12 Characteristics of Effective Counselors
As a camp director, I really appreciate students & potential staff who are truly passionate about working with children. The person who wants to be an inspiration to others. The person who wants to make a difference. The person who is happy with his/her job at camp at all times. The person who every child (and counselor) in the camp would love to have. The counselor kids remember for the rest of their lives. The counselor that makes a camper come back year after year. Are you that counselor? Here are my 12 characteristics of an effective camp counselor, and ones that I try and identify in our interview process.
1. ENJOYS/PASSIONATE ABOUT WORKING AT CAMP
Being a camp counselor is meant to be a very enjoyable and rewarding summer job (although demanding and exhausting). You should only look to work at camp if you love children and intend on caring for them with your heart and believe in the ‘you get out what you put in’ philosophy. You cannot expect the kids to have fun if you are not having fun with them! If you only read the instructions out of your camp’s orientation handbook, it’s ineffective. Instead, make your camper’s day come alive by making it as interactive and engaging as possible, regardless of their age. Let your passion for children and camp shine through each and every activity, each and every day. Enjoy every summer to its fullest.
2. MAKES A DIFFERENCE
There is a saying from our STARFISH values program, “To That One, I Made A Difference”. As a counselor, you need to be aware and remember that although it may seem daunting and feel like you are fighting a loosing battle at times, your aim should always be to make a difference. Make a difference in their lives, even if a small one. After all, why be a counselor if you do not wish to have a positive impact on children’s lives? How? Make them feel special, safe and secure when they are at camp. Make their summer the best ever and make them want to come back daily/weekly/yearly to be with you. Be the positive influence in their lives. Why? You never know what your campers went through before coming to camp and what conditions they are going home to after the day/week/summer has ended. So, just in case they are not getting enough support from home, at least you will make a difference and provide that to them.
3. SPREADS POSITIVITY.
Bring positive energy to everyday at camp, every single day. You have a beautiful smile so don’t forget to flash it as much as possible throughout the day. I know that you face battles of your own in your personal life (as we all do), and once you are on that camp property, you should leave all of it behind you. Your campers deserve more than for you to take your frustration out on them. No matter how you are feeling, how much sleep you’ve gotten or how frustrated you are with your co-counselor, never let that show. Keep ‘backstage, backstage’. Even if you are having a bad day, learn to put on a mask in front of the campers and let them think of you as a superhero (it will make your day too)! Be someone who is always positive, happy and smiling. Always remember that positive energy is contagious and it is up to you to spread it. Don’t let other people’s negativity bring you down with them
4. GETS PERSONAL
This is the fun part and absolutely important for being an effective counselor. Get to know your camper and their interests so that you can find ways to connect with them. Don’t forget to also tell them about your life (within reason!) In addition, make an effort to get to know their parents as well to gain their trust and appreciation. Speaking to the parents should not be looked at as an obligation but rather, an honor. In the beginning of the summer, make it known that they can come to you about anything at anytime of their time at camp. Try to get to know your co-counselors on a personal level as well. You will be much happier if you can find a strong support network in and outside of your camp setting.
5. GIVES 100%
Whether you are delivering a tennis lesson, writing a swim report card, offering support to a camper at the lunch table – give 100%. Do your job for the love of camp and children and not because you feel obligated to do it. Do it for self-growth. Do it to inspire others & make a difference. Do it so that your campers will get the most out of what you are teaching them. Give 100% for yourself, campers, parents and everyone who believes in you. Never give up and try your best – that’s all that you can do. (That’s what I tell the kids anyway!)
6. STAYS ORGANIZED
Never forget the time, to get a camper to a nurses appointment on time, or forgetting to make your hair ‘Wacky’ on ‘Wacky Hair Day’. Be on top of it all. Organize your summer, make notes on what you have to do and when. Buy a watch, print off the camp’s special event calendar, and make a note of specific times and places that campers need to. The likelihood of last minute prep for wacky hair day being effective is slim. Set an example to the campers, and never forget to plan your day.
7. IS OPEN-MINDED
As a counselor, there are going to be times where you will be evaluated formally or informally (that’s also why you should give 100% at all times). You are concurrently being evaluated by your supervisor, co-counselors, director, parents and even your campers (albeit differently). Instead of feeling bitter when somebody has something to say about how you are doing things, be open-minded when receiving constructive criticism, listen and learn from it. Prove that you are the effective counselor that you want to be. Nobody is perfect and there is always room for improvement. Division heads are there not only to make sure the campers have a good summer, that you do to and that you grow as a person and counselor. You can’t grow without learning, and you don’t learn if everything you do is always right. Sometimes, others see what you fail to see.
8. HAS STANDARDS
Create standards for your campers and for yourself. From the beginning, make sure that they know what is acceptable versus what isn’t. Remind the campers how you would like them to conduct themselves at the lunch table. Remind them how to share. Remind them how to be sportsman-like, tolerant, appreciative and respectful. Show them how to make & keep friends, to show integrity, to be sensitive to others and to be helpful. Help them grow as humans rather than just teaching the skills of kicking a Soccer ball. Are you the counselor that puts in the effort and actively teaches campers right from wrong, or are you the counselor that sits back and lets the other staff do this? Now remember, you can only expect a lot if you give a lot. As the saying goes, “Practice what you preach” and “You get our what you put in”.
9. FINDS INSPIRATION
An effective counselor is one who is creative and sees the glass as half full. Find creativity and inspiration from the 4 hours you are stuck inside on a rainy day, rather than see it as a death sentence and one that you count down the minutes again until the sun comes out. Be the counselor the campers have the most fun with. Be the counselor that has fun with your kids.
10. EMBRACES CHANGE
In life, things don’t always go according to plan. This is particularly true when it comes to working with children. Be flexible and go with the flow when change occurs. An effective counselor does not complain about changes when a new division head or director arrives. They do not feel the need to mention how good they had it at their last camp or with their last group of campers with a different division head compared to their current circumstances. Instead of stressing about change, embrace it with both hands and show that you are capable of hitting every curve ball that comes your way! The more adaptable you are, the more valuable you will become to camp.
11. CREATES REFLECTIONS
An effective counselor reflects on their day/week/summer with their campers to evolve as a counselor and youth worker. Think about what went well and what you would do differently next time. You need to remember that we all have “failed” from time to time, including myself (more time than I can count). Instead of looking at it as a failure, think about it as a lesson and learn from it. As counselors, your education and learning is ongoing. There is always more to learn and know about in order to strengthen your skills. Keep reflecting on how you performed and educating yourself on what you find are your “weaknesses” as we all have them! The most important part is recognizing them and being able to work on them to improve your teaching skills, and your division head will help.
12. MAKES GOOD DECISIONS
Probably the most important of the 12 in my opinion, especially when you are responsible for a number of children. Effective counselors can be defined as those that make good decisions when faced with choices. You will make hundreds of choices every day, and thousands over the course of the summer – make sure they are the right ones. Whether it be deciding whether to put a camper on your shoulders in the 3ft section of the pool, checking the back of a snack to double check the ingredients because you have a camper with food allergies, to being out on a night off and knowing when to turn down that ‘last’ drink 10 minutes before curfew, or whether to check the lyrics of a song before playing it out loud, the physical and mental well-being of your campers (and yourself of course) is #1 priority. Parents have entrusted you (and the camp) with their most prized possessions, their children. Learn to take a step back, think about the possible consequences, and then execute a decision, the right decision.
There are, indeed, several other characteristics and traits that make an effective camp counselor, and these are the ones I value when looking for staff.
Thomas Coffey is the Director of Southampton Camp & Club and has been with the TLC Family of Camps since 206.