Heave Ho!

By Ian Snyder

I’ve often reflected on the uncanny parallels between a summer camp and life aboard a pirate ship, or more specifically, a camp staff and a crew of pirates. Hear me out! Pirates are often depicted as a ragtag group of individuals scraped up from various corners of the globe with a willingness to endure uncomfortable living quarters, an eagerness for difficult work over long hours, and a poor sense of personal hygiene.

Daniel Webster Council, BSA

Daniel Webster Council, BSA

Did I just describe your camp staff? Sounds an awful lot like mine! In the hiring season, I often feel like a captain seeking out able-bodied persons to round out my crew, finding them wherever they may be … reminiscent of Jack Sparrow assembling his crew of characters.

All jokes aside, my fellow administrators have adopted the notion of the “Pirate Crew” camp staff, and it has served us well. We can anticipate the short-sighted mistakes that are so common, and we appreciate the loyalty even when the winds blow and the campers rage like rolling waves.

The Adolescent Brain
As a college student, I majored in education with the foolish notion that it was my only means of impacting the lives of young people. After completing that degree, I continued my studies for a master’s in school counseling. Over the years, I have found that education has served me well in my role as a youth-development professional, in particular the many hours of studying dedicated to the adolescent brain. That is an interesting structure on the verge of maturation, yet with so far to go. For the sake of time, I’ll highlight two main factors that significantly impact a young staff member’s ability to complete tasks.

The first is that nifty part of the brain known as the frontal cortex. This sophisticated piece of gray matter is responsible for some of the most important thought processes that adults depend on. This is the part of the brain that helps us make complex decisions and moderate social abilities. And we wonder why teens make such foolish decisions!

The second factor is those pesky hormones that are responsible for the mood swings, outbursts, irrational crying, and the list goes on. These powerful little guys have the ability to completely turn well-trained counselors into an angry gang of pirates.

Our “Lovable Goons”
A few years ago, I started affectionately referring to camp staff members as “goons” for the lack of a better term. With the knowledge that major brain elements are under construction and a biological war is raging within, I began to understand the staff and appreciate all those traits that made them quality role models for campers.

Need the dining hall cleaned? Not to worry—the goon squad will make quick work of it; however, it will take them twice as long due to spontaneous outbursts of song and dance. Need someone to cheer up a homesick camper? Bring in the goons! They’ll have him on the quest for the “secret papers” (spoiler—it’s really just toilet paper) before you can even look up Mom’s name.

All of those biological factors that make staff members walking insurance claims are the same traits that make them powerful role models, enthusiastic employees, and quality members of the team. Those in the adolescent and young-adult stages of development are known for creativity and a desire to build things, paired with an unstoppable desire to prove themselves. Now I don’t know about you, but I can work with that.

Setting Expectations
Back to the pirate ship. If you look at historical documents pertaining to life aboard a colonial sailing vessel, you will find a series of unusual rules and regulations that all the souls must abide by. Structure was the rule and expectations were clear; more importantly, consequences were observed by all. While I wouldn’t suggest emulating the traditional repercussions aboard such a ship, I do think a touch of structure is good for all.

The key to managing staff members is to set expectations early and remain consistent throughout the season; if there is one instance where consistency is lacking or expectations are lowered, mutiny will be in the air. At the end of the day, the staff will respect you for being upfront and honest, as all adolescents seek to be treated as adults.

Here are a few of my expectations:

1. Passion
Enthusiasm is cheap, but passion is gold. Some might disagree, but if I had to choose between an energetic, enthusiastic staff member and a passionate, driven staff member, I will always choose the latter. Encouraging passion takes enthusiasm to a deeper level; it gives one a deeper motivation than surface excitement.

Staff members who are passionate about the mission of the camp will work longer and harder to ensure that the mission is delivered; more importantly, they will inspire others to follow that very mission. Enthusiasm may help us through a long day, but it is passion that carries us through a long summer. The idea that our work is bigger than ourselves, bigger than this summer, provides the type of vision and drive that every camp needs to survive.

