Friday, May 16, 2014

What Happens at Camp Doesn't Stay at Camp

Our last discussion began with a survey, so this one will begin with a trivia question: Who are the role models that have the most intense exposure to children at one time? If you said parents or teachers, you are close, but wrong. The correct answer to this question is sleep-away camp counselors. Think about it: Parents send their kids to school for most of the day, and teachers interact with individual students for a maximum of three hours or so. But counselors spend every waking hour with their campers (minus a break period or two), and every sleeping one as well. As astounding as this fact may be, do we ever stop to consider it? Perhaps if we did, we might view things a little differently.

I got to thinking about this topic after coming across my old color war hat. The hat is covered with signatures from friends and staff members alike. Most who signed simply felt their signatures alone were enough for posterity. However, there were also a few more lengthy messages, some of which are not appropriate for this article. At least one of these less-than-tactful proclamations was from a counselor (not necessarily mine). Not exactly what should be expected of a role model.

Signature hat aside, it has been a while since I have attended sleep-away camp, so I am not in position to generalize about staff members in camps nowadays. However, I can confidently say that when I went to camp, a large percentage of the staff members could be described as setting examples that weren’t exactly ideal. This doesn’t mean that they were bad counselors overall, but I can still identify certain staff members by the “great things” each of them taught me.

To be fair, a large percentage of my counselors were very good role models. I can think of a few who had a very positive impact on my life in many ways. Some of these counselors have gone on to successful careers serving the Jewish community, a testament to their excellent characters. Either way, whether good or bad, the impact is compounded when you think about how much time is spent with the bunk. A good role model is having a positive influence on your child 24/7 and the inverse is true as well.

So what does this all mean practically? (I will pass on the abuse-related issues here - it is for those with more expertise to discuss.) First of all, it means parents should talk to their children about when to (and when not to) learn from someone’s behavior, and about what the proper reactions are if they feel a role-model is not acting properly. Also, parents might want to learn about their children’s counselors, both before and during the summer. If someone is with your kid all day every day, you have a right to know who he or she is.

Aside from what parents can do, camps should be proactive as well, and hire the best staff members they can. However, as someone who has been interviewing potential (day camp) counselors for five years now, I can honestly say that camps don’t always get enough ideal candidates to fill all the counselor spots. Most of the counselors I have supervised over the years have been great, but not all. Sometimes a bad counselor comes as surprise, and sometimes not. The “not” situations usually come about when we have no choice because we need bodies in camp. So what is a camp to do? I have one suggestion.

I think that working as a camp counselor is an excellent opportunity for someone who is looking to get some basic experience working in Chinuch. A counselor is required to motivate children in a positive manner, model proper middot, and find the proper balance between being an authority figure and a “friend.” All of these skills are essential to being a good teacher. Counselors can also conduct learning groups for their campers instead of (or in conjunction with) a full Chinuch staff. Put all of this together, and camps can provide a forum to train young educators, all while employing these older and more mature young men and women as staff members. In this way, everyone can benefit - parents, camps, future teachers, and our children.

Whether this suggestion is practical or not is a side point. The most important thing is that our summer camps function to provide positive Jewish experiences for our children. So ask yourself: what do you want written on your child’s color war hat?

(Originally Published in the Jewish Link of Bergen County

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