Last summer I was inundated with questions from counselors who were worried about doing a good job. This theme was repeated over and over in all types of camps in several different states. When I asked staff to tell me more about their concerns, they responded in an unusual way. It was not the typical questions about procedural issues or how to deal with larger complex child development topics that was bothering them; it was a much more direct question. Some staff just wanted to know if they were enough to make a difference. What a magnificent question!
It is important to understand the complexities of staff responsibilities as they relate to job functions. When returning staff switch jobs or new hires fill a position or CITs are too old to return to the job they did last year, a transition period will occur. These changes, by definition, will create new learning patterns for both campers and staff. This unique opportunity begins the process you will use to create a meaningful environment for both you and the campers. The secret is already out: You are enough to make a difference!
Setting Goals for the Summer
Start this summer by setting realistic goals you can work toward. It’s important to verbalize your goals to your supervisors, so they can help keep you on task during challenging situations. Remember, they are going to hold you accountable for your decision making, so be pragmatic when you develop your ideas. The following ten suggestions will help you get started. Please don’t limit yourself to this list and remember to refine your goals as you become better at your job.
- Understand the philosophy of the camp you choose.
- Be ready to have your character tested. Not all staff are hired for the same reasons, but you should have a shared vision.
- Understand camp is a living, changing process of growth. Learn to determine when the real value happens in activities.
- Become a leader by knowing program objectives. Be ready to participate at all times. This will model desired behavior.
- Know when to push campers out of their comfort zone and when to pull back and be patient.
- Always be specific in praise or correction situations. Be genuine when acknowledging successes.
- Listen. Truly listen. You cannot listen if you are talking.
- Be honest and act with integrity. Be careful of actions during nonactivity times.
- Lead by example. Work hard.
- Smile, have fun, and enjoy your summer.
Maximize Your Camp Experience
To maximize your camp experience, you need to determine which independent variables you have control over and which you don’t. For example, do not spend a lot of time worrying about the weather, how high the climbing wall is, or even if breakfast will be on time. Instead, concentrate on your immediate responsibilities like getting to know the campers in your cabin, being sure where activities are located, or learning routine daily procedures. Mastering this basic knowledge will allow you to interject your personality and leadership style while making group decisions. Being able to interpret the rules or knowing where to go is a critical step in developing a strong sense of empowerment.
Be careful not to fall into the trap of looking at someone else and feeling inadequate. It is easy to do when somebody has more experience or a valuable certification, but the true meaning of the camp experience will be founded on your ability to develop quality relationships. Even if making friends is an uncomfortable thought to you, it is well worth the effort to cultivate key alliances at camp. Developing strong friendships will help you sustain a consistent level of performance, which is the secret to making a difference over the summer. What you bring to camp as a person is an extremely valuable resource. Your thoughts, feelings, and experiences are the link between the camp’s mission and each camper’s individual experience.
You control the most important aspect of the learning process by what you do and say. This position of power gives you an enormous opportunity to help campers grow because you will be the group’s biggest influence.
Some years ago, after a long, hot, humid week in day camp, I was standing near the camper sign-out sheet waiting for the last few kids to be picked up when I was approached by a parent. He asked me a couple of procedural questions, and we began to talk about work responsibilities. I told him I wouldn’t want his job and he asked me why. I said, “Being a Supreme Court justice means your opinions will be debated throughout history and I’m not sure I’d want that responsibility.” He looked around and said, “Do you see that child playing over there?” I said, “Yes.” He said, “As director of this camp, do you believe something you did or said this week will have a positive effect on that child’s life?” I quickly responded, “Of course.” He said, “I don’t want your job.”
After working with thousands of staff during my camp career, I can categorically tell you consistent effort, a positive attitude, the ability to listen, and working each day with integrity are all character traits that will help you have a great camp experience. To be effective over time, you must separate your personal agenda from day-to-day camp responsibilities. Being enough to make a difference, in terms of individual effort, is a two-way communication process. Most campers will form an immediate opinion about you in the first few minutes — and it is critical you appear “in the moment” with them. Campers respect staff who show they are mentally attentive, interested in activities, and engaging in conversation.
Setting the Environment
Determining what your best leadership traits are can be difficult. Being loud is not always better, and having lots of energy is not always productive, so knowing when to step forward can be challenging. Howard Schultz, the founder of Starbucks, says, “People want guidance, not rhetoric. They need to know what the plan of action is, and how it will be implemented. They want to be given responsibility to help solve the problem and authority to act on it” (Schultz & Young, 1999, p. 323).
- Show campers respect. Show them the right way to treat their living space, personal items, program equipment, individual thoughts, and personality differences.
- Take the time to teach campers what is expected. Show them how to live and get along in a community-based environment by being consistent with your own actions. Depending on camper age and activity, have campers help determine the rules.
- Explain what the goal is. Get in the habit of making this an interactive conversation. Then break down the activity so each camper can personalize the experience, even if it is not their favorite.
