Summer is here and the plans have been made, events organized and staff hired. The only thing left to do is deliver the program with the best team possible. How do you do that?
With a few simple rules to follow a camp director might find it easier to manage the team and get the most out of them…
1. Be a master at separating personal from professional. 2. Tell everyone the rules to the game. 3. Be honest and open with your team. 4. Be consistent. 5. Keep your goal in mind with all decisions.
Personal vs. Professional
This skill is the hardest part of directing camps. We are in an extremely emotional business where people get extremely close. We share intense time with one another and experience extreme emotional stress together managing other people.
It's easy to get caught up in personal relationships and lose sight of the professional responsibilities. A camp director cannot afford to blur the line between personal and professional.
They may find themselves in a position of firing their best friend. It has happened. A director must uphold the standards to everyone, no matter who they are. To make it harder, a camp director is actually teaching this skill to 18-22 year olds, who are not used to it.
It's great that a staff gets so close. But remember that the children's experience and safety is more important than upsetting your friend because they didn't get the time off they requested, or you didn't let them slide on a rule they broke.
Allowing your personal feelings for people in the workplace to affect your decision making will cause you to lose much more than you gain, like respect of other staff, children's experiences, confidence in your decisions, mass debates over the decisions you make, and finding yourself having to make case-by-case calls, thereby losing your consistency.
The old saying is that it's lonely at the top. It's true, but let's not get extreme. It is lonely when it comes to having to use the responsibility you have been entrusted with.
It can be made easier if everyone knows the rules, then the decision to force a director to make the call is actually made by the staff.
The best position to ever be in is when a counselor comes to see you after getting in trouble and says, "I did it, and I know what you have to do."
Why is this the best position? Because they know without a doubt the consequences for their actions and don't begrudge you for doing what they know you have to do. How do you get to this point? Tell everyone the rules of the game.
Start in staff training by handing out copies of your administrative policies and procedures. Make this a detailed series of rules that are no-brainers and what will happen if the counselor violates them. Have them sign this.
Remind them constantly of these rules, explain the meaning behind them and the expectation of behavior and standards you will be enforcing. Take time to run through these and some hypothetical situations to reinforce the understanding of your position or the position of the camp.
Alcohol is a huge issue in summer camp. Our policy is this:
"Consumption or storing of alcohol on camp property is not permitted. Working under the influence of alcohol, or drinking alcohol in the presence of children, shall be cause for dismissal. Consumption/and or possession of alcohol by minors or individual under the age of 21 years of age on or at any camp function is cause for dismissal."
This is straight forward, but then come the hypothetical situations…
"What if on our time off a junior counselor comes to a party at my house and drinks with us?"
As a director you have to be prepared to explain your stance. We cannot control what staff gets into on their time off. We can only express our desire of standards and inform them of our position.
We terminate counselors who supply anyone under the drinking age with alcohol. How do we find out? Let's be honest for a second… Are there really any secrets at camp?
Every camp I have worked with has handled issues like this in their own way. Whichever way a camp director chooses to go, let everyone understand. It will help you to manage with less resentment and fear.
Directors will actually see a raise in the confidence of the staff when they feel secure in knowing what they can and can't do. It releases the fear of screwing up and getting fired.
They know, and if they do break the clearly defined rules… then it was their choice and not the scary unfair director in the office who held them to a standard they didn't know about.
Open & Honest
As you explain the rules, be honest and open with your staff.
There should be no fear in discussing the realities that you are aware of… Staff will have relationships with one another this summer, they will party on their time off, they will make mistakes in dealing with children, they will break things, they will fight with one another, and so on. Talk about these realities and how you feel about them. Be honest.
Most of us have been in their shoes once before. We did not develop into camp directors because we were the most perfect counselors who ever walked the planet (even though we might think that sometimes, or our staff might think that about us).
Each summer I have always told my staff my greatest fears… Losing a camper is number one and losing a staff member is number two.
We are responsible for lives. Losing any life is horrible, but losing a life because of carelessness and temporary lack of judgment is worse.
Losing a staff member because they partied too hard on their 24 hours off is a waste. We talk about that in our training week. My heart has always gone out to those directors who have had to face this reality. Talk about it with your team.
Everything discussed is useless without being consistent. Work on this every day and every night throughout the entire summer. Establish you style through your consistency and people will follow you and return to be with you, namely campers and staff!
One of the greatest lines in a movie was in "The American President". Michael J. Fox's character said, "People want leadership… They are so starved for it that they will crawl through a desert to drink from the sand."
We should strive to be good leaders. We are leading a staff and we are role modeling to children. Teach them consistency and fairness. This will lead to great people who remember your example. Isn't that what camp should be?
Eye on the Goal
The campers and their positive camp experience will always be the goal. Through these steps and incorporating your own style you will lead a great team to deliver a great summer.
Staff will have a great time no matter what happens. Teach them that they will learn more about themselves and their co-workers by giving themselves completely to the kids. The kids will learn that there are people who will care for them unconditionally.
And through that bond of shared experiences both campers and staff with have the magical summer that all camps have the ability to provide.
It all happens through creating that place for kids. Directors and staff both reawaken the child inside and find out how simple it can be to be happy, no matter how complicated we believe our lives are. All of this is for the kids.
Jeff Merhige is the executive director of YMCA Camp Kern, Dayton YMCA, Dayton, Ohio.