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Leadership directions: where are we going this summer? (Research Notes).

The camp director ended orientation with what was intended as simple, inspiring directions: "Keep the best interest of the children in the forefront, build character, be a role model, and help each other." With that uplifting directive, the staff members were off but off to where?

At the heart of these seemingly simple directions are complex, core questions, values, and beliefs that guide and affect subsequent choices, actions, and behaviors that are further complicated by the structure of many camp communities. Camp traditions and mid-level supervisors add to the internal interpretations of such instructions by both new and returning staff members. Many staff members arrive at the job situation wanting to feel competent -- primed to assume new challenges and to seize opportunities to lead and be taught. A traditional supervisory structure is based upon the model of a supervisor observing, producing a written document of evaluation, placing it into a personnel file, and attempting to communicate the information as "feedback."

But, what are the future models of supervision? How can we provide meaning and structure to guide counselors through the maze of norms for a specific camp during a specific season? During the short period of staff training, they need to gain insight and understanding of this new mixture of traditions and policies that will then allow them to guide their campers to have more significant and meaningful experiences.

Successful Leadership

Most camps have some type of supervisory chain and either a formal or informal mentoring process, but what are the issues that come into play with these relationships? A study documenting a teacher mentor program (McCormick & Brennan 2001) revealed the following issues as primary for success: time, reluctance in seeking/providing information, and mentoring match.

strategies to address two of these topics lend themselves to application in the camp setting.

Making time for mentoring

Finding sufficient time to meet together was cited as difficult, but was eased when deadlines and expectations for small amounts of time were set. The periodic occurrence of brief conversations and observations, as opposed to setting up blocks of time, were viewed as both more helpful and easier to accomplish during busy days. Setting a goal of a certain number of contacts per week allows for mentoring to become an integral part of patterns within camp routines instead of viewing the mentoring time as an interruption.

Understanding mentor/mentee interactions

The simple acknowledgment of the universal reluctance to seek or provide information because of fear of being viewed as incompetent or inadequate was important for both sides of the mentoring relationship. The mentor may not feel capable of providing help or the mentee may be afraid to reveal inadequacies -- and both may feel a conflict in handling expectations from the other, based upon conflicting roles. By setting up a shared learning expectation, these fears may be lessened. Discussion of how conflicts and fears play a role can serve as foundations for improved future encounters. As relationships progress, whether in a formal mentoring program, or simply between fellow staff members, there will invariably be mixed messages, as well as agreement and disagreement between individuals. It is in the process of handling these mentor/mentee interactions that another layer of learning from senior staff can occur and thus strengthen the "sense of direction" within the camp community.

Dealing with Dilemmas

An investigation of dilemmas regarding a child's best interest in school situations conducted by (Husu, 2001) provides insight into the thought process that can help deal with disagreements and direction among staff members. Twenty-six kinder-garten and elementary school teachers were asked to report a personal real-life ethical dilemma they each had experienced in the classroom. These case reports were examined "within the theoretical framework of relevance and conflict problems (p. 67)." The general process of moral reasoning involved realizing a situation exists that requires a choice to he made, having an intuition about what is "right," and formulating justification for the decision and the reaction (Coombs 1998).

In analyzing the reported dilemmas, several categories emerged -- institution and individual in conflict, intra-institutional conflicts based on collegial conflicts (teacher and colleague), or cultural (teacher and the community). All had different ways of perceiving the best interest of the child. The challenge was in determining how to proceed when conflict existed between the teacher's judgment and someone else's.

The researcher outlined several implications for time spent learning and discussing this process that can apply to the summer-camp setting as well. Talking during in-service training about the issues one faces day-to-day could enhance subsequent staff effectiveness in dealing with dilemmas. The process of analyzing these situations could reinforce the value of the skills gained and used in professional youth-development positions. This type of situational learning, coupled with reinforcement, demonstrates to staff that optimal learning is a result of wrestling with issues combined with the enhancement of years of experience. Thus, new staff can recognize that they are moving on a continuing path of growth. In many ways this process is a tool for taking formal learning or an abstract concept and placing it into a practical, experiential context.

What tools (process, procedure, support, or practice) are present in your camp to help staff know what to do when faced with a dilemma? Is this a topic that is discussed and modeled during day-to-day operations? How can you help staff to see these struggles as first steps down a path leading to confidence and life-skill development? The rhetorical understanding of the process helped the teachers in Husu's study to distinguish different sides of a conflict. By emphasizing conscious analysis with a clear statement of the dilemma, the teachers were able to use their skills of listening, sensing moral diversity, and abilities to respect differences of opinion. This perspective led the teachers to a stronger, more cohesive resolution of the issue and provided directions to move forward as a more effective unit.

Consider this vignette as reported by O.L. Davis, 2001: "O.L. Davis was a student in a graduate level course in Human Growth and Development. He asked the professor, James L. Hymes, 'What is the best preparation for a child to enter first grade?' Davis expected the professor to respond with ideas about vocabulary building, familiarity with colors, letters, etc. Instead, he honored the question with silence, then responded, 'The best preparation for first grade? Why, five or six, maybe even seven years of living richly.' (p. 278)." We can draw from this story a parallel that the best preparation for being a camp counselor is by living the experience richly, gaining as much as possible from the experience through experimentation and reflection. Approaching the guidance of staff with this story in mind may allow us to empower the mentoring approach with richly enhanced reflection and exploration of alternatives of camp dilemmas for our staff and for ourselves. In such a manner, all of us at camp this summer may find out where we have been and even where we are going!


Coombs, J.R. (1998). Educational ethics: Are we on the right track? Educational Theory, 48, 558-563

Davis, O. L. (2001). What is the best preparation for...? Journal of Curriculum and Supervision, 16, (4), 277-281.

Husu, J. (200l). Teachers at cross-purposes: a case-report approach to the study of ethical dilemmas in teaching. Journal of Curriculum and Supervision, 17, (1), 67-89.

McCormick. K. M. & Brennan, S. (2001). Mentoring the new professional in interdisciplinary early childhood education: the Kentucky teacher internship program. Topics in Early Childhood Special Education, 21, (3), 131-149.

Gwynn Powell is an assistant professor at the University of Georgia teaching recreation and camp administration. She has twelve years of professional year-round experience in camping. Please contact Powell through e-mail, for further information regarding article content or to share research ideas.
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Author:Powell, Gwynn M.
Publication:Camping Magazine
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 1, 2002
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