The average seasonal staff member will clock approximately 840 work hours over an 8-week period. This means we camp professionals are squeezing a regular employee workload of 21 weeks into just 8! Fortunately, we are using this compressed timeline to carefully manage, teach, train, and ignite passion in these typically young-adult employees. But are we?
Observations from multiple programs and hundreds of interviews with senior camp professionals confirm that we care deeply about these employees, many of whom are experiencing their first real job. We want the best for them. We tell them how to do the job during orientation/training week and then undertake the obligatory end-of-season evaluation. For many camps — both day and overnight — that is about as deep as it gets. Some camps do go to extraordinary lengths to put in place a more formal protocol as it relates to educational supervision — but are we all doing enough? And what are the ramifications of treating educational supervision as an afterthought?
What Is Educational Supervision?
Based on a social work modality, which most closely aligns with our summer camp notion of oversight, educational supervision (also known as clinical supervision) is a relationship between a supervisor and supervisee that promotes the development of responsibility, skill, knowledge, attitudes, and ethical standards (National Association of Social Workers, 2013). What defines education as opposed to task-based supervision is that the latter relates almost exclusively to a directed activity (e.g., “Did you clean the cabin?” “Are the nets up on the soccer field?”). These “did you” interactions focus on progressing a needed item forward — not exploring interactions, stylistic approaches, or learning. These supervisory interactions happen thousands of times in our camp space and are necessary in order for programs to be delivered and safety maintained. But educational supervision peels back the onion and invites the supervisor and supervisee to engage in a meaningful dialogue that deepens along with the relationship, mutual understanding, and agreed-upon goals. Some fundamental elements that indicate an educational supervisory process include, but are not limited to:
- Regular, focused meetings distinct from a quick check-in
- Mutually agreed upon session agenda
- Near and longer-term goal identification — perhaps one or two weeks for short-term goals and four to eight weeks for longer-term goals during a summer program
- Scenario discussion and educational guidance, such as exploring a specific situation and discussing how it was handled and what alternative actions and outcomes might have been possible
- Mutual respect and two-way learning
- Written notes that allow for comparison and tracking supervisee’s growth
Does this sound overwhelming? Is it too much to ask of year-round or summer lead staff because they are so busy? Before you answer, ask yourself, “What is role of the summer camp? As important as molding campers is, camp is one of the few places where we can dramatically impact 18–26-year-old young adults. Done well they can learn, grow, and, yes, fail — and, if need be, reinvent themselves. Virtually no other work spaces exist where this can happen alongside peers who may become lifelong supporters and friends. Camp without this chance for seasonal staff to learn, grow, explore, and be guided is a wasted opportunity.
How Do You Put Educational Supervision into Practice?
So how do you implement educational supervision from scratch or adjust your existing process to be more robust? The first thing is to access where you are on the spectrum of supervisory oversight. Ask yourself the following:
- Does your supervisory staff participate in pre-summer active training that provides them with the tools to help their seasonal staff learn, grow, and reflect on their decisions and actions?
- Do seasonal staff receive mid-season and end-of-season written evaluations based on goals that were set before the campers arrived?
- Do seasonal staff meet with their supervisors on a minimum weekly basis in uninterrupted sessions of between 45 and 60 minutes that afford privacy for the conversation?
- Do supervisory staff meet with their supervisors on a weekly basis in uninterrupted sessions that afford privacy (this would typically mean meeting with the camp director or assistant director)?
If the majority of your answers are no, then your supervision protocol is likely more task focused than educational.
I imagine some of you are saying, “This author has clearly never worked at camp — we simply don’t have the time.” However, I have worked extensively in the camp environment, and you do have time — you just may not choose to prioritize supervision in the way I am suggesting. Know, though, as you consider the problems associated with staff recruitment and retention, there is no doubt that if you focus more time on growing, nurturing, and supporting the staff talent, they are more likely to return or recommend your camp to friends (potential additional seasonal staff). If staff retention is an issue, taking steps toward educational supervision matters. In practice, this training model is also respectful of those who give of themselves to staff your camps.
So what would a robust process look like? It actually begins with the hiring process, during which you leverage your intent to support staff from the get-go. Here are some tactical steps that you can deploy to bring about change and an active educational supervision protocol:
- Advertise that staff growth and development is a priority — and to achieve this you train supervisors how to be great. Share with staff that they will meet with their supervisor on a regular basis to deepen the relationship and process their experience in real time. This will include reviewing the cabin dynamic, child-based decisions, goals they have set, and the progress being made.
- Once hired, introduce seasonal staff members to their supervisor and encourage them to connect (the expectation for this is really on the supervisor to reach out). The goal is to establish rapport and give the staff member a direct customer service experience.
- During staff training week ask all staff (including supervisors themselves) to identify four goals for the summer — perhaps two professionally based (e.g., to interact with every one of their campers on a daily basis beyond a simple “how are you doing?”) and two personal (e.g., to be less rigid in my decision-making or to laugh more). Whatever the combination, these goals need to be captured in writing and form part of a formal weekly review of progress, growth, and discussion.
- Supervision takes place on a regular weekly basis and lasts for up to an hour, but no less than 40 minutes. These sessions should take place in a quiet space where interruptions are unlikely and discouraged. They should have a rhythm that is agreed upon by both parties (we will get to mutual consent in a moment). Both parties should come prepared, having taken the time to make notes in advance that correspond with the agreed-upon agenda.
- Evaluation should take place at least twice during the season. Moreover, the evaluation process itself is two-way. The supervisor can provide honest feedback on the seasonal staff’s performance and goal achievement, and the supervisee gets to offer the supervisor feedback on their performance. This is where trust and communication are tested and why supervisors must be trained for this type of interaction — so it remains an exercise to nurture and of growth.
