That Hollow Feeling

How do you distract yourself from that hollow feeling that looms in your gut the day after camp ends? Most camp professionals reset camp and brace themselves for the first post-season user group. Others take a vacation. Some participate in fall professional development conferences. And a few wander the property imagining improvements for next season. Whatever group you belong to, an essential postseason task for all camp owners and directors is to provide feedback to your staff.

Wait. What? The season is over. Some staff performed better than others, but the campers have all gone home. Nothing a camp professional says or does now makes a whit of difference. Quite the contrary. For those staff who did well, getting some post-season praise from you increases the likelihood they'll return. Moreover, this skilled group is most likely to listen to and benefit from your constructive criticism. And for those staff who did not perform as well — even those you'll never ask back — the feedback you offer them now certainly contributes to their personal and professional development.

Rather than adopting a complacent mindset that "good staff" don't need any feedback and "bad staff" don't deserve it, consider a developmental mindset that all staff benefit from your wise observations. Consider, too, that everyone's memory for the season is sharpest now, immediately post-season.

Great Minds Don't Think Alike

Your senior staff 's or leadership team's memories are even sharper during the season. If you did not have a formal end-ofseason meeting with your unit heads and area directors, scheduling such a meeting would be an excellent addition to next season's calendar. If you did orchestrate such a gathering, now is the best time to comb through their written reports, your meeting notes, and any other documentation provided by your camp's most experienced staff.

What you'll notice, of course, is that opinions vary on what went well and what did not go well during the season. Intelligent, creative people think differently about solutions to vexing problems. They differ in style, understanding, perspective, and experience. However, you can use that diversity to your advantage by bringing your senior staff together for a conference call or Web meeting sometime this autumn.

After reading and re-reading reports, notes, evaluations, and both camper and parent exit surveys, write a one-page document that summarizes themes under these categories (or others you devise): program (e.g., activities, schedule, equipment, food); personnel (e.g., junior staff, counselors, activity specialists, senior staff ); and policy (regarding time off, substance use, technology, etc.). Leave out names of specific people and instead focus on emerging strengths and weaknesses. (We'll get to specific feedback for individual personnel later.)

The next step is to circulate that theme paper to your trusted senior staff, along with a list of possible conference call or Web meeting dates and times. (Check out, a simple-to-use, free, Web-based application that helps groups of people find a common meeting time. It's a huge time-saver. And once you've found a time, consider a free service such as DimDim [] or GoToMeeting [] to host your webinar.)

During the conference call or Web meeting, your agenda can include:

  • Clarifying items in reports and evaluations that were unclear to you.
  • Discussing the themes you culled and speculating about their causes and consequences.
  • Specifying the camp's most notable strengths and weaknesses.
  • Brainstorming possible solutions and improvements for the coming season.
  • Thanking your senior staff for their candor and creativity.

Camp professionals typically report that these post-season meetings are tremendously productive, for several reasons:

  1. The passage of time since the end of camp has helped staff think more clearly and calmly about thorny issues.
  2. The meeting occurs soon enough after camp that their memories of the season are intact.
  3. Creative juices flow freely when the group gathers around your summary of themes.

After the meeting, it will be your job to decide what changes to make and which solutions to implement. Some may disagree with your final decisions, but all will feel listened to — thanks to your detailed, thoughtful, and evidence-based conversation.

Curtain Call or Call Back?

Next comes correspondence with individual staff about their performance evaluations. Perhaps you alone make decisions about who you'll invite back; perhaps those decisions are made in consultation with your leadership director or assistant director. In either case, now is the time to decide and to communicate with those individuals. All staff appreciate this notification within a few months after camp ends so they can begin making plans for the upcoming season.

In my first few summers as a cabin leader, the general practice was to notify only those staff who were asked back for the subsequent season. "Did you get a contract yet?" was the question that circulated among my peer group all winter and spring. Sadly, those who were not invited back — or not immediately invited back — had to wait, sometimes months, to either hear from the camp or assume their time was past.

