James is an entrepreneur, creative thinker, camp expert and a big part of Camp Stomping Ground. I asked him a few questions about how he thrives during the spring and into the summer as part of this new interview series from The Summer Camp Society, my new project with Jack Schott! Check out James's best tips here:
What's the best way to prepare professionally for the start of the summer at camp?
For me, this time of year is really hard! In some ways it can feel like you’re never doing enough, but no matter how you are doing enrollment-wise, it is important to stick to the pre-defined process you have and not just stare at numbers. I find that to be really helpful in knowing what I was supposed to be doing every day to get another kid or two or five to camp.
It also helps me to have process-oriented goals instead of result-oriented goals because we don’t always have total control over things like enrollment outcomes. If we come up with the process from now to the start of the summer and just lay out our goals and benchmarks, we just know what we are supposed to be doing every week, regardless.
Process-oriented goals free up our headspace not to sweat it because we know we are doing whatever we can according to our plan. Even in May, you can come up with your plan over the next two months. It also helps us not beat ourselves up when we are not getting the results we want
Preparing for summer camp season is a lot like preparing for a final. You can wait until the last minute to prepare and get a B or whatever anyway, but the people who really crush it take the time to plan for it in advance. But, if you’re one of those people who really cares about the outcome, that can lead to more anxiety that you could be doing more--it’s not necessarily a helpful gene. That’s why process-oriented goals help.
How do you go about preparing personally before you start the summer at camp?
I know for me the first week or so of camp is always the hardest because I feel like as I’ve gotten older, the energy required to get up for the first day is so tough! I’m not comfortable yet. I know I should be full of personality, but it feels awkward! It’s because I haven’t been doing this all year--I’ve been at board meetings and stuff.
So, I try to get involved in kid-oriented things before camp starts, like planning stuff for my kids and our friends’ kids outdoors. And during staff training, do stuff that involves actually interacting with kids. At the last camp I worked full-time at we purposefully scheduled a group that we could run program for during the day and not have custodial care of their kids. Basically, I need to get reps! I need to warm up!
Also, I just try to figure out whatever personal obligations I have or personal commitments I have before camp, whether it’s to my kids, my parents or friends elsewhere. I’m really in touch with them leading up to the summer camp season. We’d always visit my parents in May or early June or likewise with my wife’s parents. I don’t want to feel bad about being MIA during the summer camp season--I feel like for a lot of camp directors I talk to, especially those of us who have families, the idea being that it’s really hard to be the best dad and husband and son or whoever you are committed to AND the best camp director, because you can always be giving more to the other.
Everyone thinks that leading up to camp time is crazy, but it’s really crazy when the kids get there--for me, I would basically close my doors to outside communications during the summer but I would really focus intentionally to bookend the summer season with family and friends and just letting them know--I found that intentionality emphasizing that before camp started, communicating that effectively with the people in my life, and making specific plans for after camp, too...it’s so important to have those to look forward to!
What’s your #1 tip to keep up your energy all summer long?
I’m going to get to a couple of tips!
The first is I will always try to plan something for the middle or later of the summer that I am going to be personally excited about, like a big camp event. I like to save them, especially if it’s a creative project of mine that I’m enthusiastic about. Just having something at camp to look forward to is a general tip.
I also like to think about planning in advance for the things that will be the most draining, like staff drama or grueling camper situations. Reflecting on those and mentally preparing yourself for the fact that those are going to happen is so important--given that I know those are going to happen, I want to prepare myself mentally to not be drained or disappointed when they do.
I also think, too, and this is a huge fundamental shift for me that took my energy so much higher: The first full-time camp gig I had was as a program director for a large camp, 250-300 kids per week, but that was really interesting because I basically never interacted with kids. I got into camping in the first place because I loved working with kids! I would get so much more drained in that role because I was doing all the stuff everyone hates, like firing staff members. While all that was really crucial to making camp run, I did not plan my time well enough or have the proper staffing in place where that bad stuff ended up being all I did.
When I got to Vanderkamp as the director, which was much smaller, I outsourced all of my office-style work, right down to parent emails and communications. I would plan an hour or two tops per day when I would actually be in the office. And the rest of the day I would spend the time interacting with kids, which would keep my energy up. It also made me a more effective director because I didn’t have to get information secondhand. When you’re around all the time, people get comfortable--and you want to see them when they’re comfortable. It’s a preventative measure against your biggest problems...when you have that level of skill and observation in play, fewer big problems come up. I finally got to my #1 tip!!
The Summer Camp Society is a semester-long learning cooperative for emerging camp professionals designed and facilitated by Sarah Kurtz McKinnon and Jack Schott. We empower emerging leaders to give all kids the best possible camp experience.
The first cohort group will start the program in September 2017. Join us--we are accepting applications now through June 1. Click here to learn more.