A Glimpse Behind the Curtain: Developing the Next Generation of Camp Directors

by Diane Tyrrell, C.C.D.

Camp counselor Dorothy has spent several arduousbut- rewarding summer seasons supervising her cabin groups. She kept them safe from flying monkeys and taught them how to throw apples with accuracy and how to navigate using the yellow brick road GPS system. She brought in a consultant to help the campers learn about poppies in the natural environment and the impact of global temperature change — and spent countless hours boosting Lion's self-esteem, helping Tin Man learn to make and keep friends, and made sure that Scarecrow got his Ritalin on time every day. She has found the counseling job to be so rewarding that she has decided to make a career out of it and become a camp director. After completing her education, she is hired as the director of Emerald City Summer Camp, L.L.C., replacing the former director — the Great-and-Powerful Wizard.

However, after a few months on the job, Dorothy is floundering fast and has started to wonder if she shouldn't have stayed in Kansas. After all, she had spent several summers at the camp, and none of what was happening now had gone on then . . . or had it? So much of what is happening under her watch didn't happen when the wizard was there . . . or did it? Maybe she isn't cut out for this job after all. But what Dorothy doesn't know is that everything she is facing — from problems with the health department to dealing with the parents of campers — are the same types of things that did occur while she was there as a camp counselor . . . She just never got to see behind the curtain.

"Pay No Attention to the Man Behind the Curtain!"

We as operators and directors are very good at playing the wizard-behind-the-curtain — magically making the day-to-day operations happen, doing a majority of this work in a very much behind-the-scenes environment. Often, it is with intention that we keep much of our activity behind-the scenes — and we often do so for some very legitimate reasons:

  • To keep counseling and program delivery staff focused: As one director put it, "I want my staff to be focused on their responsibilities with the campers, so I try really hard not to distract them with all of the other stuff that happens during the day. The ideal situation is that they are not even aware there ever was a problem."
  • To maintain confidentiality: "A lot of the problems I have to solve involve confidential issues with campers, their parents, and staff. Obviously, this has to be done in private, and is always handled behind the scenes."
  • To maintain confidence in the program: "I want the staff to have a strong belief in the program and confidence in the people running it. If they saw the sheer volume of stuff, including problems, that we deal with every day, and were in the middle of the day-to-day ‘organized chaos,' they may develop a perception that the camp is in a constant ‘state of emergency.' We try to handle things quickly and quietly with as little disruption to the program as possible, and then we move on to the next challenge."
  • To maintain confidence in the director/ administrative staff: "You know those days when you laugh to keep from crying? Well, during the course of a season, a director might face many of those types of challenges. And, because we, as directors, have to function in ways that ensure our staffs have confidence in our leadership and ability to problem solve, we may hold many of our cards — and even our own emotions — close to the vest. While another experienced camp director would totally understand what I am going through, our general camp counselors don't have that same sense of context, and if they saw all that we did sometimes, they might think we were teetering on the brink."
  • It's not always sunny behind the curtain: "The behind-the-curtain operation isn't always what we want others to see. Behind the scenes at camp is where we take out the trash, fire employees, are challenged by parents, deal with regulatory agencies, etc., and it isn't the idyllic mission-based panoramic view of the smiling faces and pretty facilities that we sell in our brochures. That view is reserved for the participants, and we guard it with a passion by keeping the ‘ugly' stuff concealed."

For many of us, we have become so good at functioning behind the curtain that we almost forget that it is there. Problem solving is much like breathing to an experienced camp director, and the day-to-day operational and business items become second nature; it's what we do, and we become very good at it.

However, while we have some legitimate reasons for "maintaining the curtain," we may be doing a disservice to those staff who have expressed an interest in camp as a career — potential young and emerging professionals — by not exposing them to the other side, at least on occasion . . . .

Pulling Back the Curtain

Imagine if the wizard had let Dorothy see — and work — behind the curtain while she was planning her career, during the summers while she was going to college.

She probably would have learned about the business aspects of the operation, been able to observe "big picture" decision making, learned how to keep her cool in a crisis, gained a better understanding of operational planning, and had an educated perspective of the realities of running a summer camp. And as a result, she would probably be in a much more functional place now as the director.

Benefits for future camp leaders in getting to see behind-the-scenes camp operations may include:

  • Gaining a better understanding of the "bigger picture" of the camp operation
  • Acquiring a better understanding of operational areas to which they otherwise may not have exposure, such as the office, business and finance operations, food service, facility management, etc.
  • Decision making from a "big picture" scope of responsibility
  • Organizational planning, development, and management
  • Skill-set development in areas such as marketing, communications, human resources, etc.

The process for allowing them to see behind the curtain can be simple or in-depth, casual or formal, but should be intentional. Here are some ideas to get you thinking . . . .

  • Highlight decisions that were made and why with weekly or daily conversations.
  • Provide activities/training for the participants to practice decision making.
  • Provide activities/training for the participants to learn/practice specific skills that are used by the director daily/weekly.
  • Allow training in/exposure to various aspects of the day-to-day operations of the camp.
  • Offer internships in various areas throughout the camp's operation.
  • Create "fireside chats" with administrative staff to learn about the lifestyle, responsibilities, job duties, stressors, skills required, etc. of being a camp director.
  • Assign a daily or weekly task, such as doing cabin assignments, laundry pick-up, or mail delivery, as a learning opportunity.
  • Put staff in charge of planning/ executing a big event.

The opportunities are endless! How far back the curtain goes is certainly something for consideration, and there may be certain circumstances when it isn't appropriate to include these additional staff in the actual process. But "overprotecting" these staff doesn't help them learn either; exposure to reality — including your "ugly stuff" — is a critical part of this learning process! By accepting that there are times when it's OK for Toto to pull back the curtain and expose what's going on behind the scenes, we are in a better place to educate and mentor young and emerging professionals.

Just think back to when you were in Dorothy's shoes as a new director (and despite whatever disaster fell upon you, there was no clicking your heels together to wish your way back home). Certainly, we have all had those moments where we wished for the collective wisdom of those who went before us. Rather than keeping the curtain closed and risking letting a house drop on prospective camp leaders, we can allow them behind the curtain and share the opportunity to be the "goodwitches" and empower those who will replace us in the future!

Diane Tyrrell, C.C.D., has been working in camps for twenty-seven years and directing for eighteen years with experience in nonprofit and for-profit operations. She is the camp director for Camp Motorsport, a race car driving sports specialty camp, www.campmotorsport.com, is the president of ACA, Virginias, and also serves on the American Camp Association National Board.

Originally published in the 2008 March/April issue of Camping Magazine.