How to train a dinosaur, a chicken and super hero to be great summer camp counsellors?

General - young camp staff

At the ACA Annual Conference, held March 21-23, 2016 we heard from Gabrielle Raill on successful staff training. Here are some highlights from that workshop:

Picture the last day of staff training.

What can you see when you look around the room or around camp? What kinds of things do you hear? What does it feel like?  You might hear your staff say things like: “I am so excited for the kids to get here!” “This is going to be the best summer ever!” “I have so many great ideas!” “I am prepared for this.”  You might see them laughing with each other, creating friendships and sharing in the enthusiasm for the summer to come. These are signs of a great staff training session.

What crushes those positive dreams for your staff training session?

It’s not always roses after staff training. Staff are excited to see each other be at camp so they stay up all night and are exhausted during the training sessions. Maybe some staff don’t get along with each other or are leaving other staff out. You might have some know-it-all staff who answer all the questions and get all the attention, when really you want to tell them “Be quiet, you don’t know it all so pay attention!”

You have some anxieties about these things happening because you’ve seen them happen before. Your experience of previous staff training, whether good or bad, is very useful. When you’re developing your staff training program, make a list of the things that frustrate you. There are small but negative things that could happen each year that become ‘normal’, but you don’t have to accept that. Pick the items off your list of frustrations that you want to change and apply those changes before the staff even arrive. Your own experience is the tool to use for positive change and more successful outcomes at staff training.

Staff might be overwhelmed, underwhelmed or something else.

Most staff hope this is going to be the best summer of their life. They’re so excited. What pushes them away from learning is being overwhelmed or underwhelmed. If it’s not one of those things, they could be dealing with outside issues like being worried about failing school, trouble at home or other things that could effect their time at staff training. If it looks like staff are not connecting, check if they’re overwhelmed, underwhelmed or if something else is bothering them so you can help them get into the growth zone. Here are some tips that might help you with that:

Create a good order of instructions. If you have a giant list of instructions, you might overwhelm brand new staff. If you don’t, returning staff might feel underwhelmed, like they’ve seen it all before without paying much attention to it. How can you create an order of instruction that creates a good balance for all staff?

Make sure your staff feel safe enough to make mistakes. If your staff don’t feel comfortable making mistakes, then they will just hide the fact they don’t know what to do or not fess up when they make a mistake. They need to own it. You don’t want staff pretending to know how to rig the climbing wall if they actually don’t! You want them to know that failing leads to learning and that’s a good thing!

Expectations, expectations, expectations! Your staff should know almost 90% of what is expected of them before they arrive at camp. Throughout the hiring process they should learn overall staff expectations and what is expected of them as individuals.

Building a community. One of the greatest benefits of working at camp is being a part of a community. Make your staff feel like they are part of a camp family, like they are part of something that is bigger than themselves.

What to do with staff before they come to camp?

General - Young AdultsEvery single staff must apply. Every single staff must go through an interview even if they are returning staff and even if they will be doing the same job. Ask them “What do you like about camp and what can we do better?”  Staff sometimes tell you things that they like about camp that you didn’t even know that was special to them, allowing you to put more emphasis on it to increase their positive experience. Your staff might say something like “I think we could get the kids into the dining room faster.” Then later you can work together to create some solutions that address their concerns.

Use social media to bring staff together. Create a Facebook Group and invite all staff, new and returning to join the group. Start engaging them in discussions and post questions on the group page so they can start to get to know each other. You could ask questions like “What is your funniest memory as a child?” and ask them all to comment with a response. It’s important to set expectations for the group and some rules:

  • Don’t share inside jokes until we make them together at camp this summer.
  • Comments on other people’s post the same amount or more than our friends.
  • Make sure it’s camper appropriate. We’re trying to role model how we treat each other.

Have your returning staff give new staff a welcome call before camp starts. Once a new staff member is hired, assign a returning staff member to them and have them call the new staff to welcome them to the camp family. Make it a formal process where the new staff member has to reach out to the partner returning staff member to schedule the phone call, Facetime or Skype call. Then have the returning staff member prepared with things to ask the new person and items to talk about. They can talk about whatever they want as long as it’s camp focused and camper appropriate.

