever-changing clientele.

In a typical camp situation you have between two and seven days to complete orientation. Some exceptions do exist like programs with extremely quick turnarounds or camps with complex medical issues, but regardless of how much time you have, it is never enough. Creating time for staff to bond during free periods can be difficult with the increasing demand for compliance with state and local laws, OSHA regulations, skill development, HIPAA regulations, and paperwork. The pressure to mold a group of strangers into a high functioning team, whose collective responsibility will be to make your mission a reality, is enormous.

Start With the Hiring

For your camp to be successful, you must decide exactly how each component of your operation supports your mission. This starts with being able to articulate your camp's mission to each prospective employee. To effectively give your staff a chance to understand what you want them to do, each individual must possess a high level of ability. Each aspect of their contributions must fit together like a jigsaw puzzle. It is critical for the person who is doing the hiring to understand the existing skills and abilities of the returning staff so you know what traits to look for in potential applicants. This is an extremely important part of orientation planning because the effectiveness of your program hinges on your staff's ability to interpret your directions.

If you know you did a good job explaining the program and you went into great detail about expectations, how do hiring mishaps still occur? Frequently directors are in a hurry during the months leading up to camp and rely on new applicants to ask follow-up questions. This is especially true with large staffs. Sometimes, because of time and logistics, they end up coming to camp without knowing much information. It is very difficult to ascertain what the applicant actually understood from you so personal choices like attitude, tattoos, body piercings and/or behavior patterns may change dramatically. To increase your chances of positive outcomes, make sure you hire applicants based on three qualities: character, intelligence, and skill.

This includes last-minute hires. All too often hiring staff comes down to having to fill a spot. The person who was average in February vaults to amazing in June. What changed? Sometimes an applicant can receive additional training, but, in truth, their personality and intellect stayed the same. Your initial instincts are probably correct, and the applicant may only be able to give you an average performance. Hire enough mediocre staff, and you assure yourself an average program. Before you hire someone who may decrease the capacity of what your staff is achieving, make sure your decision warrants the risk.

Have a Plan

Prior to the staff's arrival you must have an exact plan to communicate all the necessary information to your staff in a short period of time. The most efficient way to accomplish this is to take an outcome-based objective approach. Start by deciding exactly what you want to accomplish from orientation and work backwards toward the beginning. You are the conductor so take your time and orchestrate the experience so each staff member receives the maximum benefit from the time you have. If you do this using current examples/language they understand, you will begin to create a dedicated, motivated, and committed staff.

This scenario sounds like a challenge most rational people would not accept. If you are involved in orientation planning, you have to be a little crazy. With a little guidance, this task known to some as "mission impossible," can be highly successful. The right combination of the three I's (information, intelligence, and interaction) will help you to produce an extraordinary experience which will forever change the lives of your staff. So you might be thinking, how can I help staff meet my expectations?

Information, Intelligence, and Interaction

One of the unpredictable aspects of orientation is how quickly the staff will respond to each other. When a group of people is placed in new surroundings, some will take awhile to acclimate. Others will take the opportunity to express themselves in new and different ways. You can dictate how long this will take and to what degree staff will feel accepted if you inform them of several key points prior to their arrival. First, take the time to explain the mission of your camp (empower them with information). Follow with a thorough description of what camp life is like and more specifically, what their job entails.

Next, create a way to involve them in the development of their own experience (trust their intelligence). Tell them their intellectual contributions will be an important aspect of orientation and give them examples of areas where this will happen like cabin rules/names, mail call, dining hall challenges, etc.

Finally, it is extremely important to promote staff interaction prior to and during orientation (encourage interaction). It accomplishes an additional opportunity to exchange information while building much needed relationships through mutual decision-making.

Embrace the Hidden Agendas

The key to inclusion is to embrace the many hidden agendas of staff. New staff are concerned about where they will sleep or how big the bugs will be. They are worried about fitting in, making friends, being accepted, learning camp lingo, and being liked. Returning staff are already scheming for some of camp's hidden perks, wondering who is returning, planning nights off, talking about last year's campers, and talking about "new staff."

