A Staff Training Exercise That Helps Counselors Appreciate Other Roles at Camp and See the Big Picture

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A simple exercise with big discussions and lots of laughs

Hello, summer camp professionals!

I was going through some staff training notes today, and recalled a great staff training exercise I'd love to share with you.

The objective of this activity is to get staff thinking, talking, and appreciating all of the hard work that goes into running summer camp each year.

Getting started

The process is very straightforward, so let's dive in.

First things first, I'd make a list of as many little things that need to get done over the course of a summer of camp. It winds up being a pretty long list, as you can imagine. Here's the first page of the list we used that summer.

summer camp staff training

Next, I print out several copies of this list, laminate it, and cut each activity out of the sheet. Okay, I have one of my other directors do this. But you get the idea. We bundle each set of activities together, and divide the staff into groups of 4-6, and into larger groups of no more than 20-30. If you need to subdivide and let other directors lead other micro-discussions, I suggest you do so.

Part 1: How fun is this?

In the first part of the exercise, staff takes the list of necessary camp tasks, and is instructed to come to a rough consensus on how fun each of the listed jobs is. If there is a great disagreement, staff are instructed to make a note on a separate piece of paper (i.e.: Mike thinks fishing is the most desirable activity, but Susan hates it) and to let the group decide democratically where to place it, understanding that the minority viewpoint will be expressed when the group shares their list.

At the end, the list will probably look something like:

witchesHelping a camper realize they're important------playing Ga Ga------chopping onions------cleaning toilets------talking to angry parents whose kids were bullied while they were at camp - with a bunch of activities listed inbetween.

Now it's debrief time number 1.

Here are some helpful questions and prompts:

1) Were there any big disagreements as to what seemed desirable, and what didn't?

Follow-up Question: 1a) How should these disagreements inform how we act as members of a cohesive staff this summer?

This is a great opportunity to talk about the camp's desire to staff various tasks according to relative levels of interest. If Mike loves fishing, and Susan hates fishing, why, we probably shouldn't send Susan fishing.

Follow-up question:

1b) Were there any disagreements about how fun it was to lead songs at camp fire? Why?

hannahjumps1Sort of a leading question, but this type of question often highlights a very fundamental difference in our staff members. A lot of our staff are going to be terrified to get up in front of a large group, get everyone on the same page, and either lead an activity/lead a song/perform in a skit. I'm a strong believer in strength-based staffing, so I make sure to emphasize to our staff that if there are things they really find undesirable, to come and let me know. There's no way I can know what they want and don't want to do unless they tell me.

2) Do you notice any trends as it pertains to tasks that are higher toward the top, and closer to the bottom?

When I've led this activity in the past, the list typically shakes out to where activities and camper connection are at the top, administrative and maintenance related tasks are in the middle, and dealing with the really hard stuff at camp (like sending campers home, or dealing with disappointed parents, or reporting abuse) is at the bottom. It's very important, by the way, to make sure to include your own tasks and responsibilities in the list of things that happen at camp. You're not a magic fairy that snaps its fingers and does all the adulting - what you do is work. Make sure they know it!

At this point, I'll often jokingly point out - "Hmm, why did I take the role with all of the tasks people hate?! Actually, let's hold that thought and come back to it."

3) Does anyone want to share their feelings on seeing a job they have to do in the middle or on the bottom of this list?

Honesty time. Maybe staff will chime in, maybe they won't - but letting staff air their feelings here can be helpful if anyone in the group is starting to seriously think, "Wait, why DO I do a job that everyone seems to agree isn't that fun?"

Part 2: How important is this?

officeOkay, so we've established how fun the staff, at large, thinks various tasks are at camp. But if all work were fun, they'd probably call it something else. There are plenty of things that need to get done at camp that aren't the highest on everyone's list. Now it's time for phase 2.

During the time of consensus sharing, I make a rough outline of where people are listing various activities. But now, we approach the various tasks in a new way.

What does this task mean to camp, and what would happen to camp if it didn't get done?

Going through the list of activities at camp in this fashion can be very powerful. The "fun" activities still get their due, of course, but generally staffs that I've worked with have agreed that camp would still be camp if any one of them disappeared. Taken together they are necessary, and individually they add a lot to camp, but we'd keep going each summer even if we didn't have Ga Ga.

As we get down the list, we start to see a new trend emerge: very often, the jobs that are rated as less desirable demonstrate themselves to be hugely important. If no one cleaned the toilets, we'd have unsafe living conditions. If no one chopped vegetables, we'd have to eat all heat and serve food. If no one was there to process registrations, we wouldn't have a camp. If no one dealt with staff conflicts, or talked to angry parents, or sent kids home who were making the community unsafe, or fired staff members who didn't live up to community expectations - what would camp become?

And then we get back to that previous point.

jackezraSeriously, though - why do you think I chose to be a camp director instead of just continuing to be a camp counselor, if I don't get to do as much of the fun stuff?

Lots of great answers here, but it comes down to a sense of purpose. Yes, camp directors have to do a lot of really hard and sometimes undesirable things. No, we don't enjoy dealing with the very worst problems the camp has to offer, or having final say on breaking the heart of a staff member who can't continue working at camp.

But we do it because it needs to get done. We do it because we believe we can do it well. We do it because we believe that if we weren't there to do it, it might not get done in the way that it needs to.

Now I like to turn it back toward staff. I believe staff are actually working at camp for all of the same reasons. Being a camp counselor is objectively harder than most summer jobs. I can recall a summer where I saw all but 3 of my summer staff members cry at one point during the summer. Crying isn't fun, so why the heck are they choosing a job that makes them cry sometimes? Why did almost all of them apply to work the next summer?

Because there's a different between fulfillment and fun. Yes, sometimes we're going to do hard work at camp. But when what you're creating matters, hard work is worth it.

Generally speaking, taking on more responsibilities at camp makes working at camp a little less "fun." But to me, and I imagine to the lot of you camp directors out there, it also makes it more fulfilling. I'm honored by the opportunity to get to create the same magic that changed my life as a summer camper, and chances are good your staff are too.

I hope you find this activity helpful in getting staff to understand the difference between fun and fulfillment, and to appreciate the hard work that they and their fellow staff do each summer.

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