Oh, Snap! This is a Job! The New Teen Leadership Program at Boston Explorers

Ayanna Michel-Lord and Manny St. Vil with Bob Ditter
March 2017
Photo courtesy of Boston Explorers, Boston, Massachusetts.

Miguel is trying his best to get 11-year-old Amir to do something he doesn't want to do. As a first-time Leader-in-Training (LIT) at Boston Explorers, Miguel, 16, is finding out firsthand that being a counselor is not as easy as it looks. It turns out that campers don't just jump up every time a counselor asks them to do something. After a side consultation with Ayanna, one of the directors of the teen leadership program, Miguel tries a different approach.

"I'm not trying to boss you around, Amir. I'm here to have fun with you," Miguel says. "I like you!" This time it works, not so much because of what Miguel said, but more likely because of the way he said it. This time his words came from the heart, and Amir could sense it right away. Not only did Amir feel better about what Miguel was asking him to do, but Miguel felt better too.

Boston Explorers, an urban day camp for children that uses the City of Boston as its campground, began a teen leadership program last summer. As campers began to age out of the program — Boston Explorers only takes campers up to age 16 — they simply didn't want to leave. "We have gotten so close to one another over the past five years that it doesn't make sense to give all that up," says Brandon, one of the teens in the new program. "Boston Explorers was one of the best camps any of us had ever been to, and since it feels so much like family, we all wanted it to keep going."

So Ayanna Michel-Lord and Manny St. Vil, both longtime counselors at Boston Explorers, became the directors of Citizen Explorers, their name for the new teen leadership program that was designed to, as their tag line states, "nurture the next generation of leaders." Many lessons were learned in the first summer of Citizen Explorers, several of which were absorbed by the staff and not just the teens. I sat down with Ayanna and Manny to talk with them about the program.

Bob Ditter: What were some of the toughest things for the teens to learn once they were no longer campers, but LITs working with campers?

Ayanna: Our teens were so used to being campers themselves that they had no idea how much work it takes to make things happen at camp. With all the things we do with the kids in Explorers — rowing on the harbor, bike riding in Franklin Park, woodworking at base camp, going out to Spectacle Island — as a camper, you just show up and it happens. Our teens never realized how much work went into making those activities come off as well as they do.

The first time this hit them hard was when we had our first carnival. The idea was to have the LITs plan, prepare for, and run the carnival we have at the end of each two-week session. They thought they would just show up that day and everything would just fall in place. They never gave much thought to getting materials, putting aside time for setting up, blowing up balloons, getting food and prizes, and so on.

Bob: So, in other words, you found out that teens don't have such well-developed executive functioning — that is, the ability to plan, organize, prioritize, take perspective, and think ahead.

Ayanna: Yes, we were learning right along with our teens. Manny and I realized that they are just kids. We couldn't blame them for not being prepared if we hadn't seen it coming and coached them better.

Bob: Well, you have just identified one of the qualities of a good leader, which is to recognize your own contribution to a problem so you can address it head on.

Manny, what about you? What were some of the challenges the teens had in making the transition from camper to LIT?

Manny: For our oldest explorers, camp was all about hanging out together. Teens tend to group up together as campers, so it really should not have surprised us that they continued to want to do that as LITs. For example, when we take the train up to Singing Beach we need all the camp leaders — counselors and LITs — to participate in all the protocols we have for keeping track of the kids on the beach, like giving out wrist bands, doing counts, and so on. However, once we got to the beach, all the LITs would group up and enjoy each other's company just as they did in camp. They had to learn how to be with the kids, which meant breaking away from their friends from time to time.

Gavin, one of the LITs, captured the growing pains that he and his fellow LITs experienced in making the transition from camper to counselor when he said, "One of the hardest things was seeing other campers that I used to go to camp with and having to distance myself from them because they are very close to me in age. I had to distinguish that I am in a higher position than they are and I do, to an extent, have authority over them."

