Developing a Strong Staff Team: Tips for precamp training and beyond

by Kelly Privitt

Most camps employ a diverse group of individuals with different backgrounds, values, and beliefs. Yet, after just a few days of training, this staff team lives and works harmoniously together. How does this transformation happen? How do you turn a group of individuals into a team with the strength and power to give campers and staff a world of good? It’s a matter of the administrative team setting expectations, obtaining commitment to those expectations, and treating staff with respect.

Setting Staff Expectations

Camp work is not for everyone. The long hours and little time to oneself can deter some people from working at camp. However, there are some people who thrive on working in the outdoors and positively influencing the lives of children. These are the people you want at your camp. To select these people who are best suited to camp work, have clear expectations and make them known during the interview process. Review staff expectations and personnel policies, such as time off, smoking, tattoos, piercing, curfew, and zero tolerance for drugs and alcohol during sessions. Let potential staff know simple things like how long the work day is or that limited smoking breaks will be available. By letting potential staff know both the positive and negative sides of working at camp, you help them make an educated decision and ensure that they are aware and willing to abide by your rules. You also help to avoid conflict and a summer full of potential problems.

Reviewing personnel policies
Your staff manual is important in outlining your expectations and policies to staff. Make sure staff members receive a copy of the manual and have them sign a statement saying they have received a copy of your camp’s personnel policies when they receive their staff manual. This will help you when your staff members say they never knew something was a policy.

Since most staff will not read your staff manual, review your personnel and sexual harassment policies, which are outlined in your staff manual, during precamp training and focus on working with a diverse staff.

One way to convey your camp’s policies are through "public service announcements" (PSAs). These PSAs are humorous vignettes, which display the desired or the undesirable behavior with clear explanations of the expected behavior and the consequences of staff members’ actions if they choose not to follow the policies.

For example, to show what is appropriate clothing for camp, have supervisors dress in inappropriate clothing, such as shirts with beer or drug advertisements, high heels, and clothes staff would not like to get dirty. The supervisors then have a fashion show and explain why each item is inappropriate. The last person dresses in the recommended camp attire, such as shorts that reach mid thigh, loose fitting T-shirt, and close-toed shoes. The counselors have a chance to ask questions and are told that they will be asked to change if they are wearing inappropriate clothing. This clearly explains what attire is expected, as well the consequence for wearing inappropriate clothing.

Professionalism counts
Another topic to address during training is professionalism. Remind staff of the "package" they brought to the interview. They probably acted cheerful, polite, and interested in your questions. They were clean, neatly dressed, and well groomed. They gave the perfect answers to your questions: "I work well with all people" or "I’m a hard worker." During a group discussion, remind staff of how the above behaviors and answers to your questions are the reasons they were selected over another candidate. Let them know you will accept only what was presented to you during the interview.

Teaming up new and old staff
In your training sessions, it is important that you address both new and returning staff. Both groups need to receive the same information. Returning staff are also an excellent resource since they know your expectations. At the beginning of precamp training, pair up new and returning staff. Ask returning staff to share their experiences and offer a peer’s prospective to new staff members’ questions and concerns, something an administrator is unable to do. Pairing new and old staff also helps to break down the "us" and "them" mentality that can emerge between new and returning staff members.

Discussing Staff Behavior

During staff training, discuss the behaviors you expect from your staff while on the camp property and off. Remind staff that working at camp is their choice.

Defining expected behaviors
Staff are more apt to follow expected behavior if they are given the opportunity to define what makes a good leader and their idea of a model staff member. Have staff brainstorm what they feel makes a good staff member and negotiate a list of behaviors and guidelines they are willing to commit to for the summer. This list should then be posted in high visibility places around camp for all to see (see the sample list at left). Once posted, the attributes are no longer negotiable, and all staff members must follow this code of ethics and values. Refer to the list throughout the summer if you need to remind staff of expected behaviors.

Behavior outside of camp
Talk to your staff about how their behavior outside of camp affects your team. For example, if they begin a romantic relationship with another staff member and it fails, they will still have to work with and be nice and pleasant to that individual. If they have a beer on their break and an accident happens when they go back at camp, their defense is compromised. Some staff may think twice about drinking if they know they will also have to face a parent or care provider and explain what happened.

One downfall of staff training exercises is that some staff will tell you what they think you want to hear and others will challenge your policies. For example, some staff will tell you drinking a beer on their time off will not affect their work when they return to camp or that having a relationship with a consenting adult is their right. First, do not argue with your staff. They are probably right on both accounts.

