Believe it or not, rewriting (or writing for the first time) your staff handbook is much like the experience of making a really good sandwich! Camp Illahee decided a few years ago that our staff handbook needed a major overhaul after hearing Michael Brandwein’s inspiring workshop, “Manual Dexterity,” at the American Camping Association National Conference in Chicago (1999). Our “old” staff handbook had really good “stuff” in it, but unfortunately, once in the hands of the staff before camp began, it was rarely looked at or even referred to again. A year later, we had a new handbook to mail to our staff before the start of orientation — one with a completely different look (inside and out) from the one used in the past. You might consider going from the “old” to a “new” staff handbook in much the same way as you make a sandwich — from choosing the “bread” (cover) to deciding on the “meat,” “cheese,” and “condiments” (topics/subtopics).
How Do You Intend to Use Your Staff Handbook?
Although the opening paragraph may have whetted your appetite, unfortunately, we’re not quite ready to start making that sandwich just yet. The first question that you need to ask is “how do you intend to use your staff handbook?” The answer to that question will drive the rewriting of your current piece. Here are some options to consider:
- Will it be sent to staff prior to the start of camp?
- How will it be used during staff orientation?
- Will there be a handbook “test?” If so, will it be on paper or online?
- Will it be used during other staff meetings throughout the summer?
- Will it be an ongoing reference?
- Will staff turn it in at the end of the summer and updates made for next year (recycle) or will a new handbook be sent each camp season?
What Will You Call Your Handbook?
Once the intent of how your handbook will be used has been established, the next step in the process is to name it. You might call it simply “Handbook” or “Manual” or perhaps use a creative descriptor as did one participant in The Nuts and Bolts of Revising Your Staff Handbook session at the 2002 ACA National Conference. The participant suggested the name, “Compass,” because the handbook will be providing direction to staff.
The Outside — Bread or Roll?
Now the fun begins — it is time to start thinking about making that sandwich! Based on how your handbook will be used, you are now ready to consider what it will look like on the outside (bun or croissant? white or wheat? 6-inch or a footlong?). Take a look at various books on your shelf to get a feel for different sizes and styles — pick one that works best for you! Some ideas for the style and size of the handbook cover are:
- A three-ring view binder — which allows pages to be added if necessary or provides dividers and notebook paper at the end for staff to organize their own notes and additional handouts.
- Spiral-bound or stapled booklet.
- Folder or other report cover.
- 8½- by 11-inch cover or smaller.
- A compact handbook to easily fit in a backpack or other bag carried by staff.
The design for the cover also lends itself to several options:
- Add your camp logo.
- Use one or more photos.
- Choose between a four-color or black-and-white design.
- What type of paper will be needed — heavier weight paper for dividers, colored paper, three-hole punched paper, and/or notebook paper to include for notes?
- What type of cover will be used — a binder, a paper folder, etc.?
The Inside — Meat and Cheese
Now it’s time to finally think about the inside of your staff handbook. Examine your “old” handbook and write each topic/subtopic on an index card. Spread the index cards on a table and find “themes” or headings that could be grouped together and classified as one major idea. Next, choose the “meat” and “cheese” of your handbook — those topics that are critical to the understanding of working with children in your camp setting. It is important to choose an opening that “hooks” your staff so that they want to read more — make them thirsty to learn all about the job they are about to undertake! Good openings might include a story, a camper situation that they might have to deal with, a staff/camper/parent quote, or other testimonial. Be creative here!
Next, add a section that covers your camp’s philosophy. To help you generate topics for this section, answer the question: “Why Are We Here?” Include your camp’s mission and also give specifics about how your mission is achieved. Another part of your “meat and cheese” might include “Tools of the Trade.” These are the most important tools with which you feel all staff members should be equipped in order to do the best job possible. Teach these tools during orientation and reteach them continuously throughout ongoing training at staff meetings during the summer. As an example, Camp Illahee’s tools are:
- Setting Expectations Early
- Listening and Asking Questions Versus Telling
- How to Have a Group Meeting
- Giving Positive Praise
- Respond to EVERY Situation with Patience, Kindness, and Love
Adding the Condiments
Once the substance or “meat” and “cheese” of your handbook has been decided, the rest of the topics/subtopics — the “condiments” — are added. Each camp will have its own choice of condiments based on its unique situation and culture. A sample of these are:
- Ins and Outs of Being a Counselor — daily schedule, opening/closing days, overnights, rainy days, Sunday schedule, etc.
- Health and Safety — risk management topics
- Guidelines and Personnel Policies
- Have Fun — a resource area for staff to find name games, circle games, affirmation circle ideas, etc.
- Room to Grow — add as you go — sample forms, job descriptions, weekly/daily schedules, etc.
One way to add color to your handbook without using color ink is to print each section on a different color paper or have a colored divider for the first page of each section (use a heavier weight of paper). These are natural ways to break up the handbook into easy-to-find sections.
Having selected the bread, meat and cheese, and condiments, we can finally begin thinking about the presentation of the best sandwich about to be created! To get ideas for making each page have its own unique layout, take a look at samples of brochures, flyers, magazine articles, etc., to get ideas for what can be done to present your information in the clearest, most eye-catching way possible. Here are some ideas to consider when looking at your handbook, one page at a time:
- Computer software — you can do a lot with Microsoft Word® and WordPerfect®, and there are layout programs that offer even more, such as QuarkXPress® and Pagemaker®.
- Fonts — use more than one for variety; some take up more vertical/horizontal space than others.
- Use color — paper, ink, stickers, rubber stamps, etc.
- Columns — try switching from one to three columns to give each page its own “look.”
- Blank space — not every page needs to be filled! Keep ‘em guessing!
- Interactive worksheets and/or bullets — leave room for staff members to add on to lists or fill-in-the-blank during orientation or other training opportunities.
- Recycle — make sure to include sample “schedules” (opening/closing day, etc.) that may get distributed multiple times during the season; save our trees and only give them once!
- Shading — it’s amazing what you can do with borders and boxes around certain text or using white, black, and gray to highlight certain words, headings, or other information.
- Graphics and clip art — these should be fun and used to help emphasize a point or topic.
- Photos — use a digital camera to make inserting pictures easy. Really show staff what a great counselor “looks” like by the photos you choose.
- Placement on page — be creative placing words, graphics, ideas on a page . . . use left, right, center justifications; think top, bottom, left, right, or diagonal.
- Quotes — are great to mix in anywhere they seem appropriate. Use your favorite quote books, camper/parent/staff comments from evaluations, etc. Just be sure to reference each idea that comes from another person or source.
The Perfect Sandwich
Once your staff handbook is the masterpiece and tasty sandwich you would like it to be, there are ways to revise it for the next thirty years without a major overhaul each summer. It is a good idea to make your handbook look different from year to year, especially if there is a large return rate of staff. It is simple to change the photos — with a digital camera this is very easy. Another quick revision is to change the color/design of the handbook on the outside so that at first glance it looks different. Go through the handbook page by page to see if there is another “look” for the layout without changing the content…a new graphic, change the shading, add a picture. The choices for subtle, but important changes that will make each year’s handbook unique are limitless. Another suggestion is to have a hidden word or phrase somewhere in the handbook for staff to “find.” A prize for the first staff member to e-mail back with the answer is always a winner!
Kim Wenzl is the associate director for Camp Illahee for Girls. She has been in resident camping for over sixteen years and an educator since 1988. Wenzl is a trainer/facilitator for BCDC (Basic Camp Director) courses and presents regularly at regional and national ACA conferences. She can be reached at 828-883-2181 or firstname.lastname@example.org .
Originally published in the 2002 July/August issue of Camping Magazine.