Know Your Audience

“The most important skill for the people who feed our tiger is that they remember to lock the door when they leave.”

Do you have staff members whose growl is worse than their bite?

These were the irrefutable words of wisdom proffered by my friend, Denis, who directs educational programming at a large zoo in a big city.

Denis was dropping some knowledge on the other youth development professionals who participated in Directors’ Camp 2012, held this past weekend in Tuftonboro, New Hampshire. ( )

“Of course,” Denis continued, “conscientious adults who understand the dangers of wild animals are not always good youth leaders. For example, the elephant we have is a retired circus elephant that once attacked a trainer. The current elephant curator, Jake, is someone who understands the dangers of wild animals. Unfortunately, he introduces our elephant to elementary school groups by saying, ‘This is Mindy, our elephant. She kills people, so don’t get too close.’”

Nothing like a lethal threat to bring children closer to nature, right?

Denis’s zoo program is one of the best in the world, but the choice of Jake to lead school groups has transformed budding zoologists and veterinarians into juvenile agrizoophobics. (Yup, there’s a word for the fear of wild animals.)

Jake knows his subject, but he doesn’t know his audience.

And while your camp may not have elephants, you can probably think of a few staff members whose oversharing, brutal honesty, gruff exterior, or inert personality make them a mismatch for a job whose central focus is children.

Be honest, now. Do you have a Jake on your staff?

Directors handle Jakes in a number of different ways. On the extreme end of the spectrum, Jakes might be fired. Many directors would say that if you’re not good with children, you don’t belong at camp.

Even your legendary maintenance director—you know, the guy who could build a Rolls Royce with a pile of scrap metal and a rivet gun—can’t be too scary, or the campers won’t return.

Somewhat less extreme is re-assigning your Jakes to different jobs; something that taps into their signature strengths but keeps them far away from your campers.

Sequestration is a risky option, of course, because every adult in your camp or program eventually comes into contact with your clients.

If your Jakes really do bring loads of talent to the table, then perhaps the best option is to coach them on better ways to interact with children. Effective coaching options include:

  • Pairing Jake up with a staff member who is warm and sensitive with kids. Peer role models are subtly powerful. They can also step in to rephrase and reframe awkward interactions between Jake and your campers.

  • Videotaping Jake’s work with children and reviewing his behavior play-by-play to point out his strengths and weaknesses. Sometimes, folks like Jake will swear they do not do X or Y until they actually see themselves on camera.

  • Role play scenarios with Jake and the rest of your staff so that everyone—including your least skilled staff—get practice using their young people skills. When was the last time your cook or property manager participated in staff training role plays?

Too often, directors take no action when a staff member like Jake “has been around forever.” (Do we tenure camp staff now?)

Psychologists call the credit we give quirky people “idiosyncrasy points.” They are odd, but they contribute in important ways, so we tolerate them.

But why just tolerate Jake when you can do something to change him from odd to outstanding?

So, yes, please lock the door to the tiger habitat. But if you want to unlock the hearts and minds of the young people with whom you work, you’ll have to tame your wild Jake.

Dr. Christopher Thurber is the school psychologist at Phillips Exeter Academy and the co-founder of . Learn more by visiting .