Ways to build a strong community among new and returning staff.

Train your returning staff to engage new staff in meaningful conversation as they’re walking to and from staff training activities. A good way to start a conversation is to:

  • Ask them something specific about their trip out to camp. “Did you listen to any cool music along the way? What was your favourite part of the drive?”
  • Show them something on camp. “Hey, see this bench? It’s my favourite spot on camp because it overlooks the lake and it’s usually nice and quiet. I really like it here.”
  • Ask a did you know question. “Did you know we are having pizza for dinner?”

Making new staff and young staff feel welcome should be part of your returning staff’s job description. They need to walk with new staff to meals and activities, not with their best buddies from last summer. They should also be role models to the new staff, modelling the type of behavior we want all staff to exhibit. Your returning staff can help train and solve problems with new staff. You want them to help instigate conversation among the new staff on how to do things, to help others figure out a critical path and help them along the way.

Emphasis on the 4 S’s

Throughout staff training teach your staff about the 4 S’s. These things should be considered throughout all activities and times at camp.  Before doing something or saying something they need to ask themselves:

  1. Safety - is it physically and emotionally safe?
  2. Stewardship - Are you being a steward of the earth?
  3. Servanthood - Are you serving other and the community?
  4. Self Esteem - Are you building someone’s self esteem?

Tell your staff to rest!

Your staff are coming to staff training exhausted. They’ve been finishing up school, staying up late studying and celebrating the end of a school year with friends. They’ve been go-go-go for month and now they’ve arrived to work a physically exhausting summer at camp! Allow them to stay up late chatting with the friends the first night of training, but after that put a cap on it and stress the importance of rest. At staff training remind your staff that rest:

  • reduces social anxiety
  • lowers blood pressure
  • improves overall mood
  • allows for a healthier stomach

This emphasis on rest will help them throughout the rest of the summer as well. Working at camp is physically draining. They’re up at dawn for staff meetings and spend the entire day running activities, supervising meals and then have to put a dozen excited children to bed, passing out at the end of the day only to do the same things the next day - for the entire summer.  Rest is so important and could prevent a mid-summer burn out.

Get feedback from your staff with this cue card exercise.

On the second last day of staff training hand out cue cards to all your staff that have questions like: “During staff training I…” “I am most proud of…” “The thing I learned that I didn’t know before is…” “I feel overwhelmed by…” "I don't understand why we have to..." etc.

Their answers will tell you what information your staff training is lacking and what is successful. What don’t they know and what are they anxious about. DO they feel a part of the group? This gets them connected to something they’re proud of.  What do you need to adjust in your staff training? The next day address their concerns and ask them to elaborate on the positive answers.

Share a story of how camp changes lives.

Finish off your staff training by sharing an impact story on a past camper or staff member. The staff need to know what a huge difference summer camp has on the lives of children and youth and what a key role they play in that difference. If you’re short on testimonies (which is unlikely) ask staff alumni to write their own story about how working at camp changed their life. This will leave a lasting impression on your staff, inspiring them and encouraging them for the summer ahead. It will be very special to them.

About Gabrielle Raill

General - Gabrielle 2016 SpeakerGabrielle Raill has combined her passion for education, as well as her experience as the director of Camp Ouareau, an all girls summer camp, to develop a wide range of educational and developmental programs. She has consulted with several organizations such as The International Camping Fellowship, Concordia University, and NASA, providing expertise on creating positive community dynamics, geared toward setting up frameworks that support creative learning and diverse thinking. Since completing her B.A. in Human Relations at Concordia University, Gabrielle has become a world traveller, sharing these values and programs with an internationally diverse audience, including a recent TEDx talk about 'What it means to be smart'. She also has a mild obsession with dinosaurs, cause, you know, dinosaurs are really cool.

Categories: Aca Annual Conference, Staff Training