Setting an expectation for passion is not easy. It requires us—as leaders—to sell that mission to staff members. The best way to build passion is through experiencing the mission of the camp, and that can’t always be condensed into a 30-minute training session. However, with the right “missionary” veteran staff members, passion tends to spread like wildfire. More importantly, making clear and ensuring that passion is the expectation will help retain dedicated staff members and filter out the less-committed.

Heart of New England Council, BSA

Heart of New England Council, BSA

2. Respect
As an adolescent and young adult, one’s greatest desire is to be valued and respected. A staff member wants to be heard and for adults to consider personal beliefs. Any camp leader who forgets this fact will quickly be on the wrong side of a revolt.

Of all the expectations to be set, this is the easiest. If we model respectful behavior and remind management teams that there is value to open dialogue, the flow of respect will move freely. I have found that this is as simple as listening to concerns and feedback from staff members. Not all feedback has to be acted on, but the act of listening shows validation and respect. This type of behavior is needed among staff members, and it will occur if we demonstrate and expect it.

3. Discipline
By far, this is the hardest expectation to set and equally one of the most valuable. It begins early; on the first day of staff training, I like to roll out a difficult physical task and ensure that everyone is present and participating. This early task helps lay the foundation for the rest of the summer. “We’re going to work hard until the job is done, but we’ll do it together.”

A big part of discipline—at least for me—is time management, which, of course, is a cognitive task housed in that missing part of staff members’ brains! Set a schedule and stick to it. At our camp, we do a flag ceremony every morning with a staff pow-wow five minutes beforehand. A member who misses that meeting must know that a slip-up like that will not be tolerated. It’s not always easy, and it can feel like pirate justice, but missing that meeting or running five minutes late can lead to the wheels falling off later in the season when energy is low and minds are foggy.

4. Trust/Loyalty
“Loyalty above all else” would be the phrase emblazed on my pirate flag! There is nothing more important in a volatile camp setting than loyalty and trust. This expectation is a difficult one because it is abstract and hard to capture, but is best described in context. There is a private school in Newark, N.J., owned and operated by Benedictine monks. They use the principles that have been instilled in their daily routines to change the lives of young people. The motto of the school is “What is good for my brother is good for me.” What a profound principle to teach young people.

I use this story to explain the principle of loyalty and trust to my staff:

  • Trust your fellow staff member to put in the same effort you do.

  • Be loyal to the one who comes behind you.

  • Support a fellow staff member, and in turn you will support yourself. Take care of each other.

In the height of the summer season, staff members who ascribe to this type of thinking will outperform all others. They will work harder and longer than the others and, best of all, they will do it for each other.

Leadership—Every Ship Needs A Captain
Often the captain of a sailing vessel is described as a dark figure both fearsome and inspiring with staunch reserve, even when the seas are raging. This type of person inspires his crew to rise to the occasion, standing watch in the darkness or riding the waves from the front of the ship.

Our staff members are composed of impressionable young people looking to be inspired. Many come to camp because they were impressed by their own counselors and personal camp experiences. They are looking for someone to follow. So, throw on your eye patch and show them how it’s done.

The sad truth of climbing the camp leadership ladder is that with each step up, we find ourselves further from the campers. While it may be nice to step away from the screaming 5-year-olds, it can be hard to find the “why” in this position. The answer is simple: While we no longer can spend the day with the children, we can inspire staff members to make a lasting impact on campers’ lives.

Sailing For Treasure
When talking with staff members, I am always curious to understand why they have chosen to spend the summer in a tent with a bunch of kids out in the middle of the woods. There are plenty of grocery store jobs out there; plenty of ice cream needs scooping. Why choose the road less travelled?

The answer is simple: The young people who join our staff are looking for something more. They are looking for adventure! They are looking for something with meaning. As I like to remind them, they won’t change any lives scooping ice cream, but they will change at least one life for the better each summer. I guess you can call that the treasure our pirate crews seek—adventure and a meaningful purpose.

Happy sailing

Ian Snyder is the Camping Director and Reservation Director for the Griswold Scout Reservation for the Boy Scouts of America Daniel Webster Council in Manchester, N.H. Reach him at ian.snyder@scouting.org.