Camp Industry Professionalism – 2008

Historical Roots
In the late 1800s, when the camping movement began to accelerate in Canada and the US, dozens of new camps were founded by progressive educators. Some of these professionals had doctorates in education; others were seasoned teachers or headmasters at private schools. All of them were looking for alternative pedagogies—methods of educating children that complemented the traditional classroom. Their pioneering spirit, innovative programs, and instructional credentials necessitated professionalism. Had they not been a well educated bunch, the camping movement might have fizzled for lack of credibility.

What about now? Do contemporary camp directors have the educational clout to pass muster with today’s parents? Can they survive in an industry that demands a vast skill set ranging from technological expertise to psychopharmacology? What is the “right” background for one to become a virtuoso camp director?

Success Exists
These questions probably have complicated answers, but simple ones appeal to me more. Plus, I’m not at camp director, so let me stick to what I know. First of all, I’ve met virtuoso camp directors, so I know the breed still exists. Moreover, there are many successful day, resident, and specialty camps out there. (By successful, I mean a combination of financially sound and mission-driven.) Clearly, someone is doing something right. That said, everyone reading this column will be able to think of a camp director he or she has met who is decidedly unprofessional—the kind of person who conjures up visions of lawsuits and makes a bad name for the industry.

Professionalism comprises at least four dialectics, or four sets of interacting forces: Mission—Vision, Wisdom—Courage, Energy—Stamina, and Leadership—Education. Reflection on these dynamic tensions sheds light on camp director professionalism in ways that a list of qualifications cannot.

The Mission—Vision Dialectic
Mission driven camps are those who operate under the assumption that their market niche is determined by their stated youth development outcomes, not the other way around. Professional directors are those who craft and refine their camp’s mission based on a marriage between their values and the outcomes they desire for themselves, their staff, and their campers. Professional directors are not only able to say, “Here’s what we offer, in your child’s best interests,” but they are also able to tolerate families who decide this camp is not for them and look elsewhere.

The complementary force of vision requires directors to look back at the history of organized camping and to look forward toward camping’s future. This vision enables them to direct camp without stagnating in ineffectual traditions or repeating mistakes of the past. Camp directors with a clear mission and a clear vision move their organizations forward with vibrant integrity.

The Wisdom—Courage Dialectic
Wise camp directors are those with life experience, of almost any sort. There is no substitute for a life lived full of challenges, mistakes, and triumphs, be they personal, social, organizational, educational, or vocational. Professional directors are those who have lived in the world—the very world from which they are hiring their staff and into which they are sending their campers when the season is over. Wisdom is scant in an ivory tower but brimming in the natural world.

The complementary force of courage enables directors to take the wisdom they’ve culled from life experience and apply it with confidence, both to their own lives and the lives of those they lead. Camp directors with courage value the opinions of others and take the initiative to do what they believe will work.

The Energy—Stamina Dialectic
The running joke among directors is how they respond to the naïve query: “So what do you do in the off-season?” Directing a camp takes far more energy, on an hourly basis, than most people realize. Professional directors are those whose energy is seemingly boundless; who can guest-pitch a softball game, repair a fence, order equipment, return phone calls, console a homesick camper, and resolve a conflict between two unit leaders all before lunch.

The complementary force of stamina is a byproduct of healthy living. Directors who get enough sleep, exercise, wholesome food, and time for reflection can maintain their energy levels over the entire season and year. Healthy social connections, both inside and outside the camp industry, are also essential.

The Leadership—Education Dialectic
To lead any organization effectively requires an understanding of its culture, or the shared assumptions of its members. Professional directors immerse themselves in their camp culture by talking to parents, staff, and campers; by walking (not driving a golf cart, please) around camp; by participating in skits, games, and productions; and by listening. Such directors can then winnow the pertinent practices from the irrelevant or harmful ones and, using their understanding of the camp’s culture as leverage, promote needed change.

The complementary force of education is polemic. I’ve heard leaders in the camp industry rail against university departments of recreation and leisure studies, claiming that a masters or doctorate in such fields produces innocent scholars who only think they could run a camp. I’ve also met camp directors who were lawyers, physicians, and real estate moguls in a previous life. They don’t even pretend that their formal schooling prepared them to be a camp director. Instead, they talk about the life experiences that taught them the necessary lessons or, as one camp director put it, gave them “the arrogance to believe” that they “might be able to direct a camp skillfully.” Not that formal education has no place. I just haven’t met a camp director yet who thinks that he or she somehow went to Camp Director School and that it made a difference.

And there you have it: The most satisfying irony in this whole question about professionalism. The first camp directors may have had boatloads of formal education, but even they understood the limitations of the classroom. In fact, they were motivated by those limitations. That, plus they were thrilled by the prospect of outdoor living and the lessons it taught. Camping is still the only experience that combines community living, away from home, in an outdoor, recreational setting.

By embracing the four dialectics of Mission—Vision, Wisdom—Courage, Energy—Stamina, and Leadership—Education, and by eschewing any stock formula for success, camp directors’ professionalism can shine brightly. Their responsibility—both to camping and to campers—is to pass on what they’ve learned to the next generation of directors, just as they themselves learned from the example of their predecessors.

This article originally appeared in Canada Camps (Jan/Feb 2008)