Staff orientation training is a jam-packed period of time that can last anywhere from a few hours to a week or more. Ice breakers, camper development, activity training, and health and safety are just a few of the topics that will be covered in some form or fashion prior to the arrival of the first group of campers for this year's summer season. At some point usually sooner than later during the training period, staff members are assigned to work together as co-counselors in a cabin or bunk, co-leaders of a day camp group, activity specialists of program areas, or as a team of medical, food service, or other support staff. In a similar manner to meeting your freshman college roommate(s) for the first time, there can be a period of awkwardness as you adjust to your new surroundings and the people with whom you will be working. Not to mention, within a short amount of time, you and your co-counselor(s) will be the adults in charge of a group of campers who will be looking to you for guidance and leadership for the upcoming camp session.
As combinations of veteran and new staff form working relationships, you have a golden opportunity to set yourself up for success before the campers arrive. Children will look to you to set the tone in their living and activity groups in much the same way as they do with their parents. Youth quickly figure out where the "weak link" in adult leadership can be found and will be tempted to use the dysfunction to their advantage if they sense those in charge are not on the same page. It is beneficial to get to know what constitutes a "big deal" or a "no big deal" to your co-staff members at the front end of the summer so that you can establish a system that allows you to support each other in your similarities and differences of ideas about sharing a living/working space, leading camper groups, following camp policies, and doing your job. Investing time in these valuable dialogues will allow you to form a team that ultimately works well together even if there are situations throughout the summer when not everyone agrees.
A Big Deal or No Big Deal?
Because it is often challenging to fit everything in as it is during staff orientation, the following activity is an important "session" that may not be designated as a specific meeting time during your training period. It is designed for you to do with your co-counselor(s) as you are getting settled in your living/work areas. In the Big Deal or No Big Deal Survey  is a list of questions that you and your co-counselor(s) should answer individually as honestly as possible. For purposes of this exercise, co-counselor refers to configurations of staff working together in the cabin/bunk/tent, in program activity areas, as leaders of a day camp group, or as co-workers in the medical, food service, or other support area. Questions are broken down according to personal preferences for living/working in the same space together, counseling and leadership styles, camp policies, and work ethic. You will have the opportunity to answer "BD" for big deal if that issue is important to you or "NBD" if that particular item on the list does not bother or concern you. Some items may not pertain to you depending on the job you will have at camp this summer. This is just a partial list of questions to get you started; there is also the option to add other questions that are fitting to your specific camp situation.
Upon completion of the "big deal" or "no big deal" survey, there are two final questions to contemplate before discussing answers with your co-counselor(s):
- Why did you choose to spend your summer at camp?
- When/how do you want to be approached by your cocounselor( s) in the event there is a difference in personal preferences, leadership/counseling styles, camp policies, or work ethic that needs to be discussed during the course of the summer?
Answering these questions will help put into perspective where your co-counselor is coming from when the "big deal" or "no big deal" responses given to the other items are compared. A veteran staff member may have grown up at this camp and couldn't imagine spending a summer doing anything else, whereas a new staff member may be working at camp through an internship program that is a requirement for graduation in elementary education. While both are valid reasons for being at camp, each staff member may have a different approach to the job of being a counselor this summer. It is also helpful to find out from your co-workers how they prefer to be approached in the likelihood there will be a difference of opinions on an issue or way of doing things. Chances are, very few people, if any, will request that you "beat around the bush" in these instances. Spending this time before something becomes a "big deal" will open the door for future conversations that can quickly turn a potential misunderstanding into that which is "no big deal."
Once you have had the opportunity to compare responses, you will be well on your way to fostering a working relationship with fellow staff members in both living and program areas. It will also be important to address how the daily routine will be established before the campers arrive; adopting a "wait-and-see" attitude will make it challenging for both you and the campers. Talk through with your co-counselor(s) the details of wake-up and clean-up, mealtimes, rest hour, transition times, program activities, bedtime, and other specific routines of a typical day at your camp. It is beneficial to follow up a few days into the session with your camp colleagues to tweak any factors affecting the daily schedule or discuss any issues that may arise during this time. It is equally important to regroup before the start of each new session so that changes can be made based on what did and did not work well and to include any new staff in on the process.