Ayanna: I agree. Our teens were so used to being campers that it was hard for them to take responsibility with the campers. During woodworking they often felt they had a lot of down time. Manny and I would say, "Go help the kids. They can use your help with their projects." But we found they had trouble initiating unsolicited contact with the kids sometimes. They just didn't realize that initiating contact was a part of their job. We also realized that we had to be more intentional w i th our directions. Our teens didn't know how to initiate that kind of contact. We actually had to break it down into more specific steps for them.

Manny: A part of this has to do with the way we run Boston Explorers. We follow our campers' interests and we give our campers a lot of choice. Campers get to do what they like and can avoid many things they don't like. When these former campers became LITs, they had a lot of trouble realizing the distinction between doing what you want versus doing what has to be done to run a quality program. As an LIT, your enjoyment can no longer come primarily from the activities or from hanging with your friends. Your enjoyment has to come from spending time with the campers. You have to enjoy being with the kids.

Bob: What you have just identified, that your teens had to make a major shift in the way they thought about camp, is a universal issue for any camper making the transition to counselor. I have found that CITs/LITs everywhere have to make a change in the way they think about camp. As a camper you think camp is primarily for you. Once you become a CIT/ LIT you must realize that camp is primarily for the campers. When you apprentice as a counselor, which is what these programs really are — apprenticeships — you are there for others, not for yourself. Working skillfully with campers is the primary activity that replaces all the other things you did as a camper, which at our camp are things like choice time, art, woodworking, and our explorations. I'm not sure how many LIT or CIT programs are always clear about this with campers who want to apply.

Can you name three other lessons that you think your teens learned in their first summer as an LIT?

Manny: One of the biggest lessons LITs learned is that they are more than just employees. They are role models. In others words, it's not enough just to show up on the job. LITs have to be mindful of the fact that our campers are counting on them and learning from them, not just in what LITs think they are teaching campers, but in how they dress, how they speak to them, how they carry themselves. We tried to make this very clear in our interview process. Becoming an LIT was not guaranteed just because they were veteran campers. Each candidate had to have an interview. We made it clear that, just like they were making an impression with us during the interview by the way they dressed for it, by the way they came on time (or early), and by the way they spoke, they were going to be making a similar impression on the campers every day at camp.

Ayanna: This was a critical point. LITs always viewed Boston Explorers as their fun and safe place. Which it is. But suddenly we were also their employers. I'll never forget the look on the face of one of our LITs the afternoon he realized, "Oh, snap! This is a job!"

At Citizen Explorers we were trying to teach them what it was like not just to have this job as an LIT, but what it is like to have any job — that you have to show up on time for work — people are counting on you. You have to be in the right uniform. You have to contact us at a reasonable time if you have a problem. And you have to get used to the fact that we will place demands on you. That is what you get paid for. Everything we did, from the application to the interviews to our training sessions and other meetings, was a part of instilling this lesson in them.

Midway through the summer, Elizabeth (LIT) reflected on her appreciation for the rigorous application process and the consistent work habits necessary to do the job well: "It's a real job. You go through applications, then you wait and have an interview. They just don't hand you the job because you [went] to Boston Explorers. You have to work for it. It's like a regular job. And once you get the job, there is still work to do. Once you get the job you can't slack off, you have to be on time every day, you have to wear a uniform. I don't want to say they're strict, but you know what they want."

Manny: I think we constantly had to impress upon them the importance of being on time. As campers, it was their parents that brought them to camp each morning. As LITs, many of them had to get to camp by public transportation or by getting a ride from someone else. So being on time was now their responsibility, not their parents'. Not all of our teens realized that they had to plan ahead in case the trains were late or their ride was running behind. I used to tell them, "If you stumble into camp mad late, it has an effect on people. Remember, you are a role model. When you are not on time it takes away from the value of the team. It's like saying, 'What you as fellow team members are doing is not important enough for me to show up on time for!'"

Ayanna: We used to tell them, "We are counting on you to be here! By being here you are building trust with us. It is the trust that we can, in fact, count on you. If you come late or not at all, it will make us wonder, 'Are you with us or not?'"

