The real keys to a dynamic summer camp culture
If you’ve been a part of any camp for long enough, you’ve inevitably seen someone bristle at the idea of changing something about that camp. Sometimes it’s a big thing (should we do small group camping, or large group camping?). Sometimes, it’s a smaller thing (should we hold swim checks on Sunday, or Monday?). Either way, change at camp is hard.
We love our camps, and we don’t want to lose who we are, and what has made our camp something special.
But how do we keep being “us” while not growing stagnant? The answer may just be found in developmental psychology.
Changing our mindsets
In 2006, Carol Dweck wrote a book called Mindset, which has fueled no shortage of discussions at camps and other institutions across the country. If you haven’t read the book, a great summary can be found here. Essentially, she puts forth that there are two ways of conceiving of ourselves – via the lens of having a “fixed mindset” or a “growth mindset.”
Fixed mindset folks tend to view human beings as static. In other words, they believe that people are born with a certain amount of intelligence, or creativity, or work ethic, and that our lives are basically determined by what we are born with.
Growth mindset people tend to view human beings as dynamic. They believe that while we are all born with certain qualities about ourselves, we actually have the ability to change and adapt based on the circumstances we are presented with.
There are a number of extremely valuable applications to these ideas, both as we think of ourselves, and as we think of others, but the primarily application for institutions that work with young people seems to be this: Telling kids they are valuable based on aspects of themselves they can’t control (i.e., if they are smart or not, or fast or not, or good looking or not), can make them feel helpless. Therefore, communicating with children about things they CAN control can make them feel empowered (i.e. – how hard working, or kind, or generous they are).
For the most part, both scientific and anecdotal evidence finds tremendous benefit in treating others (and ourselves) this way.
But when I first started working at summer camp, I found that while I had internalized these ideas as they pertained to human beings, I hadn’t internalized them as they applied to my own worldview.
”I’ve become a teacher.”When I was getting certified to be a high school English teacher, I had this idea that earning my degree would mean that I had “arrived.” At that point, I’d go out to high schools, and teach a bunch of students things that I knew and they did not. Knowledge was this thing I could go find, and once I had it, I was all set.
In my (very brief) teaching career, I didn’t see a lot of opposition to this idea. I was the teacher, they were the students. I had the knowledge, they needed the knowledge.
Back to camp. Like a lot of you, I went to a camp that I thought was incredible. It had changed my life, after all, and there were all these other people who shared the same sentiment. People that did things other ways? Well, they were almost certainly wrong about something, and in most cases, wrong about almost everything.
Now, no one ever said this stuff, of course. But the way we talked about things, it didn’t leave a lot of room for debate. We had our own “certification” program – the Leadership Training Program – and completion of that meant you had learned the teachings you needed to know to help facilitate the culture that we all held so dear.
Fast forward to many years later, and I am walking into a new office at a brand new camp for the first time. If I’m being truthful with you, I’ll admit that my plan was to use this knowledge I had to turn this camp into a clone of my old camp. After all, I had been taught the exact ideas that were used to change my life, right? Surely, these ideas could be applied universally?
There was just one problem. There was a whole mess of people here who had been taught totally different things, and who were just as passionate about how this camp had changed their lives. Did I have to get rid of them, and everything else, since they had clearly been taught a bunch of wrong stuff?
Well, I got the advice that a lot of new camp directors get: Don’t change anything your first year. If you’ve got a vision that matters, you owe it to yourself to wait until you’ve seen what your new camp does before you go changing it.
“I understand,” I thought, “These people who have learned all the wrong stuff will revolt if I enact policies around my correct teachings. I’ll wait, then, for their sake.”
Well, I waited, and another problem arose. A lot of things about what these people thought was, well, kind of awesome.
Am I a good teacher? Or have I found good teachings?
During that first summer, something fundamental in me was changing. And it wasn’t comfortable. I realized that I loved a lot about what was already going on here at Vanderkamp. And it was stuff that flew in the face of other things I had been taught.
Who was right? Me, or them?
Well, I called a woman who had mentored me for many years at my previous camp, and she just chuckled, and said, “Well, James, I’m so glad to hear about how different things are, there. All we can do in this world is embrace the truth as it comes to be known to us. New ideas are going to come around all the time, and many of them will be great ones.”
I found it disconcerting that she wasn’t as threatened by a new way of doing things as I was.
But I sat with it for a while, and it began to make total sense. I hadn’t become some infallible genius from my time at Johnsonburg (where I had grown up), I had just accessed a bunch of good ideas. When I came to Vanderkamp, and found a whole slew of new good ideas, and I gave myself permission to accept them, I saw tremendous benefit for myself, my summer staff, and my campers.
Of course, this toppled yet another domino in my world view. If I didn’t know it all before I came here, it was pretty unlikely that I knew it all now that I had spent a summer here.
Once I recognized that I had never become the perfect teacher, that I had only found some good teachings, it meant that there were probably a lot of other terrific teachings out there.
It meant I had a lot of work to do.
The incredible benefits of creating a culture around teachings.
On one hand, coming to the realization that you don’t know everything can be pretty scary. For one thing, it means that you would probably change certain things about how you’ve done things in the past. If you were doing something you cared about (like, say, raising your own kids, or running summer camp), this is a pretty uncomfortable realization.
On the other, hand, though, knowing that you don’t know everything can be incredibly empowering. It means that those times when you weren’t able to serve people are no longer failures you’re doomed to repeat, but instead puzzles you are capable of solving.
When we believe we’ve become great teachers, new ideas are threatening. They mean we used to do things wrong. When we focus on finding great teachings, new ideas are exciting. Their existence means there is likely something we can learn from them to do even better next time.
This is why we are distilling down our camp staff culture to one simple idea:
If we wrap our identity up in the idea that we are constantly in search of the best ideas to help kids learn to love themselves and pursue a life of happiness, the only time we’ll be going against our values is if we reject an idea simply because it’s new.
If we earnestly hold ourselves to the standard implied by this identity, then we’re not only sharing new ideas constantly, but we’re questioning our currently held beliefs to make sure they hold up as new ideas come to light.
In this way, our camp’s culture avoids being the passive context in which our camp takes place. It becomes something we’re actively challenging, and then actively buying in to because we are affirming our belief in its value (or changing that which we no longer believe is valuable) all the time.
We can create the best possible environment for the kids who will trust us with a portion of their lives at some point in the future.
What we can control
I’d love to go back and give the kids I used to serve the kind of summer I feel I can give them now.
But I can’t.
I still sleep easy, though, because I know that no camp I’m a part of will ever do something because “that’s the way it’s always been done.”
When (and not if) I make mistakes in working with kids in the future, it won’t be because I bristled at a new idea.
It will be because I just haven’t found the right teachings, yet.
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