- Trust other staff. Demonstrate a parallel process of communication by using counselors and specialists to share in your successes and challenges.
- Delegate responsibilities within the group. Pick specific areas of control and have campers switch on and off being in charge.
Your leadership role will be easier once you set the foundation for respect. Personal doubts of self-worth will be strengthened when routines are learned and the task of guiding your group begins. The timeconsuming part of most camp jobs is either managing people or making sure activity areas are safe. Remember, leadership is mostly about behavior, and supervisors will evaluate you based on attitude, performance (how hard you try), and dedication.
Good Daily Decisions
Making good daily decisions will give you power. Recent research conducted at UC Berkeley by psychology professors Chen, Dacher, Keltner, and Kraus (2011) suggests exactly this: Power allows you to be you! More specifically, because it involves the control and freedom to administer rewards and punishments for others, power has the capacity to allow people to be consistent across all situations and contexts. In essence, having power means that a person doesn’t have to engage in strategic self-presentation to appear like someone they are not.
Having the power and knowledge to successfully lead a group or activity is a good beginning. Now you must ask yourself some probing questions.
- What life lessons are we learning through the camp experience?
- What will prevent you from being successful?
- What do your campers want to do and how will you interpret their actions?
- Do you allow them to have input in the decision-making process?
- What did previous campers accomplish?
- How will your summer be remembered?
One of your main objectives at camp is to safely lead campers through a guided process of self-discovery. Do not underestimate the importance of this responsibility. It can be exhausting because the process never takes a day off. Many staff are intimidated by this seemingly endless task and the thought of always rising to the occasion can cause frustration. When this happens, you will begin to get tired and mentally fatigued. This will soon lead to any supervisor’s biggest fear: you becoming mean.
To avoid this problem, you must be confident enough to ask for help before something regrettable happens. This is a great leadership technique and shows supervisors you are trying to expand your knowledge base. The best remedy for keeping your positive attitude in tact is to get some sleep. While it hardly ever happens, it still is a good practice to strive for. In addition to getting rest, you can improve your ability to make a difference if you understand how motivation, or lack of it, can determine the success of your summer.
Many summer experiences are made or lost in the closing weeks of the season. It is extremely rare to find a staff person who is upbeat, positive, and productive every day. The rigors of being a camp counselor can be overwhelming at times, so knowing your own motivational factors is a necessary lifeline for personal growth. When asked why they applied for a camp job, most staff said they wanted to meet new people, live away from home, follow a passion, reconnect with friends, learn new skills, have fun, etc. This can entice people to apply, but what keeps staff coming back? Why do some people go to camp and become lifers?
Frederick Herzberg’s famous research on motivation proved that people will strive to achieve “hygiene” (salary, work conditions, personal relationships) needs because they are unhappy without them, but once satisfied the effect soon wears off — satisfaction is temporary (Chapman, 2010). Then, as now, poorly managed organizations fail to understand that people are not “motivated” by addressing “hygiene” needs. People are only truly motivated by enabling them to reach for and satisfy the factors that Herzberg identified as real motivators, such as achievement, advancement, development, etc., which represent a far deeper level of meaning and fulfillment.
Camp does a better job at promoting, defining, and implementing core values than any other child development profession. Most camp professionals started out just like you — wondering if they were going to be good enough to make a difference. It takes a special person to do this job well and anyone who tries hard will be carrying out a mission which has stood the test of time for over 150 years.
Enough to Make a Difference
Now you know you are enough to make a difference. Congratulations! Successful staff learn to make immediate contributions by focusing on what they can control. This is done by becoming invested in camper preferences and cultivating staff friendships. Your personal strengths will be displayed by what you do and say, so be sure to approach each day with integrity.
Use a two-way communication process to show campers you are interested in what they are doing. Base group interactions on respect by taking time to show campers what the desired behavior is. Once you learn the rules and master daily routines, your confidence will rise, allowing you to lead your campers through a process of self-discovery. Learn how to ask for help and pace yourself throughout the summer by understanding what your motivational factors are.
Counselors who want to succeed through achievement and personal development will excel over staff who just want to hang out or make a little money. Camp helps define what your core values are, while teaching you a formula for personal success. Be confident you can make a difference, and know what you learn from this summer will change your life forever.
Chapman, A. (2010). Frederick Herzberg motivational theory. Retrieved from www.businessballs.com 
Kraus, M. W., Chen, S., & Keltner, D. (2011). The power to be me: Power elevates self-concept consistency and authenticity. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 47, 974-980.
Schultz, H., & Young, D. J. (1999). Pour your heart into it. How Starbucks built a company one cup at a time. New York, New York: Hyperion, p. 323.
Greg Cronin of GC Training Solutions is a certified camp director and staff trainer with over thirty years of staff training experience. For more information on consultant services, trainings, workshops, conferences, or articles, please visit www.GCtrainingsolutions.com . To contact Greg directly, please call 703-395-6661 or e-mail Greg@GCtrainingsolutions.com .
Originally published in the 2012 May/June Camping Magazine.