5 Things I Wish I Knew My First Summer as a Camp Director

5 Things I Wish I Knew My First Summer as a Camp Director

No matter how hard you try, you can never be fully prepared for a summer at camp (sorry, planners)! People can be weird, weather can be weird, facilities can be weird — all sorts of stuff is going to happen this summer that will test your leadership, patience, and commitment to camp. It’s going to be fun but it’s going to be hard.

When I became a camp exec at age of 23 (Cliff’s Notes version of that story: not recommended, best summer ever, tons of fun, absolutely wild, still recovering 13 years later), I had a ton of passion for camp but not a lot of understanding about the toll it would take on me as a human being. This post is kinda like a letter to my first-time-camp-director self–with five things I wish I would have know when I took that wild, wonderful, stressful, absolutely magical job:

1. It’s probably not an emergency.

There are some things at camp that are CLEARLY emergencies. Missing swimmer, fire alarm, fall from a really big horse. Yep — definitely in the emergency category. But there are a whole heck of a lot of other things that will feel like emergencies that actually aren’t emergencies. You know, the angry parent on the phone demanding a refund; the morning rumor that a staff member came back to camp drunk after last night’s night off; the cook discovering three hundred chunks of raw cookie dough missing from the walk-in.  In the moment, yes — you get that emergency feeling: Someone is mad at you; someone might have broken an important camp rule and put kids in danger; the cook is going to absolutely quit if the cookie dough isn’t returned RIGHT NOW. You must fix it/solve it/find it (spoiler alert: you won’t)! In these situations, your Lizard Brain kicks in–that survival instinct–and takes over. And it’s exhausting.

Instead, in these situations, stop and ask yourself “Is it an emergency?” You always have ½ a second to make this assessment. I’d bet now that 95% of the time, it’s a fake emergency and you have time to turn off the Lizard Brain. You have time to breathe, make a plan, — heck, even consult with someone who can help. In fact, your response to these types of situations is going to be better if you don’t treat them like actual emergencies.

You can say to the angry parent: “I know this is incredibly important to you — it is to me, too. I need to gather some more information and find a time to talk where we won’t be interrupted. Is there a time after 4pm today that I could call you back to discuss?”  

You can take a minute to understand what you actually know about time off choices creeping on to camp, and decide if you really need to investigate. 

You can let the cook know that you heard him, you value him, and you can find a time tomorrow after breakfast (while someone else supervises cleanup) to come up with a plan to secure the dough moving forward. Distinguishing real emergencies from urgencies truly will make your job much, much more manageable. 

2. Have someone that YOU can talk to.

Being a camp director is the most fulfilling job at camp. But a lot of times (or, all the time) it’s absolutely the hardest. In many ways, you have to absorb a lot of the hardest things that happen at camp. And, a lot of the hardest things that happen at camp are also confidential, so you can’t really talk about them. At all. And this is a lot to manage. I remember the first time I had to report a suspected case of abuse to Child Protective Services. The child’s disclosure was extraordinarily upsetting; the process of calling CPS felt very high pressure; and the camp counselors who first learned about this child’s situation had to protect the child’s confidentiality — so I was the only person who they could talk to and with whom they could process their own grief. And, thirty seconds after getting off the phone with CPS, I had to be back in front of camp pretending to enjoy our evening activity. It was too much.

What helped me immensely was having a mentor in camping. I was lucky enough that Scott Arizala was a former director at my camp and would take my phone calls — and call me to check in. While still protecting confidentiality, I could process all sorts of camp “stuff” with him. To have to fire six staff members overnight but hear him say he had the same experience in 1998, and then again in 2002, meant the world to me. To brainstorm with him ways that I could handle a disgruntled board member or a tricky conversation with a camper’s caregiver meant that I spent less time in my own head and more time making a solid plan.  Reaching out to Scott when I felt like carrying the weight of camp was too heavy gave me invaluable relief. 

Now, I’m not saying that everyone needs to call up Scott this summer when something goes wrong (don’t worry, Scott!) but I am saying that you need a plan for your own processing. This could be with a camp director at another camp who you have a good relationship with; this could be with a professional like a therapist; this could be with a camp coach; this could be with your own supervisor. But making sure you know that you will have feelings and you could sometimes use someone to talk to will make all of the difference.