A Valuable Training Tool
The "Big Deal" questionnaire was originally developed for Camp Wingate-Kirkland in Yarmouth Port, Massachusetts, as an actual session during staff week following the assignment of co-counselors in the bunk. Counselors at Wingate-Kirkland have a unique situation in that most bunk configurations consist of three counselors and a CIT. Shortly after counselors were given their bunk pairings and had the chance to move into their new "home" for the summer, they were brought to a central location where they met in groups with their head counselor according to the age of campers with whom they would be working. They then were led through a series of activities (see "Working With Campers" sidebar) that culminated with the "Big Deal" survey of questions. Head counselors were given specific roles in these activities and through this process were given a front row seat into seeing how the co-counselor relationships took root as they got to know one another.
Charlie Rubenstein, one of the head counselors from Camp Wingate-Kirkland that summer, facilitated his staff through this progression of activities, which was followed by important discussions as cocounselors compared answers following the individual reflection time spent on responses to the "Big Deal" or "No Big Deal" list of questions. He stated, "This is the stuff that no one ever thinks to talk about, but that everyone needs to talk about. It can be the difference in having a 'make it or break it' relationship between staff working together in a camp community. In any situation when people are working together, the small stuff is quite often the 'deal breaker.'"
Rubenstein also mentioned that in his role as head counselor, the "Big Deal" exercise is a good way to level the playing field between staff in close working relationships. "By taking time during the orientation training period to stop and talk about potential issues that will come up over the course of the summer, staff are in safe position to have a conversation at a later date about something that may be of concern to one of the parties involved. Having a tangible piece (the list of questions) to reference several days or weeks into the summer is a valuable tool to use as a way to begin a conversation with a fellow counselor," said Rubenstein.
Big Deal/No Big Deal Scenarios
An example of how to use the information gained from the survey is to suppose that an issue arises around the time that campers settle down for the night. One counselor puts them to bed at the designated hour according to the camp schedule, and another counselor consistently allows them to stay up late and often distracts the neighboring bunks. In this and other similar instances, the staff member who is giving campers the freedom to have a later bedtime probably does not realize that this seemingly "no big deal" decision may be turning into a "big deal" to his or her fellow staff members. One way to resolve this discrepancy of camper bedtime is for the affected staff member to approach the other counselor and say,
Remember when we talked about "Big Deal" issues during orientation training? I would like to speak with you about the time that our campers are getting to bed each night. I know that it is fun to hang out with our bunk and that the time can easily slip by without even knowing it. However, I have noticed that it is harder to get campers up in the morning and that it is a challenge for them to get through bunk clean-up without snapping at each other. It is also possible that we are keeping neighboring bunks up since we are all living in close proximity. I would like to request that we get back on the same page with their bedtime since camp days are packed with activity and energy, and it would benefit our campers to start each day well rested. It will make our jobs easier in the long run.
This approach would then allow the co-counselors to talk through how they might handle camper bedtime in the future.
The "Big Deal" session has been an official part of staff training for other camps as well. It was presented to a large group of day-camp staff in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, as a way for group leaders to come together and start the summer as a united front. At a camp in North Carolina, staff actually did this exercise before receiving cabin placements. They participated in the activities leading up to the "Big Deal" survey and then were able to follow up with the list of questions once cabin assignments were made. Program staff were grouped by activity and took time to discuss the "Big Deal" issues that could be faced when working together at the waterfront or riding ring, in the office, or on trips out of camp.
Take the opportunity to establish a working relationship with your cocounselor( s) and to help camper groups do the same. You can use a slightly adapted version of the "Big Deal" or "No Big Deal" questionnaire with your campers to assist them in developing a framework for being and working together in a group.
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Kim Aycock, M.S.T., has over twenty years of experience in year-round and seasonal summer camp positions and as a middle/high school and college level educator. She is equally comfortable and effective teaching in a classroom or outdoor setting, training camp staf f to work with children, or presenting educational sessions at regional and national conferences. Kim teaches with sensitivity, creativity, and enthusiasm, and has the ability to connect with and motivate learners of all ages. More information can be found at: www.kimaycock.com . The author may be contacted at 601-832-6223 or email@example.com .
Originally published in the 2010 May/June issue of Camping Magazine.