I have been working with children since I was a teenager and arguably still a child myself. Through all of my years spent with children, I can confidently say that the two summers I spent as a camp counselor I learned the most about working with and relating to children. It is one thing to know how to utilize the best methods to educate children; Temple University provided me with that facet of my education. It is another to be able to understand children's emotions, empathize with them, and understand how to intrinsically motivate them. Camp Echo Lake taught me more about that than I had ever expected.
Camp Echo Lake is a sleep away summer camp near Lake George, NY, in the beautiful Adirondack mountains. The slogan that they have screenprinted on the back of every staff shirt is “Dedicated to human development.” They stand by that. Counselor orientation lasts for 2 weeks, after which the kids come and stay for a continuous 7 weeks, resulting in a 9 week crash course in best practices for developing children. It is demanding and intense, as the counselors are responsible for living alongside the campers in the cabins, getting them up in the morning, taking them to every meal and activity, and putting them down for bed. Counseling is a full time job, as you’re tasked with keeping control of your group from 7 a.m.-10 p.m. when they (hopefully) fall asleep.
There’s nothing quite like the social atmosphere of camp: everyone is friendly, works together towards the same goals, and always make you feel welcome. Living in this community for two summers was eye opening and allowed me to learn how this kind of culture is fostered. It is planned and deliberate, with careful thought put into what characteristics are to be taught and encouraged. Honesty, trust, and respect are the virtues that I seek to instill in the children I work with. In the classroom, just as I did at camp, I know that I have to respect my students if I ever hope to earn that respect from them. I respect honesty over excuses when it comes to students forgetting homework. I open up my unique personality to the class and establish an environment where we do not laugh at others for doing the same. When students try and fail, we give support, not criticism. Camp taught me how to bring a sense of community and family into my cabin, and as a teacher I try to create that atmosphere in my classroom.
My first summer at camp I worked as a Cabin Specialist watching over a great group of eight year-old boys. We had a great team of eight counselors and were able to give the kids a terrific summer. My second summer I was asked back as a Group Leader, and was able to lead a phenomenal group of 26 kids and 8 staff through all kinds of experiences. Taking care of 26 boys as we traveled around a massive camp in the open Adirondacks prepared me well for managing 25 students in a small Philadelphia classroom.
The first difference I observed between camp and teaching is that counselors are not only encouraged, but required to befriend the children. Your role is to keep the children safe and having fun. Teachers do not hold friendship as their top priority, but instead need to do whatever is possible to help the student achieve academically. Both of these jobs, however, require great skill in keeping the children behaving and doing what needs to be done. Because of camp I have developed an engaging and positive approach to classroom management.
Just as kids don’t generally want to take tests or do math, I can tell you they also don’t enjoy sweeping cabins, making their beds, or picking up the trash around the camp grounds. With the right kind of motivation and management, I have found that all of this is possible. Not only will kids do these things, but they will take pride in the job they do, sometimes asking for more responsibilities once they have mastered those given. Camp has taught me how to make sweeping dirt and brushing teeth fun. Anything is possible.
We Set the Tempo
We were taught in orientation that the mood of the group is generally set by the counselors. If the counselors are upbeat, optimistic and happy about the day, the feeling spreads to the children and lifts up the whole group. Even more, if the counselors are energized, fun, crazy, and comfortable to show everyone their “true selves,” the campers do the same. Because of this safe and judgement free environment, campers sing, dance and perform on stage, or sometimes just in their cabins. As the staff, we made sure to model for the kids how we wanted them to behave, while being as silly and carefree as we wanted. The end result was a camp where every child feels comfortable to show who they truly are.
I strive to bring this to class every day, sharing my excitement for the day, for certain topics, and for whatever classwork we are going to doing. I see immediate response when I bring my own energy to my lessons and ask my kids to do the same. Children are overflowing with energy and I find they are much more likely to engage with lessons when they are able to burn off some of that energy.
