10 Ways to Build a Foundation of Mutual Respect During Staff Training

By Sarah Kurtz McKinnon

The camp counselor said, “We respect our director because we know she respects us.”

That’s the goal, isn’t it? Respecting our staff might not be hard to do. But where camp leaders often stumble is figuring out how to get their staff to recognize that they are respected.

Jack and I believe that this process starts well before the campers arrive. In fact, it starts with a clear and thorough hiring process.

Yet, one of the most crucial times for camp leaders to build a solid foundation of mutual respect with their camp staff is during staff training. Sure, camp staff need to learn things like emergency procedures and age group characteristics. But they also need to know that they are part of a team that has their backs.

This week in The Summer Camp Society’s Seasonal Leaders program, we have been taking with our cohorts about how to demonstrate this respect during staff training. Here’s what Jack and I have come up with:

10. Listen and Learn.

When you are not facilitating a staff training session, participate with the rest of the group. Pay close attention and take notes. Contribute occasionally, but never dominate—even if you have heard it all before. Your attention shows that you are not the only “expert” in the room, and that we all need to continually learn to improve. It also shows your humility. Letting someone else teach you something is a huge sign of respect.

9. Physicality.

Pay close attention to where you physically are during staff training. At overnight camp, for example, I like to see counselors who walking about the cabin as kids get ready for bed and sitting on the floor with them while doing an activity. I do not like to see counselors shouting instructions from up on their top bunk or otherwise afar. Same with staff training. As you sit among the staff, you are showing respect. Sit with them during meals instead of at a special “admin” table; sit among them in the circle during a training session; avoid standing in the back of the room whispering to a coworker. Your presence is important to them.

8. Be Nice.

Try to find a genuinely nice thing to say to everyone you supervise by the end of the second day of training. Whether this is about the funny slogan on their t-shirt, their ability to lead a song, or the great question they asked during the health center orientation, staff appreciate being noticed—and noticed by you. But—a caveat—make sure your compliments are 100% genuine. People have a remarkable B.S. meter, and a fake remark is way worse than saying nothing at all. This exercise also helps you see the good in people instead of always focusing on annoying things about them (which we have the tendency to do sometimes.)

7. Keep Track.

We got this technique from our friend and fellow camp director/consultant Scott Arizala several years ago. Here’s the adaptation I like to use: Take a sheet of paper and down the left side, write the name of each person you supervise. At the end of the night, say on the third day of training, think back on your day. For each person, tally up your interactions with them. For each positive interaction, I would mark a “+”. A negative or corrective interaction, a “-“. And, a neutral interaction (like talking about sports or school), I would mark a circle. Look back at your roster. Are there people that you have only had negative interactions with? Someone you have not interacted with at all? As you do this exercise periodically, you will recognize patterns. Oftentimes, I find that I spend a lot of my time praising my all-star staff and chasing around my less-achieving staff. My staff “in the middle” can easily get left behind. This method allows me to keep on track.

6. Boring Stuff.

Do mundane activities alongside of the staff. At camp, some of my favorite mundane or less-glamorous activities include doing the dishes, breaking down cardboard boxes, store runs or setting up equipment like the speakers. Either jump in with staff members or ask staff members to do an activity with you. This is great for many reasons: First, it establishes a team atmosphere where we are all in this initiative together. As a leader, you are not above any chore at camp. Additionally, it allows you to have informal yet oftentimes informative conversations with your staff members about their lives or how camp is going for them. The time to chat while doing a chore is invaluable.

5. Share.

Often, we are pretty scary to our staff! Even though we do not think of ourselves as intimidating, we can be intimidating simply because we are the boss. If you are able to open up to your staff a bit about your life (appropriately), they will start to understand that you, too, are a human as well. You have wants, needs and (gasp!) a personality! I like to tell a few stories about my first summer working at camp, like the time a camper peed on my flip-flops. Jack likes to tell a story about the time he and Laura went on a 2-year road trip with an extremely tight budget. Sometimes, they subsided on a dozen eggs a day for sustenance. If you tell a story about yourself, it can open the floor for sharing. BUT—make sure you do only about 10% of the talking. Your goal is to show that you are a human, too—one who shares and one who listens.

4. Gather Informal, Constant Feedback.

When we ask our staff members for their opinions, we show that we care about them and what they have to say. The problem is we often fail to do it. It is crucial that you make this part of your routine. In the “boring stuff” that you do alongside of your staff, make it a point to ask them some questions about training so far. For example, say, “What was your favorite session from today?” or “How did the emergency procedures session go for you? What questions do you think people still have?”. You gain important feedback that you can use to improve your training skills, and your staff feel heard.

3. Systematize Feedback.

Start some practices where you are always getting feedback from your staff. Today’s staff like to have a voice in everything they do, and are pretty used to things being personalized for them. This is maybe the most crucial way to show respect and earn theirs. For example, at the end of a large session I lead during staff training, I like to pass around index cards. I tell the group to write “what went well” or some positive feedback on one side of the index card, and mark that side with a plus. On the other side of the index card, I ask them to write a suggestion of how to make that session better in the future, or something we should change in general. They can mark that side with a triangle (or delta, for change). They can also mark that side with a question mark and write down something that was unclear or something they are still wondering about. Thanks go out to Jane Dutton at the UofM Center for Positive Organizations for this idea! Jane does a version of this practice in her management class.

2. Start with Celebrations.

Too often as camp leaders, our announcements are purely logistical or corrective. All our staff members hear from us are things they need to do differently or things they need to remember. Instead, start the practice of beginning your meetings or announcements with recognition of things that are going well or acknowledgement of people who are making a difference in your camp community. Recognizing positivity in your community sets the tone for mutual respect.

1. Share Your Camp Story.

To our staff members, we can be seen as robot administrators who are here to enforce ACA accreditation, deal with parents, and handle the paperwork. Too few of our staff members know why we are here, and why we do what we do. Make it a point during staff orientation to share your “why”, so that your team knows your motivations. They will likely relate to them, too. Later on, when you have to make a tough decision or disappear to the office for a period of time to handle a tricky situation, they will understand that you do what you do because you love the community and love the kids. Sharing your camp story also helps you remember why you do this work—which makes you an even better camp leader.

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kurtz at tall tree

Sarah Kurtz McKinnon is a camp director, consultant and trainer. She's also one of the co-founders and co-facilitators of The Summer Camp Society! Reach her at kurtz@thesummercampsociety.com.