In an ideal world, you would like everyone to just come in and, with a little guidance, do his or her job. This is especially true when they have the advantage of additional training and bringing with them the benefit of certification and skill development. Working at camp is seldom that simple. Whether new or experienced, many staff feel misunderstood. Some begin by trying to fit in only to have their emotions boil over during the first week.

Because the daily life of a director is so hectic, many camp administrators do not recognize the process staff must go through to get ready for the summer. Important personal decisions, which affect job performance, can happen between the signing of contracts and the start of orientation. Often, it is the stress of going to camp which causes a problem to escalate. It is ironic that directors spend months worrying about how each aspect of camp is put together, while staff are simultaneously concerned about how their contributions will be accepted.

Staff Training or Staff Orientation

This difficult problem is one of the reasons staff orientation is a complex and critical part of precamp planning. While many directors prefer to call this magical time before camp "staff training," it is important to understand exactly what each of these terms mean. Completing an orientation, which many staff are familiar with from college or high school, implies an initial exchange of information designed to help counselors become familiar with each other and your program. Staff training connotes a specific perception from the people you hired that when it is over, they are done learning.

In truth, the real training doesn't occur until the campers arrive. Many staff, especially if they are new to working with children, have trouble relating to philosophical concepts. This is quite logical. If someone has no basis of comparison, then his or her perception of what is important may be greatly altered from your mission. Until they get some actual experience, the things you have stressed before and during orientation may not make sense.

The great unknown, in terms of how effective an orientation will be, is frequently forgotten. While the camp is scrambling around getting ready, so are the staff. From their perspective, they are packing; dealing with the emotion of leaving school, leaving home, their country, friends, and family; changing jobs; wondering about a vacation; worrying about financial aid; and many other things that may cause them to arrive unprepared. An astonishing amount of things can occur between the time you met a potential staff member and the time he or she arrives at camp. While some have an amazing ability to adapt, others do not.

How to Communicate

This phenomenon creates the big dilemma. How do you communicate the necessary camp information while helping each staff member become comfortable in his or her new surroundings? To prepare for this, use your number one resource — your returning staff. Carefully plan orientation by using them as active participants before camp starts by putting veteran staff in contact with new staff and provide them with general information that will help to ease difficult transitions. Continue using the benefits of their experience by giving staff the power to run orientation activities, demonstrate skills, give tours, and lead announcements. This does not mean you should give up the tradition of giving the "what ever you do, please conserve the toilet paper speech," but it may require that you delegate some of the tasks typically reserved for directors.

The Big Picture
Early in orientation, make sure you take the time to carefully explain to each staff member what their specific job is and how it relates to the "big picture." Go into detail and do not combine staff of similar jobs in the same discussion. Specialists who work with campers of different ages must also use age-appropriate teaching techniques to ensure activities will be relevant and fun. Counselors must understand how the essential functions of their job differ depending on how old their campers are. Directors must predetermine what traits are specific to each age group and develop a separate list of responsibilities for each type of job.

Information Saturation
Be careful to closely monitor signs of information saturation. When staff begin to uniformly nod as a group or move aimlessly from place to place without enthusiasm, you have lost them. It is difficult for people to communicate their feelings when they are being asked to absorb lots of new policies and procedures. This is where the knowledge of the existing staff's skills and abilities will work to your advantage. Get camp leaders to partner with veteran staff to demonstrate essential policies, create interactive workshops, ensure sessions are relevant, and most of all, to make sure the sessions are fun.

The big secret: staff are not used to being included in the creation of what they are asked to do, but they like it. While some are reluctant at first, most staff are far more likely to be eager participants if they are included in program development. In the case where procedures must be exact — like in the health center or bus duty — have them creatively role play each part. Returning staff love to be busses, parents, sick campers, doctors, and nurses.

