Keeping Staff Training Relevant

March 2015

The world of camp is responsible for creating timeless change through temporary communities. It is a chaotic utopia enabling healthy risks and creating lifelong friendships through positive peer pressure. Adults who care about changing lives give up their summers to role model a passion of courage and vulnerability, while intentionally creating safe environments and portals of nondistracted learning for students to engage in life and be loved for who they are. Camp is fun. It is physically exhausting, emotionally vandalizing, and magnifies a tenacity to serve others that humbles our current culture in this selfishly programmed world. Little sleep, low pay, and camp is the place I choose to be.
  — Excerpt from Addicted to Camp: An intervention for staff and future leaders

Why is it important that camps continue to revisit their staff training process regularly?

I believe that staff training is the most important part of the entire camp experience, yet resources often seem to get thrown at other priorities. We spend big bucks marketing our camp to attract rock star staff for our campers, attend a conference session for inspiration, and then provide staff with training we last fully renovated five years ago. If we do not invest resources in developing our on-the-ground staff — giving them a solid road map — then they’re going to make it up. And that’s when we end up paying for it in time, drama, and unnecessary damage control.
 

What are some signs that a camp’s training program might need to see the nurse?

Three questions I always asked myself in the off season: What is the outcome of this activity and would the camp experience be worse off without it? If I was a parent, would seeing this behavior in my staff make me happier? When was the last time I created this staff training piece for the first time? If our staff is our brand, then I need them to represent our camp experience like I promised on my website.
 

What should camp directors know before staff training begins?

Get out of the way! Like we teach our staff, this is not about you. Your knowledge and Yoda-like greatness is about leveraging your position to serve others before being the “sage on stage.” The key to great training is emotional engagement. How do we attract our staff to commit fully to our cause? Research tells us that our college staff are craving authenticity and connections in a world filled with highlight reels and selfies. We know camp provides this opportunity, so how can our training build from this foundation?
 

What should we include in staff training to make it more relevant?

To keep camp relevant, we need to lean on our staff. There is nothing more inauthentic and dissonant than an older staff member trying to be cool by dressing like a hipster and using the word “hashtag” in the wrong context. Prior to summer, identify veteran rock stars among your counselors — specifically, those who always build instant relationship with campers. Ask them about trends, icons, music, and fads, and brainstorm how you can integrate those things into your existing training. Your goal is to mash up the culture the staff is living in with the culture you are trying to create, without compromising your brand. Also, while in training activities, empower staff to find a solution on their own with more in-the-moment (in person) situation training. Combine that with real-time feedback from their peers, and you are teaching them relevant skills to run camp.
 
Our goal is to have staff solve the little problems and not come to the director unless XYZ problem arises. Be clear: Let go of micro control and trust you trained them to do their job.
 

What is a core challenge most camps face within staff members?

Just like any job, there is an air of competitiveness within a staff. Staff members size each other up, asking, “Where am I? Who’s the big dog?” I love that tension. I’m interested in how camps influence the competitive see-saw, especially since our counselors live in a constant state of “competitive interestingness” (posting a more interesting photo than the last one) in the home environment.
 
Design an activity on day one of training that exposes this in camp. The quicker we can flatten the emotional hierarchy, or exclusivity, and establish we are all on the same playing field, the faster we get on with learning. We have to remember that camp is a unique place where we have permission to leave the ego at the door. No matter if you have attended camp all your life or if this is your first camp experience, it needs to be a humbling and serving environment versus a selfish, self-serving one. How can you foster a sense of belonging on the first day of your training?
 

Can you talk about some specific techniques that you find particularly effective?

Working with camps across the country, I am seeing a greater value in running training like camp. You give a topic and have them break up into groups and provide a solution. I believe that circles are better than rows, and if you provide that for the staff, they will reproduce it with the campers. Camp transformation does not happen through content, concepts, or confidence; it happens though our people.
 
I also believe that having another set of eyes looking over my training sessions will only add fresh perspective and have me justify my outcomes. This is the hardest part of being a rad director or all-around camp guru — exposing our work to feedback and embracing change.
 

In your opinion, how much training time is adequate?

That’s a subject of great debate and varies according to staff responsibilities, camp outcomes, etc. I can fill a full five to seven days of intensive, immersive training and logistics and accomplish all my camp outcomes. We’re interrupting the pattern of ordinary life and changing brain behavior in college-age students. I think of a soda can. If you’re going to shake it up, why settle for a little pop in learning by drawing it out. Shake hard, open quickly.
 

How do you know the staff is ready?

One sign I look for is that trainees are holding each other accountable when I am not in the room. They own their environment, and they don’t need direction to do their job. And then there’s the whole essence of team. I want to see safe young professionals with healthy communication ability going beyond the call of duty.
 

What if a camp’s staff training is a proven success?

Most are — so how can we make it better anyway? Camp is a place of rainbows and unicorns in our heads, but the reality is that it is the hardest job I will ever work. If my staff is fully trained because of my awesome training, then how can I work on refining the little things to make an even bigger difference? I am not okay just being okay.
 
One benchmark I use is conflict. If conflict is not occurring throughout the training, we are not providing depth of opportunity or being authentic enough. Training for me is successful when we as a group have experienced a breakdown that has now led to a breakthrough. I want to see on their faces “I feel safe. I feel supported. I believe in this place.”
 

Any final words of wisdom?

Just remember, we don’t need perfect camp counselors; we need prepared camp counselors. The best way to ensure that is to be fully invested.
 
For more information on relevant staff training and fresh teaching tools, contact Chicka Elloy at chicka@iknucklebump.com.
 
Photo courtesy of Camp Howe, Goshen, Massachusetts.