In these more enlightened days, all staff receive correspondence from camp, thanking them for their service and effort, and apprising them of their status: invited back, waitlisted, or not invited back. Perhaps most important is that the verdict in these letters not come as a tremendous surprise. The thought, "My supervisor told me that I did an awesome job, but this letter from the director says I'm not invited back," is confusing to any young leader.

Supervisors must take care to review detailed performance evaluations with each of their staff. Of course, no predictions should be made about returning (that's the director's job), but each staff member should leave his/her end-of-season meeting with a clear sense of his/her strengths and weaknesses, as well as the good feeling that comes from being praised for one's service and effort. All staff should leave camp on closing day with a feeling of gratification. They should know how much the camp appreciates their work and values their signature strengths.

As you work this fall — alone or in collaboration — to rank last year's staff, slot them into positions (or not) for the coming season, and write letters to them, taking time to include specific praise and specific criticism. Returning staff should have a clear sense of what they did well and what their professional goals are for the upcoming season. Non-returning staff should also have a clear sense of what they did well and where there's room for growth over the coming years, whatever they choose to do.

These are not easy letters to write, of course. And sometimes the follow-up phone calls you'll receive are orders of magnitude more difficult. But if you've committed to all of your staff's professional development, your balanced feedback is essential. Your balanced feedback also prevents rumors from spreading in the virtual world of social networking. Cries of favoritism and accusations of blacklisting are less likely to circulate in cyberspace when staff have direct communication from you about why they were or were not asked back or about why they were or were not promoted.

Relationships Are at Stake

The biggest obstacle to providing effective feedback is that relationships are at stake. Supervisors naturally worry: "Will this person react badly? Will he or she get angry or defensive?" Ironically, without feedback, those who need it may not even be aware of a need for improvement. It takes time and effort to create a culture at your camp where clear, bidirectional feedback is frequent and welcome, but the alternative is stagnation and weakness.

In your post-season written feedback to staff, you can preserve relationships by following these principles:

  • Be balanced. Offer a mix of genuine praise and constructive criticism.
  • Be specific. Cite specific examples of achievement, improvement, and areas needing attention.
  • Be goal-oriented. Frame criticism in terms of achievable goals, rather than character flaws. Instead of "You're disorganized" say "By becoming more organized, you're likely to complete more tasks on time."
  • Be method-oriented. Suggest concrete strategies staff might use to achieve key goals. For example, "Many staff use a written to-do list to keep tasks organized and prioritized."
  • Be measured. Avoid hyperbole, both in praise and criticism. Your staff need to feel your sincerity or your feedback may be dismissed.
  • Be original. Avoid feedback clichés, such as the "praise-criticism-praise sandwich." That trite method puts most staff on edge as soon as they hear praise because they recognize it as a disingenuous prelude to criticism.
  • Be welcoming. Always offer anyone to whom you're giving feedback the opportunity to share their perspective and brainstorm with you about improvements.
  • Be solicitous. Ask your staff to provide you with feedback on the job you are doing. Your own openness to improvement is sterling leadershipby- example. Actually making some of the changes suggested by others also builds trust and credibility.

That Full Feeling

Nothing is quite as gratifying to human beings as self-improvement. And yet few things are as painful as being told you did not do well. One mark of true professionalism is the long-term value of meaningful feedback, despite the short-term discomfort that may accompany it.

For most camp professionals, there is a seasonal rhythm to our work that lends itself to an iterative process of improvement. We work hard to build future seasons on past seasons. We learn from mistakes and ride on successes. This autumn, capitalize on everything you and your staff learned over the past season to design enhanced programs, personnel, and policies for next year. Ultimately, the feedback you get and give will nurture the sorts of youth development and leadership triumphs that create that wonderful full feeling on opening day.

Christopher Thurber, Ph.D., is a boardcertified clinical psychologist and the co-founder of, which hosts educational content for youth development professionals . He designed The Secret Ingredients of Summer Camp Success, ACA's homesickness prevention DVD. Contact: or visit