Training Staff in What Really Matters, Part 1: Buy-In

The following article was written by James Davis - Executive Director of the Vanderkamp Center, and the founder of Summer Camp Revolution.

James saying other smart things

James saying other smart things

Every year as I plan staff training, I find the most clarity of purpose when I reflect on things that went poorly during the previous summer. The way I figure it, the things that went well did so because the skills involved in making them go well were taught well enough during staff training, or were possessed by the staff working for me before they came.

But the things that went poorly? Those sincere pain points, those moments we wish we could have back? Those seem to be the things we really need to focus on.

It’s through that lens that I craft staff training each year, and sometimes it isn’t easy. There are a few things in particular that have been incredibly hard to teach, for me, and those mostly surround how staff interact with one another. The plan is to share the difficulties I’ve had, and what I plan to do about them this summer, in a series of articles over the course of the next month.

Call it what you want – drama, gossip, “not being here for the right reasons,” etc. – our big issues each summer never have to do with the execution of our activities, or our camp philosophy, or what to do when a kid gets injured. They are always around interpersonal conflict between staff members. Now, I don’t want to paint a picture of a bunch of terrible staff members who are not at camp to change lives. My staff are incredible.

It’s just that there’s something about living in community with one another that’s so darned hard sometimes. Waking, living, breathing, and sleeping the same mission together for 8 weeks can bring out the best and the worst in us all. An experience as intense as a summer at camp is going to cause frustrations to bubble up at the surface.

Whenever there is a recurring problem at camp, I feel the need to look inward. When it comes to staff “drama,” it’s either an unavoidable problem, or a problem with training. My guess? It’s a problem with our training. Our staff trainings in the last few summers have looked a lot like staff training had always looked for me. Some sessions on procedures. Some sessions on important skills, like active listening, or dealing with homesickness, or using growth-mindset language. Plenty of team-building, and “getting to know you” activities.

But, year after year, we continue to face the same problems – at some point during the summer, someone would hurt someone else, or become frustrated with someone else, or feel left out, or break up with someone else, or feel resentment because someone wasn’t doing enough work around the lodge, or feel resentment because someone was taking over and doing too much work around the lodge, or any of the other plethora of things that can cause tension among a small staff like ours.

So, this summer, my co-directors and I (Jack and Laura from Camping Coast to Coast) are re-writing our staff training plan altogether. We’re going to spend the vast majority of staff training building community, and equipping our staff with tools to reach for in case that foundation shows wear over the course of the summer. What follows will make up perhaps 70% of the week we’ll share with our summer staff – what we hope to instill in them, how we’ll try to instill it, and the tools we’ll give them that should foster healthier relationships for them at camp, and in the rest of their lives.

Generating intense buy-in for our mission

They look bought in to me - what say you?

They look bought in to me - what say you?

It’s something I say to my staff every summer, but I’m not sure if my staff always totally feel it. The message is always spoken clearly enough: What we’re doing at camp is important. We’re changing people’s lives, here. We’re changing the world. If we’re focusing on all these little things going on in our lives, or worrying about the social lives of others, it’s going to be awfully hard to fully execute on this mission.

We’re the lucky ones who get to be a part of this mission. Don’t we owe it to ourselves to use all the tools available to us to ensure that we avoid hurting one another as much as possible?

But sometimes, summer staff members don’t hear this message as clearly as I would like. So this year, we hope to augment our “pump up” speeches with some additional tools and activities. Instead of simply telling our own stories, we plan to read testimonials from kids from previous summers. We’re going to name them by name, and show a picture of them. It’s not “kids” who are at stake. It’s Camille. And Nick. And Sean. Real human beings whom we have seen laugh, cry, and work through hard times. These kids are important. They’re why we do this.

Once we’re in a mindset of appreciation for the opportunity to help these young people, we’re going to do a team-building exercise I’ve done many times in the past that really drives home the idea of how easy it is for 1 person pushing against a community to disrupt everything. The activity is simple. In a small area, we’ll have 20 empty 2 liter bottles. 19 staff members will focus on setting the bottles up, and 1 will focus on trying to knock them all down. The only rule is that you may not hold a bottle for more than a second, and you may not carry a bottle around with you. After this round, we will have all 20 staff members setting up bottles, instead of knocking them down.

The de-brief for this activity is powerful. The activity is essentially impossible with 1 destructive person, but it couldn’t be easier when we are all on the same page. The same holds true for running summer camp. The question for staff is this: Do you want to be the one person who is knocking everyone else’s bottles down this summer, or do you want to be one of us who is setting them up?

bottles down this summer, or do you want to be one of us who is setting them up?

If we execute well, we hope that this will be a memorable touchstone as we move throughout the summer. In staff meetings, we’ll refer back to this de-brief: “Did anyone pick you up this week? Did you pick anyone else up this week? Look in your own heart. Did you knock anything over this week? Knock anyone over? If you were knocked over, did you attempt to communicate your feelings? Remember – being a member of this community isn’t about being perfect, it’s about moving closer toward who we want to be each day.”

