Training for your actual staff training goals - Rethinking how we plan staff training

Managing staff training's most precious and scarce resource: Time

scott session
scott session

When it comes to running summer camp, camp professionals seem to have one topic they're willing to revisit again and again: training camp staff.

There are a lot of reasons for this - we want to keep things fresh for our returning staff, we want to help new staffers understand our culture as quickly as possible, and for a lot of us, it's the time of the year that we're in the spotlight the most. When camp is in full swing counselors steal the show - but for those 7-21 days leading up to camp, it's our time to shine.

This is both terrifying and gratifying all at once, and camp professionals love both sharing and learning new staff training techniques and ideas. Camps will (smartly) pay expert trainers like our very own Scott Arizala, Beth Allison, and Jack and Laura (tm) for that extra little something that might lead to more kids having a life-changing experience at camp.

But I've noticed an interesting trend when it comes to discussions around planning staff training. I know, because until a couple of years ago, I planned staff training in exactly the same way. Let me know if this sounds familiar.

How I planned staff training, basically forever, and how it went

A few people are tasked with planning staff training. They start by outlining how much time they have during the week, and then they list all the topics they hope to teach during staff training.

You've got abuse, homesickness, blood born pathogens, camper/staff ratios, and the list goes on. Maybe you plug in a few "just for fun" activities, like a night off, or sporting activities, free time, etc. Then, you plug all the sessions into your calendar, mix and match to ensure the "need to teach" topics are covered with enough "nice to teach" topics that everyone feels satisfied.

Then, with your list of topics to teach, you start assigning or brainstorming how each one will be taught. You grab a few ideas from Go Camp Pro, a few from camp conferences you've attended in the last year, and create a bunch with your own ingenuity and elbow grease. By the time staff training rolls around, you're cautiously optimistic that you'll tackle everything.

Then staff training happens. All of a sudden two of your lifeguards actually need to re-up their CPR, 4 counselors "have to" go to graduation parties, one of your unit leaders get sick, the new chef delivers a meal 30 minutes late, a great discussion about homesickness goes 30 minutes past its deadline, and you're adjusting on the fly. You're stressed out, trying to figure out what can be cut, when 2 international staff members knock on your door. They want to talk, because they feel left out and homesick. It turns out most of your returning staff are spending more time telling war-stories from the previous summer than welcoming new staff, and they could really use a couple hours of your time to be talked off the ledge.

Are you shaking, yet? There are great reasons we all work so hard to get ready for staff training - we have too many memories of it being more stressful than fun, and we have huge goals for this to be the best summer yet.

Going into this summer, I know staff training will be frustrating at times. But we've also been working on a few new approaches that have really made a difference in both the impact of our staff training exercises and how good we feel about the goals we set out to accomplish beforehand. Let's dive in.

Building staff training from goals, not from sessions

When I had the initial pleasure of planning staff training with Jack and Laura (of Go Camp Pro and Camp Stomping Ground fame, but previous to that from Camping Coast to Coast), we started going down much the path we discussed above.

About halfway through, though, a particular thread of thought started to overtake our discussion. It seems straightforward, but it made a huge difference.

What if we stopped talking about what sessions we wanted to teach, and instead started talking about how we wanted to feel about the staff after training was over?

And also:

What are the biggest problems that seem to come up during summer camp every year, and how should we plan for them during staff training?

We made room on our white-board, and made 2 new lists: The biggest problems at camp every year, and what we wanted from staff training.

This new list is about what you'd expect.

  1. We wanted staff to feel confident and enthusiastic about the start of summer camp.
  2. We wanted them to feel like a cohesive group.
  3. On an individual level, we didn't want them to feel left out.
  4. On a program level, we wanted the leaders of each program area to feel prepared to lead kick-ass programs.
  5. We wanted staff to feel bought into and aligned with our particular freedom-and-love-oriented ways of working with kids.
  6. We wanted staff to feel like they could execute our vision for camp in a way that kept everyone physically and emotionally safe.

Then, we made our list of things that were the hardest each summer.