We also told our teens that it is OK not to get things right but that you have to learn from your mistakes and grow from them. This was an area that Manny and I had to do some learning about as well. I think we were so focused on how they could improve that we may have been giving them too much cool feedback too soon. We didn't realize how easily their teen egos could get bruised. Even though our intentions were good — we only wanted them to be the best they could possibly be — we found that too much feedback shut down their openness and responsiveness to trying new things.

James (LIT) reminded us: "Every kid has that good spot in them. Sometimes you just have to find it." We had to find those strengths in our teen leaders just as we were asking them to find the strengths in the campers.

Bob: Once again, a great quality of a leader is to realize that how you approach people has a lot to do with how they respond to you. It's not just what you say, it is how you say it. We have to realize that people have pride. Pride is what makes us want to do a good job, but if it gets bruised too quickly, it can indeed shut us down. When that happens we play it safe and don't take healthy risks by trying new things because we are too afraid of messing up and looking bad. If we truly want people to flourish, especially when they are new at something, we have to have a balanced approach to giving them feedback.

So ironically, the coaching you gave to Miguel about how to approach his camper friend, Amir, is a coaching lesson you had to learn yourself.

Ayanna: Yes, and to add to that, we found that our teens often approached the kids in a kind of bossy way, even though that has never been the style of any of the counselors here at Explorers over the years. It was as if their sense of being an authority was to boss the kids around or yell at them. What we told them was that if they approached the campers by yelling at them or pulling rank, they could expect the kids to push back and stop listening to them.

Through coaching and practice our teens began to learn how to talk to kids. Amarj (LIT) articulates this skill well, "I learned that you can't control a kid, you can only influence them. Influence goes a long way."

Bob: There is a critical lesson here related to the word "authority." The word actually comes from the word "author." An author is someone who knows what he or she is talking about, not someone who flaunts his or her raw power. I have found that the less skill LITs and CITs (and counselors) have, the more they resort to yelling or ordering kids around . So do you have any final words for our readers?

Ayanna: One of the things Manny and I realized in working with the teens was that we were really teaching them about more than just having a job with Boston Explorers. We were teaching them skills and concepts that will come in handy at Boston Explorers as well as at any job or career they pursue. One key example is that to make any program successful you have to put time and effort into it. They got a firsthand look at what it takes to run Boston Explorers, but they also began to see that any quality program requires hard work and planning.

At a post-camp debrief with Markos (LIT), he said, "Next year I will be a better leader. Being put in situations where I had to lead kids and give instructions helped my confidence. [Now] being in front of my class [or other audience] I will be more comfortable and confident. And I think that is because of Citizen Explorers."

Bob: So, in other words, we can only give kids a world of good by working good and hard at making all the details fall into place. 

For More Information

To learn more about Boston Explorers, read Lessons from an Urban Day Camp: Program Features That Help Children Thrive, from Camping Magazine's January/February 2014 issue. 

More about Michel-Lord and St. Vil

  • Ayanna Michel-Lord is the associate director at Boston Explorers. An alumna of Howard University, she credits her success to a largely experiential and studentcentered education in Boston Public Schools. As a young professional, she recognizes the unique impact of an unconventional early education and how it has informed her worldview about learning, democracy, race, class, and culture. Through her work with Explorers, she is able to provide the same transformative experience for other children and teens. One of two full-time employees in the organization, with specific expertise in marketing and public relations, she fills multiple roles, from initiating outreach programs to working one-on-one with children. By helping all kids gain access to the city, she hopes to achieve an overarching goal of nurturing the next generation of civic-minded leaders.
  • Manny St. Vil is the program leader for Citizen Explorers. Manny moved to Boston in 2011 to join City Year, a nationally recognized nonprofit organization dedicated to education and service. During his two years at City Year, he discovered his passion for working with kids and service. Boston Explorers has been a natural fit for his talents, skills, and passion for working with youth.

Photo courtesy of Boston Explorers, Boston, Massachusetts.