When staff challenge policies
It is important that staff understand why you have certain policies and know your clear expectations of their behavior. To defend your policies effectively, you must know why they exist. Telling staff "because I said so" will get you nowhere. Therefore, when making your non-negotiable policies, take into consideration how few days off staff members have, that due to location staff may not be able to leave camp even on their days off, and that abstaining from physical relationships and drinking is difficult for some individuals. Be careful not to set up yourself or your staff to fail.

When staff challenge the need for certain policies, remind them that you reviewed the policies during the interview and that they made the decision to work within your parameters. Also, remind them what the consequences are if they choose to violate the policies. Some policies, such as no drugs or alcohol on the camp property, are not negotiable and will result in the staff member being terminated. Other policies, such as the use of the camp telephone, curfew, and time off, are not as absolute and staff should be coached and counseled to change their behavior. The staff may receive a verbal or written warning for these policies. Most staff need only one verbal warning to understand you are serious.

Create a Staff Mission Statement

While defining expected conduct and behavior is important, it is also necessary to define your group’s behaviors and goals, which can be done by developing a staff mission statement (see sidebar above).

Most camps have a mission statement. However, a staff mission statement can help staff stay focused on common goals that they can work toward throughout the summer. To develop a staff mission statement, break your staff into three groups. Make sure each group has a mixture of administrative, health care, kitchen, maintenance, program, and counseling staff. Have each group define three goals they want to work on for the summer season, and then have your staff regroup and share their goals with the group.

Through large-group discussion, find similarities and narrow these goals into three large group goals. Take these three goals and develop a mission statement that staff will be comfortable following and working toward throughout the summer. (Remember, some of your staff members may not be familiar with what a mission statement is, so it may be necessary to explain the importance and the significance of why you would have a mission statement.) When the mission statement has been finalized, post it around camp for all to see and to remind staff of their shared group goals.

If there seems to be a conflict with the camp mission statement and the staff mission statement, call your group goals a vision statement. Be flexible as your goal is to build staff morale and common goals everyone can work toward throughout the summer.

Empowering Staff through Communication

Staff communication is important as all staff need to feel they have a voice in what happens at "their" camp. Each person has a different perspective of how things work or do not work based on their position. Staff meetings and a suggestion box are a few examples of how to get staff communicating. At staff meetings discuss what worked during a session and what didn’t work. Ask staff to share what they liked and what they would like to see continued, for example, "We like the change in program times to accommodate the time it takes to get from one program to the next."

Also ask staff to voice their concerns about what they would like to see improved. Make sure to set ground rules for this part, such as staff must be constructive in their criticism and they must have a solution for their complaint. This will help prevent the meeting from becoming a time to complain about others and to focus on the negative aspects of the problem. Encourage staff to share their solution and ask the group if it is a possible solution. If their concern is about something, such as ACA standards or other regulations, that cannot be changed, explain why during the meeting. If you can make a change, put it into practice as soon as possible and evaluate it at the next meeting. This helps staff develop problem-solving skills and enables them to feel they have valid concerns and solutions.

Offer a Pat on the Back

All staff members need to feel that their work is appreciated, especially those who work long hours with little pay. A reward system, such as a raffle, is one way to do this and help them stay focused on positive behavior. Supervisors can give "high fives" (raffle slips) to staff members they see doing something well or to thank them for a good day. Staff them put the slips into the raffle box and a drawing is held several times during the summer. The prizes can be such things as small trading-post items, a pizza delivered, or an extra two-hour break. This also helps supervisors focus on the positive things their staff is doing instead of focusing on the negative.

These rewards offer staff members external motivation to help them when they are re-evaluating why they are at camp or why they thought a camp job was such a good idea in the first place. Small tokens of appreciation help to make camp a fun place to work and give an extra boost of motivation.

Camp Director as Role Model

Just as counselors are role models to campers, you, as the camp director, are a role model to your staff. You must demand the same behaviors from yourself as from your staff. Being a good camp director is like being a good parent. Just because staff members are over the age of eighteen does not mean they have the maturity of an adult. Be consistent and remind them that they are the grown-ups of the group. For many of them, it may the first time they have had to be responsible for anyone — including themselves. Your job is to guide them and help them develop leadership skills. Just like children, they will succeed and fail. Be fair, patient, and understanding to allow them to feel safe to develop and strengthen their skills. Your reward will be staff members who leave camp better people because of what you have taught them.

Originally published in the 2000 January/February issue of Camping Magazine.