Conference-Style Staff Training

By Richard Glover

“This isn’t relevant to me.”
“I already know this.”
“Do I have to sit through bullying again?”
“Sessions were too long and boring.”
“Too much sitting around.”
“I’m bored.”

This is a small selection of the typical feedback I get from returning staff members each year regarding leadership training at camp. After reading the responses, I might assume that training simply wasn’t effective and needed a serious revamp to better engage the staff. My argument, however, is that engaging the millennial generation of staff members in traditional training structures has become a real challenge.

I was born in 1987, and as a result, landed right in the middle of the label “Millennial.” Most of my compatriots have carried this label proudly, begrudgingly, reluctantly, and perhaps a little smugly throughout our adult life. We consider ourselves educated, tech-savvy, conscious global citizens in no rush to grow up. Everything in a Millennial’s world is immediate, convenient, and uniquely catered to a lifestyle. Our attention span is short, so short, in fact, that most advertisers have only seconds to catch us before we click “Skip Ad” on that video we want to watch. Why, then, should staff training be any different?

What if staff members were allowed to choose which training sessions they want to attend, to create their specific schedules, and to attend significantly shorter sessions? In 2016, we at Camp Twin Creeks decided to introduce the conference model of multiple, optional training sessions in which staff members were responsible for selecting and attending the sessions by which they were personally intrigued. Of course, some content was still mandatory, but these additional sessions would provide content or approaches to complement them. We called them Above and Beyond Sessions (ABS), and they were presented by the expanded leadership team. This approach revitalized the training approach, engaged staff members, and became the most positively talked about element of the training curriculum.

Here’s how you can set up a successful conference-style training schedule at your camp.

Step 1: Identify Presenters
Identify which leadership team or returning staff members might deliver unique, quality content. Quality is the key—both in delivery and content—so take the time to build a team of people that will engage attendees and have interesting materials to deliver. This is also a great opportunity to take advantage of the unique backgrounds of staff members; perhaps you have someone studying business who can talk about customer service, an education major who has classroom-management strategies to share, or a parent who can provide insight on communication.

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Step 2: Ask For Topic Proposals And Set Deadlines
Just like everything in training, preparation is the key and allowing a presentation team enough time to research a topic, draft a proposal, and pitch it to you, the more effective the outcome. It is essential to provide a framework and set expectations clearly when contacting the team. The format we modeled last year follows:

  • 3-minute introductory “hook”
  • 10-minute teaching/presentation time
  • 10-minute discussion/active learning time
  • 3-minute conclusion

Once presenters have been contacted, provide them with clear, realistic expectations and deadlines to have content ready for review.

Step 3: Provide Feedback On Proposals
Involve senior camp-staff members to assist with this approach to get involved in the process. Explain to presenters that they will “pitch” their presentation topics to a senior staff member via video conference a month before camp begins. This is a great opportunity to provide constructive feedback, for them to fully understand their topic, and suggest any tweaks to the content well ahead of the summer. It is also a great time to develop staff members and enable them to grow into more effective professionals.

Step 4: Communicate Expectations
Once all staff members arrive at camp and presenters have been vetted and ready to go, it’s time to spur their efforts. This begins at the start of training by letting staff know what to expect, how the format will work logistically, and how learning objectives will be used. Create a sign-up sheet with all sessions listed, accompanied with small blurbs on each one (provided by presenters). On the morning of the conference sessions, post the sign-up sheet in a central area where staff members will have time to read it (be sure to attach a pen).

Step 5: Choose A Suitable Learning Environment
Planning where the sessions will take place is critical in making this format work. There will be a lot of movement and noise during transitions, so the more work you put into preparing for this, the better. Keep sessions within close proximity to one another to reduce the time spent on transitioning from one to the next. We also had a central area that displayed the sign-up sheet in case people forgot where they were going next. I would encourage you to add locations to the sign-up sheet and also print signs for each one so they are clear and easy to identify.

Step 6: Speed Dating Anyone?
Timing is essential and must be managed strictly by a senior staff member not involved in teaching the content. This is where your presenters’ previous rehearsal will be important if they are to deliver their content in the short timeframe allotted. Allow 5 minutes for transitions; a whistle, horn, or bell is certainly a nice cue, as opposed to shouting directions. This is where Step 4 will come in useful, and hopefully the front loading of expectations and procedures will be helpful. A maximum of three rotations to keep the overall activity to a 90-minute time slot is ideal.

Step 7: Concluding The Conference
It will be somewhat of a whirlwind with plenty of movement, discussions, and hopefully learning taking place. Allow 10 minutes at the very end for everyone to sit and quietly reflect on what was discussed. Allow a further 10 minutes for staff to discuss and share their experiences with others.

We implemented this model three times during our staff training week, and although it was a great deal of work, we felt the benefits outweighed the effort. The expanded leadership team members were given fantastic opportunities to develop themselves as teachers/mentors, and staff members were able to select topics they were passionate about. This year, we will be implementing a similar model, although we are introducing room hosts to shadow presenters and encourage others to step up and teach sessions in the future.

Hopefully, these steps will be a help in implementing something similar at your camp, and I would love to hear your feedback. I am of course more than happy to assist and support in any way I can. Have a safe summer!

Richard Glover is the associate director for Camp Twin Creeks in Marlinton, W.V. Reach him at richard@camptwincreeks.com.