During the summer, the camp director or assistant director should check in with seasonal staff to ensure they are getting what they need from their supervisor-supervisee relationship, which should always be grounded in kindness and mutual respectful. Any feedback the camp director or assistant director receives should be shared directly with the supervisor. It can even take place in a three-way “special session.” The bottom line is that the supervisee must be respected and their opinions incorporated into both their own evaluation and that of the supervisor.
Beyond the steps already outlined, which you can and should adapt to your own needs, are the following core ingredients (in no specific order) that come together to make this process work:
A supervisor must have an official seal of approval to oversee a seasonal staff member. This mandate comes from the camp director and usually also includes a title (such as unit leader or program director). The mandate becomes official when the two parties are introduced and it is noted in writing that the leadership staff person is [insert name]’s supervisor for the summer.
The process, sessions, feedback, and all other elements are for the supervisee, not the supervisor. Yes, the supervisor can share experiences and feelings during sessions, but only in so much as they illustrate or illuminate a pathway to growth. A session is sacred time, and the supervisee is the focus.
Mutual rules of engagement:
During the first formal session, the two parties should determine how each session will run. They should discuss:
- Follow-through and follow-up
- Mid-season and end-of-season evaluation tool
The goal is to solidify rules of engagement that both parties feel comfortable with. Moreover, if you are a supervisor and you commit to confidentiality, you’d better keep it. Nothing breaks trust faster than sharing these sessions with others. The only exception is if the supervisee’s health and well-being is in jeopardy (and this can be discussed as part of the negotiation). This negotiation forms the basis by which everything with flow — so make sure it is a mutual conversation and not, “This is how we are going to do it.”
Time, frequency, and technology:
Agree to how often you will meet and how long the sessions will last. You should also agree on walkie-talkie and/or cell phone protocol. Truthfully, there are very few serious issues that cannot wait until after your session has concluded. So turn off the devices and focus. If being “out of touch” is a potential issue, tell an administrative person or the camp director where you will be meeting and that you should only be disturbed in the event of a true emergency.
A safe space with little distraction is best. Sitting in the middle of camp and expecting peace and quiet is unrealistic. Think about the dynamic. Is the place also physically comfortable and in the shade. Does the area provide enough physical distance to ensure both parties feel their personal space is protected?
Agenda and preparation:
Both parties should take the time (as negotiated in advance) to prepare for the session. A quick two minutes beforehand is not in keeping with the notion of thoughtful feedback. Moreover, your agreed-upon agenda should support the free flow of conversation and interaction. (See the sidebar table for a sample agenda that can be adapted to your specific camp culture.)
Be willing to expose your own fallibilities and biases. Without some degree of vulnerability, you risk appearing aloof and distant, and that makes connecting and trusting virtually impossible. Fallibility is a key learning point in a camp setting — embrace and discuss it — don’t bury it. In truth, when a supervisee hears that their supervisor is not perfect and can make mistakes themselves, it opens a door to growth that will remain firmly shut without these revelations.
Make mid-season and end-of-season reviews formal. They should follow a protocol that all supervisors are trained in prior to the summer. Nothing a supervisee reads in their evaluation should ever be a surprise. Consider a process that allows both the supervisor and supervisee to score individually on a sheet and then come together and negotiate the final version. The supervisee should always be afforded the opportunity to add their own comments to the tool before they affirm by signature that they have received a copy. If that means they need a little time to compose the response, let them have it. This is a pivotal moment in the supervisee’s life. Regardless of their performance, be generous in praise and judicious in criticism. Remember, this is often a first job for many young adults, and they deserve honest and thoughtful feedback.
Educational supervision is a benchmark toward which all camps can gravitate. The impact of such engagement can be lifechanging. There is no greater responsibility than the supervision of another person — so take the time to create a protocol that works for your camp culture. Then work it through with your year-round team, summer supervisors, and, ultimately, the entire staff community regardless of position or title. Everyone must be given the chance to learn, grow, fail, succeed, and, as a result, thrive beyond the summer. Your staff will respond positively if you take the educational supervision protocol seriously.
Finally, this is an extraordinarily complex process. Try to have a mental health professional available to support your supervisory team in the implementation. Creating this protocol takes time and trial and error, but belief in the human spirit and that camp is the best environment for growth makes educational supervision well worth the effort for you — and especially for your seasonal staff.
|Review and update task progress. This is also the time when you can ask about family, things outside of camp — general items as you ease into the more formal meeting content.
|2. Client focus
|Review camper or specialty area progress. Go through each camper and ask for detailed feedback. Same thing if the supervision is focused on a program area (discuss specific campers and staff and their engagement in activities).
|3. Issue processing
|Identify a singular issue to deconstruct and review with the benefit of hindsight.
|4. Goal progression
|How is the supervisee addressing and progressing with the goals they identified during staff training?
|5. Active feedback
|What areas need work? What tactics and techniques can be put in place to spur growth?
|6. Next steps and agreements
|Review meeting content and agree upon next steps that will form the basis for the next session. Put these in writing and share them with each other.
- National Association of Social Workers. (2013). Best practice standards in social work supervision. Washington, DC: NASW Press.
Photos courtesty of Teton Valley Ranch Camp, Jackson Hole, WY.
David Phillips is principal of Immersive1st, a ﬁrm specializing in fundraising, planning, visioning, governance, acute organizational analysis, and program creation, implementation, and evaluation. His passion is doing important things with good people who make a difference (and having fun while doing it). He holds an MSW in Social Work with a focus on community organizing and development from the University of Pittsburgh. David can be reached at email@example.com or via the web at immersive1st.com.