Dear Kurtz, all-knowing wizard of summer camps,
I need your help. I have been coming to Camp UKnowWhat forEVER and love every aspect of it. But our new camp director is making changes that are irritating a lot of staff and making it harder for us to do our job. I mean, if it ain't broke... The beauty of summer camp is that we can come back summer after summer and know that camp will be camp. It's not like we are doing the crazy stuff that you hear about from the 60s and 70s (or 80s - this isn't Wet Hot American Summer!!!). How do I, a lowly camp counselor, get through to this camp director? –The 102nd Dalmatian.
Dear The 102nd Dalmatian,
You cute little spotted puppy. I feel badly for you, because change at camp is hard. This is bothering you so much that you have compared your new director to Cruella de Vil. It must be bad.
But to address your question…I get it. When someone comes in and tries to change how your camp does things, it’s kind of like someone messing with how your family does things. It's personal. Just this year, my younger sister changed the order in which we opened our Christmas presents, and I had a meltdown. Looking back, my behavior was mortifying. But for some reason, whether with our real families or our camp families, changing traditions can be a really sensitive thing, no matter how miniscule those traditions may seem.
So, first, young pup, let’s try to build some empathy for your new camp director. It is doubtful that your new director is trying to make your job harder or irritate you. I am 99% sure that her intentions are good. She is not going to kidnap you and turn you into a polka dotted fur coat. She is probably just excited and doesn’t realize the adverse consequences of her actions.
It’s also hard to come into a new camp—there’s a lot to learn and sometimes things that might appear like “changes” to you are just old habits. I still sing the Princess Pat song the way I learned it in 1996 during my first year as a little camper at Camp Arbutus Hayo-Went-Ha, even though it is very different than the way it goes at the camp where I was the director. Sometimes habits just take lots of time to break. Try not to be to judgmental.
But, most importantly, you need to take time for some introspection. Sometimes I talk about “camp goggles”, usually in the context of camp relationships. They’re like beer goggles—as the summer goes on, everyone looks cuter and cuter and more and more dateable. Camp goggles also have an effect on how we view our camps. As the summers go on, we develop these blinders where we don’t see the negatives of our camp, or we’re unable to think about how to do things better—since we are so used to the way things have always been done and we love our camp unconditionally. You need to try to develop the ability to take off your camp goggles and look at your beloved camp with a fresh, outside eye…just as your new director has likely done. You might agree with ol’ Cruella on some of these changes if you are able to look at your camp in an unbiased way.
Finally, you need to take an action step or two. Whining with the other pups is only going to make the situation worse. Subterfuge is so detrimental to the camp's success...even though you all want the best for your beloved camp. So let's start with open and honest communication. It sounds like the camp director is unaware of how her actions affect the staff members, but the staff members are talking about how horrid her changes are when she is not present. If I were her, I would definitely want to know, because I would want my camp to be as successful as possible.
So, please schedule a time to meet with her—preferably a lunch or something of the sort off-site. If that's awkward, try to run an errand with her or just stop into her office during a quiet time. Do this as soon as possible. Tell her you appreciate her innovations and passion for camp. And tell her you’re concerned that the rapid amount of changes is turning some folks against her. Then, help her come up with some ways to develop stakeholder buy-in before she makes future changes, and offer yourself up for a sounding board when she has a new idea.
You love your camp. Because of this, you need to become a bridge between this new director and your current community, and welcome her into the fold. Help her understand your culture, values and priorities. With your support, she can work on making changes while still respecting traditions. And, at the same time you and your fellow dalmatians can work on being open-minded to necessary changes because camps need to innovate in order to thrive, which is what I am sure you all want for your beloved camp.
P.S. if you have a question for me, please fill out this anonymous Google form and you may appear in my advice column!
POST ADDENDUM: I got an interesting comment on the Summer Camp Professionals Facebook group, and it made me think of something I should have said to the 102nd Dalmatian: I was largely working under the assumption that the camp director was making changes that were not about safety and more about the way things were done (daily schedule! what night we eat pizza! how campfires work!), but that might not be the case.
So, the first thing the counselor should do is reflect on the following question for each change he or she notices: "Does this change make the experience better or safer for our campers?". Hopefully this question will allow the counselor to develop a broader perspective and keep everything in the context of the campers' experiences, and help him or her realize (when the answer is yes) that many of the changes are necessary.