“Who is watching the children?” is a critical question to ask when considering a summer camp. The leadership of a camp sets a tone, establishes policies, trains staff, provides supervision and oversight, communicates with families and is responsible for the overall wellbeing and integrity of the camp program. However, a camp’s administration is not “in-the-trenches” spending significant periods of time with the same small group of campers throughout the summer season. A camp’s administration is not in the position to get to know the children best and play the role of mentor, advocate and primary caregiver. Who are these young adults willing to take on such a great responsibility and what is it that makes them uniquely qualified to succeed at camp and quite often in any number of future professional endeavors? While all camps are required statutorily to conduct a significant degree of due diligence when hiring their counselors in order to insure that their staff are suited to work with children in a respectful and healthy manner, there are a number of unregulated attributes that transform a good or great counselor into what we call at Camp Northwood, the “Superstar” counselor.
I am routinely asked if our counselors at Camp Northwood are all special ed. teachers as if this status would be a singular indicator of excellence. Quite often my response of “absolutely not” is not what is expected, but when combined with the following explanation helps the interested party understand a bit more about the culture of camp.
Many teachers can make great camp counselors, but not all, just as many camp counselors can be phenomenal teachers, but not all! Whereas teachers are trained to work with students within an academic setting, residential camps operate on a much more social basis in a 24 hour cycle that quite often takes teachers out of their zone of expertise and comfort.
At Camp Northwood, in order for an applicant to be considered for a staff position, we require that they have completed a minimum of one year of undergraduate studies. We do not hire high school students, accept volunteers or operate a Jr. Counselor/ CIT program. This minimum age/ education requirement is designed to set a basic standard of maturity and independence. It also allows for a higher concentration of applicants already pursuing a career in education or related field that would establish a greater degree of familiarity with the unique nature of Camp Northwood’s camper/ student population. As a special educator myself, I am often humbled by the raw talent of the college students and young professionals that join our camp community each summer. I am envious of their ability to take on the role of cabin counselor. The demands on the cabin counselor are extensive and require significant physical, emotional and intellectual commitment. Regardless of my professional training, I have come to the conclusion that my talents and expertise are better suited to guide and mentor the next generation of counselors/educators, whether they become teachers or take there talents into other fields.
So what are the attributes of the “Superstar Counselor”? What unique qualities do camps seek in applicants that want to work with children in the camp environment? While the following list is far from complete, I have tried to offer some suggestions of what I have found to be most consistent in the Superstars that have passed through the Northwood community over the years:
EMPATHY. Hands down the greatest gift one can bring to camp. The ability to sense and be affected by the emotional condition of those around us creates a compassion that drives a counselors desire to help their campers succeed.
STAMINA. Long days over a period of weeks can be draining. A superstar counselor needs to be able to maintain high levels of energy throughout the summer season.
EXECUTIVE FUNCTIONING. The ability to stay focused, remain flexible, function efficiently and solve problems under stressful conditions is a critical attribute of the superstar counselor.
COMMUNICATOR. Because the camp community requires a constant ebb and flow of information to be shared amongst counselor teams and the camp administration, the superstar counselor must be an effective listener and be able to articulate their thoughts.
PASSION. A counselor must be willing to immerse themselves in the culture and mission of camp with an overwhelming desire to not only learn the craft of camp counseling, but to share their life experiences and uniqueness with the camp community. The superstar counselor at Northwood bleeds Northwood green and drives their family and friends at home crazy because all they talk about is their summer home away from home!
SENSE OF HUMOR. Being able to chuckle at ourselves and remain positive in all types of situations is a characteristic of the superstar counselor. Humor must always be kept respectful and for the benefit of the entire community.
I have often said that only 5% of those people working with children are superstars- the “Naturals” that are recognizable within minutes of seeing them in action. 85% of the people working with children can be taught to be incredibly effective in their craft and 10% of those working with children would be better suited in a different profession. Obviously all camps strive to avoid the 10%, search endlessly for the 5% and are mostly staffed by the 85%.
As a parent seeking true quality in a camp and it’s counselors, consider the aforementioned attributes of the superstar counselor when speaking with references. When talking to parents about their experiences with a camp’s counselors, do they mention any similar qualities? If at all possible the best method of evaluating a camp’s counselor staff is to plan ahead. There is no substitute for an observation of a camp in action in order to see for yourself how a camp’s staff interacts with their campers. Most camps schedule tours throughout the summer for this very purpose and these visits can give families a real sense of the camp’s culture.
There are so many factors to take into consideration when selecting a camp for your child. Facilities, programming, schedules, food, health care etc. all play a role in establishing a camp’s ability to provide a successful summer experience. However, please do not ever forget that one of the most critical factors to the safety and success of your child is the question: Who is watching the children!