Camp Echo Lake is located in the Adirondacks of upper New York State, and while most of its campers come from the U.S., half of its 300+ staff members are hired from overseas. Staff fly in from England, Ireland, Scotland, Australia, Poland, France, Hungary, and even places as far away and exotic as Canada. There is an incredible value to having a team that comes from across America and around the world. Each different perspective brings a new way of approaching a situation and gives the children a fantastic opportunity to learn about other cultures. I was able to meet and work with people that share the same passion for child development that I have, and I learned new ways of thinking from each of them. Camp Echo Lake holds employees to a high standard, and I count myself fortunate to have learned from their funds of knowledge.
The Camp Community
Teachers are often told to create a positive atmosphere in the classroom, but it is easier said than done. Unfortunately, telling children “this is a friendly and safe community” does not make it so. There is no magic wand for creating this kind of atmosphere, and reading textbooks on the topic only gets you so far. The best way to do this is to personally experience healthy and friendly communities in action. At camp I was able to witness this from the ground up. A two-week orientation for staff thoroughly set the tone so that by the time the children stepped off the buses, an incredible community was already in place.
Collaboration is Key
This summer I had an incredible team of guys working with me, without whom I would not have survived the summer. My staff was a very diverse group of eight men ranging from 19-27 years old, all with different personalities and ideas about camp. Getting everyone to agree on what was best for the group was not always an easy task, and we didn’t always get it right. With each mistake we learned and grew, and over time we developed a sense of what was best for our boys to make sure they had the best summer we could give them.
Asking for Help
When things became difficult I had a sensationally supportive head staff and director that I did not hesitate to use for their wisdom and guidance. My first year was my first time working at a sleep-away camp, and my second year I was Group Leader for the first time, which put me at the front of a group of 8 staff and 26 boys. There were many new tasks and challenges that I was constantly learning on the fly and often felt like I was just trying to tread water. My supervisor, Patrick, was beyond helpful and knowledgeable, not only in knowing what is best for child development, but in helping me to develop myself as well. Both years I left Echo Lake as an improved version of myself, and a large deal of the credit goes to him.
While children behave very differently in the contexts of camp and the classroom, I learned many techniques that I am able to utilize in my day-to-day interactions with children. Campers spend every waking hour with the other kids in their group, causing friendships that are incredibly dynamic. Best friends can turn to mortal enemies and then back to BFF on almost a daily basis. Such is the nature of childhood. Because I was able to see this entire process I gained a great deal of experience in peer mediations. Part of my job was working out differences so the group could function as a family once more.
At camp, we are with the children all day for seven weeks in a row. If a child is upset, it’s usually because of something that happened within the last few hours. Direct origins of the issue can be traced and often times resolved. Children’s behavior is not so mysterious when you observe them for the entire day over the course of a summer. This fact became clearer once I began to deal with disputes and issues back in the classroom.
Teachers do not have this level of knowledge of their students’ behavior. In our classrooms we see much of what goes on, but students are only in with us for 22% of their weekday or 15% of their entire week. To teachers the rest of the student’s life is often a mystery. Once kids walk out the door they enter a black box where teachers are unaware of what students do, who they spend time with, and every other aspect of their lives. If children are upset in the classroom, it could be because of something that happened at school, or it could be due to any number of things that happened at home the night before. It is a vast difference from knowing everything that happens to your campers during their stay at camp, to knowing so little about your students that you watch over for the rest of the year.
Camp counseling and teaching are jobs that have many similarities, and in my experience they have both done well to make me better at the other. I am always looking for different ways to make me a more effective teacher, and spending an entire summer camping is the best form of professional development I can imagine. Even if you never wish to stand in front of a classroom, camp teaches you skills that you can carry into any field and every aspect of your life. I have only worked at one camp, but I can’t recommend Camp Echo Lake enough. It has a beautiful campus, amazing campers, and some of the most knowledgeable people I have ever worked with.
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