  1. Staff drama (in all of its various forms) appeared on the list many times.
  2. Staff members not understanding expectations.
  3. Staff members not living up to expectations.
  4. Times when we felt like we failed campers for whatever reason (largely a result of staff living up to expectations).
  5. Camper drama (in all its various forms).
  6. Some kids just not having a good time.

We spelled out our list (which was actually a bit bigger than this one) on one side of the white board, and had our sea of proposed sessions and activities on the other side of the white board. We then drew arrows from sessions and activities to both the outcomes we wanted from staff training and the "things that are hardest" list, and more intrigued bubbled up.

We weren't planning a balanced staff training, at least as it pertained to what our own stated goals and fears were. We were addressing most things camper related, but there was a LOT of time carved out for basic day to day stuff, like facilitating program areas. Did every staff really need to go through a whole archery session, for instance, or could we just let a few staff specialize in that?

There were also some bullet points that we were nominally addressing, but we started to question if we were REALLY addressing them. Getting staff to bond is a great example of this. If we're really honest with ourselves, is authentic staff bonding happening during facilitated team building activities during staff training? I'm not sure. It's not to suggest that these activities have no value, but it seems to me that the main value from facilitating formal team building sessions during staff training is to properly model how they should be run, and much less actually helping our brand new staff and battle-hardened veterans come together as a cohesive group.

Back to the drawing board

Where we noticed things that were out of balance, we made a concerted effort to carve out serious time for them. When it came to bringing staff together, for instance, we decided to make room for a LOT of time where staff members could simply sit and be with one another. Instead of ending staff training at 10 pm, we decided we'd give them significant waking hours every day to spend as they wish.

Of course, giving people time to their own devices can lead to the exact opposite of some of our goals as well. New staff, for instance, might wind up getting lost in the social cracks of inside jokes and stories about pranks from the previous summer. The less outgoing staff might just sit in their rooms, and wonder what they are supposed to do from 7pm on, or whatever.

Camp counsellor does the jig of joy in a camp dining hall
Camp counsellor does the jig of joy in a camp dining hall

To this end, we tried two specific ideas. The first one was rather zany, and a story for another time. When staff arrived for the first day of staff training, we told them they had 2 hours to pack what they'd need for a journey across the lake. They'd have to stay over there from 3pm to 10am the following day. And yes, we were serious. We basically wanted to shake people up completely, so they'd spend more time talking about what was happening in the moment and less time rehashing every last detail of the previous summer. And when there are no rooms to retreat to, no place to plug in cell phones, and you're not sure where the next meal is coming from - people come together in a way they just can't in normal settings.

The other thing we did was take an intentional approach to team building before staff training even began. I reached out to my best and most inclusive staff, and spoke plainly about the problems we face every summer. We started by just having them be my eyes and ears in the staff lodges - if anyone seemed left out, or put out by conversations, they'd let me know. And, of course, when they were observing these things, most of them just addressed the issues directly.

A new take on staff team building

To give one other quick example of a big change we made, let's talk team building activities. I mentioned this earlier, but it really doesn't matter how fresh your facilitated team building activities are. Staff are good sports, yes, but there are a number of obstacles to having real team-building breakthroughs during those activities.

Again, I still think they are a must if you plan to run team-building activities during summer camp, but only so far as they can be used to model how to lead fun and engaging facilitated activities. For actual team-building? I don't think they're worth very much.

Does that mean there's nothing we can do to build teams during staff training? Of course not! Instead, we gave staff actual problems to solve that we needed solved. We gave them budgets for our unstructured play area and asked them to come to a consensus on how to spend it. We had them design all-camp games. We let them plan camp fires, and rethink our community standards for the lodges.

All of these items were big deals, and staff members were bought in. And so when they were done, we just debriefed them the same way we would with team building activities. The trick of great team building activities is to create stakes - we do this for kids by coming up with hypothetical situations of peril (we need to cross this lava river!). For our staff? We can just give them actual problems to solve that DO have stakes.

Alright! This is a topic I could just write and write on. Best of luck planning staff training this year, and if you have anything you're trying to plan staff training to address huge camp goals instead of just mixing and matching sessions, please post it in the comments below!