If we’re all intent on executing our incredibly important mission, we’re most of the way to putting the camp before our own personal preferences. But there’s still more we’ll need to do.

Intensely buying in to each other

Once our staff members are bought into our mission, the next step has got to be getting them to buy in to one another. There’s nothing quite like working with someone who’s given you belly laughs and seen you cry. There’s an accountability among summer staff members that doesn’t exist in any other job I’ve found, and I believe we can do even more to increase this sense of duty and love toward one another.

The main points of pain in getting a summer staff to love one another seem to be common from year to year, and while some of them will be unavoidable, I believe efforts can be made to reduce their painfulness.

The first one almost always seems to be new staff members feeling left out. If you’re reading this, you’ve likely been a part of at least 1,000 “remember last summer, when…” stories. Depending on how you got your first camping job, you may or may not have been a part of one of these stories when you had no clue what anyone else was talking about. But if you’ve been a director of a camp, you’ve almost certainly had someone in your office sharing the feeling of isolation that comes from hearing story after story about people whom you’ve never heard of. It’s a difficult discussion to have.

I think that the pain in this person’s heart comes from something beyond a lack of knowledge as to who “Fish” was, and why he put a dead mouse under someone named Erin’s pillow. I think it’s because he or she doesn’t have any camp memories yet. To this staff person, camp is a semi-scary place with a lot of new people who all seem to know and love one another and who share a million common experiences with one another, and none with him or her. I’ve noticed that these concerns almost always die down over the course of the summer, even though story-telling from previous summers persist.

I believe this is because new staff members haven’t experienced the magic of camp, yet. And hearing great things about something you haven’t yet been a part of can build up excitement, but it can also build up resentment, or fear.

Our idea? Start staff training off by giving staff some of the magic of camp. We plan to take the first day of staff training (after some basic getting to know you stuff) and create a camp experience. Once everyone arrives, we’re giving them a few basic supplies, a few bucks, access to our kitchen, and some boats. They are going to have to leave within 2 hours of the last person’s arrival, and boat across our lake. They will be permitted to come back in the morning. Our belief is that the absurdity of this common goal will cure the “remember last year” disease, and give them plenty to talk about, have inside jokes about, or complain about as a group, regardless of how experienced they are.


By facilitating one experience that every staff person will tell stories about in the future, those new folks will have at least one window into what it’s like to be a part of the magic of camp. Even if they don’t know everything about our camp’s history, they were at least a part of the most recent “big thing.” I think it will go a long way.

Once we’ve all experienced a day of camp magic, we can connect in deeper and more authentic ways. Thus, I also plan to continue something we’ve done to great success in the last few summers – offering lots (and lots) of time for staff to simply get to know one another in intentional ways. I believe this is perhaps the best time we spend during staff training. Our summer staff are universally yearning for connection with like-minded peers, and once summer beings, they’ll have hardly any time at all to simply sit and be with one another without being on call.

A quick lesson learned on this strategy – we’ve found it helps to give staff a place to hang out, instead of giving them the opportunity to just go off in their own little corners of camp. When given truly free time, for extended periods of time, cliques (or at least appearances of cliques, to new staff members) can form that can undermine the exact purpose of this bonding time. Our solution? Give staff a certain place they can hang out (like the Dining Hall), with the other option being going to sleep. This creates a non-threatening environment for new staff where they don’t have to walk into a pre-existing group of friends in someone’s bedroom, or some otherwise intimidating and potentially unwelcoming location.

Removing the barriers for new staff and veteran staff to interact is key. Regardless of a veteran staff person’s best intentions, new staff members will feel intimated by them to some degree. It’s our job to grease the wheels for those lifelong friendships that we know could be just around the corner. And if we help our staff grow to love one another, the potential for a life-affirming community greatly increases.

Ready to learn? Learn away.

If all we’ve accomplished in the first two days of staff training is creating an eagerness to learn in our young staff members, we’ve done an amazing thing. Once we have a group of staff members that whole-heartedly cares about one another, and the work they are doing together, we can at least rest assured that they will want to avoid drama, heartache, and resentment as we dive headlong into the rest of a summer together. Another awesome benefit? When a staff is fully invested, facilitating discussion on the finer points of executing camp is a breeze.

Study after study has shown that people learn best when they are intrinsically motivated. We can’t coerce, or cajole, or threaten, or bribe our staff into becoming zealots for our mission. When we distill the essence of our camp down to why we are working at camp, and give staff the best chance to love who they are working with, they hungrily try to digest all of the tools we give them to make this summer the best one ever.

A hungry staff is a killer staff. We’re going to do everything we can to let that hunger develop.

Part 2, coming up next week, will dive into some specific tools we can give staff to help them work together in the most productive way possible. Have any thoughts on this article? Be sure to comment, email us, or start a thread on the #CampPros Facebook page!