Not Your Mother’s Staff Training

By David Lewis

When I started in the camping industry 27 years ago, staff training was much different. As a counselor, I sat through two weeks of training. Each day was filled with endless sessions; thank goodness for the work projects and lifeguard training that broke up the day.

In a college class on camping, the students were assigned to write a paper on how we would train staff members. I turned in nearly a 20-page paper, while most of my classmates turned in two pages. It was not because I was so much smarter, but I had been through six summers of training and just turned in what I had seen. I included the schedule and handouts on all of the topics, from homesickness to active listening. Two weeks of training per summer had given me a lot of information to draw on. When I became director, I carried on that tradition; I saw no reason to alter the process. However, in the last few years I have noticed that the younger generation does not learn and process information the same way I did. They want more social time, hanging out together and talking about camp.

When I realized this, I was not willing to go that far, but it did open my eyes. A couple of weeks into the summer, staff members would begin asking how to do this or that, or how to counsel in a particular situation. I thought to myself, “We covered that in training.” Or worse yet, at the end of summer in the exit interview, a staff member would say, “I did not feel prepared for the job.” The problem is information overload. So my staff went to work on how to communicate the necessary information in a way that the younger staff could process. While it has not been perfected, here are some ideas that have greatly helped to prepare staff for summer:

·        Begin the training with socializing activities like get-to-know-you games, group initiatives, and rope-course activities.

·        Early in the training, provide solo time to prepare for summer. As a Christian camp, we send young staff out with Bibles and a diary or other memory-making ideas for at least four hours. On one side of a board they draw, write, or use crafts to create their life to this point, and on the other side they note what they want it to look like by the end of summer. For many this is an eternity, but most return renewed and challenged to give their all for the summer. This exercise could be of great value to a non-faith-based camp as well.

·        Use skits and real-life simulation activities. For example, on a hike a fight broke out; it was pre-planned but not known to the rest of the staff. We debriefed the situation and discussed how it should have been handled. These activities are not only enjoyable to the staff, but the members are more likely to remember what to do when the situation may occur at camp.

·        Sift through all of the training information and reduce it to the essentials. Teaching through activities takes more prep time and actual training time. Communicate the essentials in training and then have in-service sessions the first few weekends and throughout the summer to see where help is needed. After actually being counselors for a week, they realize some of the things they didn’t know and will then remember what to look for in the future.

·        Empower staff by giving them clear job descriptions, the authority to carry out their jobs, and the freedom to mess up, knowing that you will be there to support them and help them do better the next time.

David Lewis is the Camp Director for Cedine Bible Camp in Spring City, Tenn. Reach him at (423) 365-9565, or