Hey, you! I know something about you. You want to be a great counselor this summer. You really do. And you can one of the best, most memorable counselors your camp has ever seen.
But this job is going to be a lot harder than you thought. It will tax every part of you mentally, emotionally, and physically. Some days there will be hurdles — lots of them. There may be one kid in your cabin who doesn’t appear to hear any instructions you give, or the entire group might be in chaos because they didn’t get the memo that you are their counselor and the one in charge — and therefore are to be respected and listened to. One camper may forget to visit the restroom and have multiple accidents daily. A staff member you really like might start dating someone else. Or your supervisor seems to only see what you’re doing wrong instead of what you’re doing well. Stuff will go wrong this summer at camp, I promise. In fact, that’s the one thing you can be sure of. Your cabin groups will not fit the picture-perfect mold you envision. You’ll make mistakes and need to fix things.
So, how can you still do a great job despite the challenges you’re going to face? Here are a few simple tips that will make you stand out at your camp this summer — in a good way!
One: Show your campers, every day, that they’re your number-one priority.
Until this point in your life, you’ve probably had to focus on taking care of only one person — yourself. Maybe you’ve had siblings you’ve helped with or you’ve done some babysitting, but, for the most part, when you’re at college or home, you look out for number one: You make sure that you are fed, clothed, safe, and happy. You haven’t had to worry about taking care of other people. Well, this summer you’ll have to do a big 180 — a huge one. Seriously. You’ll need to start and end each day thinking about your campers, what they need, and how you can best support them. And the rest of the time? You’ll need to show them, through your words and actions, that they are what you’re thinking about most.
What specific actions can you take to show your campers that they are your number-one priority?
- Wake up before them. Make sure you’re up at least 20 to 30 minutes before your campers. Use this time to get mentally and physically ready for the day. Then wake your campers up in a fun way and help them start their day on the right note.
- Check in with each of your campers individually, every day. Ask them, “How’s your day going?” or “Is there anything I can do to make camp more fun for you?” or “Who are you feeling closest to in our group?” Then listen to what they say; this will make your campers feel cared for and help them see you’re addressing their individual needs.
- Don’t plan or talk about your time off with other staff when you’re with your campers. When they overhear you whispering about the fun stuff you have planned for your day off, it makes them think you don’t like being with them. So keep conversations about your personal time and adult social life private.
- Write a quick note (even a sticky note) of encouragement to each of your campers if they need a pick-me-up or if they just accomplished something fun or challenging. A simple compliment about how their smile brightens your day or how impressed you were with how they helped their friend at crafts could be something they remember their entire life. Campers save that stuff.
Two: Wow your campers’ parents too!
You might think of meeting and talking with parents as an annoying side aspect of your job. Don’t. Those parents are trusting you with the thing that’s most important in their lives, and they don’t even know you. You also wouldn’t have a job if those parents weren’t willing to send their children to camp. Think about that. Whether you have a few minutes to interact with parents at the beginning or end of sleep-away camp or if you see parents daily at day camp, use those minutes to wow them.
What specific actions can you take to wow your campers’ parents?
- Take a shower. Groom yourself so you are clean, smell good, and look like someone trustworthy. You may be a super kind person on the inside, but if you look greasy and unkempt, parents are not going to feel good about trusting their child to you. Make sure your first impression is an excellent one. Take off your sunglasses, look them in the eye, shake their hand, and introduce yourself.
- Ask parents about their child. They are the experts, so treat them as such. Questions like “What are you wanting Johnny to get out of this camp experience?” and “Are there any new skills you really want Susie to learn this summer?” are a great way to show parents that you have a genuine interest in their child and care what they think. Listen to their responses too.
- Follow up on what they shared. If you have the opportunity to talk with the parents again, or if your camp has you write parents a mid-session letter, share how their child has grown, what they learned, and what you noticed about them during camp. For parents, hearing how you really got to know their child and what makes him or her tick is extremely impressive.
Three: Be a model employee who gets a great recommendation from your camp director.
If you tend to think, “No one needs to tell me what to do,” you’ll need to give up that notion this summer. To do a great job at camp, you will need to seek the training and support of those who are more experienced than you. Believe it or not, your supervisors know a thing or two after working at camp for many years. This job is one in which you can build some important life and career skills, but you must be intentional in doing so. Even if you think you’re doing a great job with your campers, make sure you also nurture your relationship with your supervisor or camp director.
What specific actions can you take to impress your camp director?