A Progression of Skills
Orientation sessions cannot be all business or philosophy. They must contain a progression of skills that address the mental, physical, and emotional needs of each staff member. This is precisely why the entire orientation schedule must be planned ahead of time. Goals and objectives need to be clearly established in writing for all major and minor topics covered. As the framework of these planned sessions unfolds, make sure you discuss what happens if a staff member fails. Part of the apprehension of staff to try new things, such as behavior modification, is their fear of failure. They do not have your experience and often choose to do nothing rather than risk making a mistake. It is your responsibility to teach them avenues for success and what will happen when things go wrong.

Informative Yet Creative?
Given all these complex issues for orientation success, how do you know if you are creating a quality plan, which will be informative yet creative? Think in terms of how young adults receive most of their information. In the world of iPods®, Blackberries®, Bluetooth®, and DSL, staff may require an interactive tutorial in your camp's learning methods. When you incorporate the topics you want covered with relevant learning techniques, you will effectively communicate with most staff.

Start by creating an orientation schedule that mimics a typical camp day.
Follow the same basic program format and stick to typical times for activity changes. Keep in mind the optimum times for offering information-heavy topics. First thing in the morning and after lunch are not good times to ask staff to retain important procedures. They are good times for semi-active activities like name games, simple initiatives, routine chores, or demonstrations. Other factors to consider when scheduling topics include: weather, number of staff present, before or after meals, time of day, day of orientation, facility readiness, ages represented, education, and experience.

To create the "MAGIC" of camp you must understand the different level of learning orientation creates.
Quality orientation programs teach "skills" and "how-to's" simultaneously. As each aspect of the camp experience is dissected, staff learn what is necessary to accomplish each specialty area's goals through interactive workshops. Intuitive leaders use this same time to promote a deeper meaning of the camp experience by creating a process where life skills are valued. For example, when staff visit the archery range for the first time, they are taught safety rules, typical procedures, and range commands. In reality, the importance of archery is secretly hidden in the process of fun. What you really care about is campers following directions, listening, working on muscle control, concentrating, following a series of commands, and respecting others and the environment.

As you go through orientation, actively model the skills you are teaching.
If staff observe this behavior on a consistent basis, they too will use the same techniques with the campers. This parallel process is an extremely valuable tool for the overall growth of your camp. Staff want to emulate camp leaders and will try harder if they respect you for leading by example. Without a good example from the beginning, staff can unintentionally have an adverse affect on programming.

Last summer, I visited a camp where the kids were told of a planned surprise for the next day. They understandably came in for breakfast very excited and immediately began asking the staff questions about what the surprise might be. The first three responses the kids got were: "Not now," "Wait until I have my coffee," and "Don't bother me now, I'm still sleepy." This immediately sent a clear message to the kids that the staff did not care about the event or their questions. Do counselors want the same response when they ask campers to make their beds?

An Exact Science?

As you prepare for orientation, please realize it is not an exact science. Staff need to be understood for the camp to run at peak efficiency. Because of how the world changes, what worked last year may not be effective this year. Work hard to select staff based on character not just on skill. Create avenues for them to get more acquainted with your camp prior to orientation. Carefully plan to model how each aspect of orientation will support your mission. Realize staff are going through a tremendous change to get ready for camp, and they too are concerned about the camp's ability to understand them as individuals. Have a pre-determined plan for implementation that includes the use of returning staff. Organize the schedule like a typical camp day and have staff move in groups that reflect cabin or group size. Promote multi-leveled learning by demonstrating how camp affects life. Empower them to expand themselves beyond their expectations and avoid the irony of limiting their accomplishments through ineffective planning. Teach staff by example how you want them to act and provide a well-designed orientation that leaves them tired and excited about the summer.

Greg Cronin, C.C.D., is a camp consultant and staff trainer with over twenty-five years of camp experience. His interactive workshops, customized trainings, and innovative staff orientations are designed for both day and resident programs. For bookings and more information about other training opportunities, please contact GregCronin-trainings@hotmail.com or 703-395-6661.

Originally published in the 2006 May/June issue of Camping Magazine.




This is going to be indeed a great event that would leave an enduring mark on the educational systems of today. I hope that it would take in all the goodness and make sure it would be implemented over the years to come too.

::: Anti Reflective Glass :::