3. Staff mistakes aren’t a reflection of you.

Most of us supervise a staff of folks who aren’t all completely grown up. They are wonderful, magical and impactful — and some of them will make mistakes. And, regardless of your age, so will you! Expect mistakes, and try your hardest not to take them personally. Hiring isn’t a perfect science, and people are unpredictable. You will hire someone this year who completely disappoints you, and maybe even does something that harms camp and everything you’ve worked so hard to create. But remember, staff members are individuals who make their own choices. Camp isn’t in a vacuum, and outside forces are always at play. Even the best, most experienced camp directors hire folks who end up not being able to stay at camp. When examining staff mishaps, look for patterns, not incidences. Understand if a problem was because of someone else’s choice or a failure in your leadership — and there’s a difference. Adjust as you need; be as compassionate as possible; and learn more about hiring, training and supervising…but don’t feel like you deserve to carry a personal responsibility for every single thing every staff member does. Sometimes, a staff member’s troubles simply aren’t your fault. 

4. Document everything.

This is probably the most crucial habit for a new camp director. As we like to say, a day at camp is like a week in the outside world. So. Much. Happens. It’s not fair to your brain to remember it all, and you never know when something weird that you thought you handled just fine in, oh, mid-July, comes back to haunt you in late February (not that that ever happened to me….). Each camp has its own protocol for documentation, but I highly recommend that you also keep a personal log in addition to your institution’s formal reports. A spiral notebook that you keep in a secure place can do the trick (Allison Note: I’m a fan of keeping it in a person — not work — Google Drive so you can keep it for years and add to it from your phone). Before you check out for the night, write down everything that happened that day that could be even somewhat controversial, sensitive, dangerous or challenging. Include the date and times, everyone’s names (including witnesses), and how you handled it. This is a five-minute exercise that could save you hours or even your job at some point down the line. Train your leadership staff team to do the same, or ask them to write out their notes on tricky situations (cookie dough, I’m looking at you!) and add them to your notebook.

One More Allison Note: Based on some very similar lessons, I implemented a Google Form last year for staff to fill out every night. It took 3 minutes max and asked about any above-average homesickness, any violence or bullying, how the staff were feeling, etc. I got some REALLY great info I don’t think I would have heard about otherwise. At first, it seemed like one more thing for staff to do, but after a week or two (and me following up on things!), it really helped the staff feel heard, too. Here’s an example of the form, and here’s a link to make a copy for yourself!

5. Make camper time part of your routine.

If you’re not careful, hours, days and maybe even a full week can go by without you really spending any quality time with kids. I get it–stuff happens at camp. You’ve got the ACA visit, you have to fire the waterfront director, and the northside bathhouse has suddenly flooded— and it’s only Tuesday.  Time can run away with us at camp. But, when I have been exceptionally burned out at camp, I’ve noticed that it’s because I’ve been very disconnected from the kids. I certainly didn’t sign up to be a camp director so I could fill out a buncha paperwork, fire people, and fix 100-year-old plumbing. I’m pretty bad at all of those things. I became a camp director because I loved what camp could do for kids. So, being able to connect with kids and see the impact of all of the super challenging parts of the job kept me going.

The best way to regroup and find some of your own spark again is to carve out some kid time. But, you have to figure out a way to make kid time part of your daily routine. Sure, kid time when you need to recuperate from some intense admin stuff can be really valuable, but making kid time a habit is even more important. For me, this usually meant that I went to assembly each morning to visit and sing with the kids; I made sure not to schedule anything during free swim before lunch so I could mostly play basketball or build sandcastles with campers; I ate all of my meals in the dining hall and visited with different tables before the meal was through. These little bites of time to hang with kids (and staff!) were so, so, so beneficial — for my ability to keep my finger on the pulse of what was actually happening on the ground, and for my own mental health and personal motivation. Make it a habit, continue to build those relationships with young people, and find time to laugh that big camp laugh (you know what I’m talking about). And, if you’re having a really tough day, here’s my best trick: Spend 20 minutes with the youngest campers and you’ll quickly be reminded about why the work that you do matters — big time.

Editor’s Note: It seems like the biggest takeaway is don’t try to do it alone. That’s why membership exists.

Sarah Kurtz McKinnonSarah Kurtz McKinnon

TSCS Co-Founder


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