- Ask the simple question, “Is there anything else I can do?” I’ll never forget one of our long-time, outstanding counselors asking me — during his first year at camp — “Is there anything I can do to be a better counselor?” No one had ever asked me that before and, of course, just his asking showed an initiative and drive that stood out. Whether you ask about your whole job performance or about a specific project, the question shows you won’t be a counselor who leaves an area messy, fails to finish or follow through on tasks, or requires extra supervision from your supervisor or camp director. Asking for feedback is a really impressive trait in employees and one that goes a long way toward making an employer feel great about you.
- See the big picture and be flexible. This one’s hard. You might envision yourself in a red bathing suit holding the rescue tube and watching the kids swim in the lake. But maybe what’s needed at your camp is that you help 50 kids start a lanyard or wash 200 dishes from breakfast. Seeing the big picture means remembering, every day, that you are at camp to provide campers with a fun, life-changing experience. This will help you realize that no matter what job you’re doing, you’re contributing to that singular goal. In fact, it is often while doing what are considered “less desirable” jobs that you can have the most impact. Be flexible about your assignments and duties and don’t think of anything as being beneath you. Instead of focusing on the monotony or repetitiveness of a job that you’ve been doing for a while, seek ways to keep it fun and fresh every day. Camp jobs often require repetition, so make each day fun and different by planning new interactions with campers through socializing, songs, and games.
Four: Begin with the end in mind.
How do you want to be remembered by your campers? Fellow counselors? Your camp director? Write it down now. Post it in your trunk or on a mirror or somewhere you’ll see it each day. Keep that in mind all summer so you’ll stay on mission and focused on why you’re at camp. It will help you make wise choices with your campers and when you’re on time off. Always keep in mind your over-arching reason for being at camp.
What specific actions can you take to stay on mission all summer?
- Brainstorm with your fellow counselors or your supervisor about how you want your campers to describe you. Ask yourself, “When my campers get off the bus at the end of the session and their parents ask, ‘What was your counselor like?’ what do I want them to say?” Write it down.
- Get an accountability partner — whether it’s a friend or your supervisor — who will keep you on mission. If you want to be remembered as fun and positive, make sure you have a friend who will give you a nudge if you’re acting grouchy.
Five: Take care of yourself.
I know I told you to focus on your campers as your top priority, but as every over-tired, at-rope’s-end parent knows, you won’t be able to take great care of your campers if you don’t take care of yourself too. Make sure you figure out the habits and routines that are going to work for you at camp this summer. Camp is a fresh start and a great time to change any bad habits. In fact, some habits you’ll be forced to change by the camp schedule and policies. You might as well embrace this opportunity to take great care of yourself.
How can you take great care of yourself this summer?
- Get enough sleep. I know, this is a hard one. There are so many people you want to catch up with during your limited time off, and you’ll be very tempted to stay up late after your campers go to sleep. But you need more sleep now than you’ve ever needed before. Make sure you get at least seven hours (preferably eight) of sleep each night and that you use your time off wisely. Don’t try to drive somewhere far away for a big climbing adventure. Save those trips for after camp.
- Don’t drink alcohol. Whether or not your camp has a policy about alcohol use, you will have a much better summer if you refrain from such habits. If you drink prior to returning to work, you could at best get fired, and at worst, be part of an accident where a camper gets hurt or killed. If you drink on your time off, you’ll likely get involved in something you don’t want your campers hearing about or that leaves you feeling sick and not at your best to do your job when you return to camp. Make this a summer of authentic, healthy living where you don’t use alcohol to socialize.
- Find your bliss and do that thing. What is it that best recharges you? Is it a nap? Listening to music? Getting a latte with a friend? Hiking to see a great view? Reading a book? Writing a letter to a friend? Journaling? Calling home? Figure out what it is that makes you feel best and be sure to do that during your limited time off. Remember, this should be something that recharges rather than depletes, you. If it doesn’t make you feel happy and well, avoid it.
These are five simple ways for you to be a counselor who stands out to your campers, your campers’ parents, your camp director, your co-workers, and yourself this summer. And while they are simple and straight-forward, they each require you to make smart choices and take specific actions.
You can have a life-changing, positive impact on your campers this summer, and you can also create a life-changing, positive experience for yourself.
Have a fantastic summer!
Photos courtesy of Camp Tecumseh YMCA, Brookston, Indiana
Audrey "Sunshine" Monke, with her husband Steve, has owned and directed Gold Arrow Camp (Lakeshore, CA) for the past 27 years. She has been a member of ACA since 1989 and was president of the Western Association of Independent Camps (WAIC) from 2007-2010. Audrey writes about camp and parenting at sunshine-parenting.com