Educators and Camp Professionals: At the Symbiotic Intersection of Teaching and Learning

Educators and Camp Professionals: At the Symbiotic Intersection of Teaching and Learning

Countless school teachers and administrators work in children’s camps during the summer months. How do the two professions overlap and diverge?

In 1861 Frederick and Abigail Gunn, founders of The Gunnery School, took their students on a two-week excursion through the New England woods and in so doing originated what is now a world-wide movement: organized children’s summer camp. Ever since, educators and camp professionals have been inextricably linked. Today, innumerable school teachers, administrators, and support staff follow in the Gunn’s footsteps working at camps during their free summer months. The two fields complement and support each other not just in schedule, but in a variety of predictable and less predictable ways.

Camp is often perceived as the yin to school’s yang: experiential vs. classroom learning, outdoor vs. indoor, collective vs. individual, unstructured vs. scheduled. However in 2013, these lines are not so simply drawn. Experiential learning programs abound in academic settings, which are no longer just concerned with rote learning. Conversely, daily life at summer camp is much more than just playing outside – structure and skill-based knowledge thrives there too. In this climate, personnel with insights in educating children in multiple settings become increasingly valuable. For these versatile professionals, the work environments in which they teach, guide, care for, and interact with children and youth inform each other in a fascinating symbiosis.

Finding Parallels

“There are a lot of parallels,” says Dr. Rich Cowdell, Principal of Marshall Middle School in Lynn, MA and Director of Camp Rotary (ACA Accredited) in Boxford, MA. “When I was applying for the job as principal, I had already been director of the camp for 16 years. I remember in my opening statement, I really wanted to get across to the interview panel that the skills and talents that are required to be a successful camp director are the same as those needed to be a successful principal.”

In several years at Marshall Middle School, Cowdell has attempted to bring the culture of camp to school. By “stealing ideas from camp” for staff orientation, meal times, and disciplinary action, Cowdell says the suspension rate at his school has dipped from sky-high to the lowest of any middle school in the city, a figure he’s “very proud of.”

Sara Foster, a first grade teacher in Portland, ME and former Assistant Director of Camp Bishopswood (ACA Accredited) in Hope, ME, agrees that the skills she’s learned and utilized in both settings are transferable and coefficient.

“I think they’re so intertwined,” Foster says. “So many of the things I’ve learned at camp− for instance group management, community building, and lesson planning− have informed my instruction. Things that I use at camp inform school, and also school informs camp.”

Similar Approaches in Separate Spheres

While most professionals agree that the techniques and approaches to working with children in both school and camp can often overlap, the baseline is clearly different. Like a Venn diagram, school and camp occupy a shared space, but are ultimately two separate spheres. Where schools are tasked with the monumental goals of educating and socializing children, camps are designed to complement and reinforce those lessons learned at school and at home in broad and fun ways. 

“Going to camp is more of a privilege, and going to public school is a right,” says Kathy Nielsen. For the past thirty years, Nielsen has been a school counselor working with children ages 5-18 in Vermont and New Mexico. She is also co-director of Brown Ledge Camp in Colchester, VT.

She continues, “So the bottom line is a little different, but a lot of the approaches are also going to be the same. Especially in that relationships are key. And a struggling child, whether in school or in camp, needs to feel that they have a sense of belonging and an investment in the community they’re in.”

Marshall Middle School is situated in the midst of a struggling community – according to Cowdell, 95-96% of the children are living below the poverty line. However, he says he approaches his students with the same respect and attention as his campers.

He says, “I’ve actually hired three or four of my former camp staff at the school as teachers. One of them, after the first month or so we had a conversation, and he said to me, ‘You know what really amazes me? I watch you, and your approach with the kids here in school is no different than your approach with the kids at camp.’ That was the highest compliment I get could get.

“That’s what I want, and what I want my staff to do is really focus and pretend that we don’t have a monopoly on the kids. Let’s pretend that if they wanted to, they could go to a different public school, which they can’t, at least in our system they’re assigned by their geographic neighborhood, so they’re stuck with whatever school they fall into. I said to him, ‘We want our students to be able to go home and say, ‘I like my school.’  How to handle kids and how to positively shape kids behavior- these are all experiences that I think are learned when you’ve got a real good, strongly operated camp.”

The College Connection 

Whereas Nielsen, Foster, and Cowdell interact mostly with camper-age children in elementary and middle schools, Tom Reed has a year-round relationship with a different age group: the 18-22 year olds that make up the majority of camp counselors. During the school year, Reed is an English professor at Dickinson College in Carlisle, PA, and in the summer months he is a director of Camp Pemigewassett in Wentworth, NH, founded by his grandfather in 1908.

“I think the more year-round time you spend with people 18-22, the better you get at knowing how to talk to them and knowing what they respond to,” Reed explains. “I think my dealings with [camp] staff are certainly enhanced by the amount of time I spend with students in class and advising. It’s a productive cross-pollination.”

Reed also notes some specific nuances of the camp/college connection that he’s observed throughout his years of teaching and directing.

He says, “Teaching has, in this weird way, made me able to appreciate the benefits of sending young people to camp in a way that I wouldn’t have been able to appreciate as much. Working with counselors in a camp setting, we have a lot of alums who come back as staff, and they really by and large take their jobs very seriously. They know that kids’ lives and development and future are in their hands in important ways, and they take that responsibility very seriously. Sometimes when I’m in my teaching mode, and I think, these people are not yet capable of taking things seriously, I remind myself in a salutary way that these are the same people who in the summer, would lay down their lives for a kid, and are where they need to be when they need to be. It gives me a little more confidence to require responsibility of college students, to have seen people of that same cohort in situations of real responsibility. It gives you a fuller sense of what they’re capable of, and gives you the inspiration to draw on that.” 

A Different Kind of Professional

In Northeast alone, summer camps employ 190,000 seasonal workers per summer, a large percentage of which are teachers and education students. The link to one sphere makes them more valuable to the other – those with teaching degrees are often hired to work at day camps based at their schools. Additionally, those with counseling, special education, and school administration degrees are uniquely prepared for when trouble arises at summer camp.

Nielsen expresses how glad she is for her background and year-round work in pediatric mental health when faced with common challenges like Attention Deficit Disorder or Reactive Attachment Disorder at camp.  

 “Being part of the school community, part of kids’ educational plans, going to conferences, and then being specifically involved in the mental health community, all of that is really helpful in my camp work,” Nielsen says.

Foster notes how she has tried to inject the camp spirit into her classroom, saying, “I think I’m much more interested and dedicated in establishing a community in my room, having had the experience at camp. Trying to develop relationships with each of the children but also as a group too, so we are a pretty cohesive group−that’s when I get their best work.”

 Similarly, Reed says that his experience directing a camp has provided him with invaluable management and organization skills necessary for his leadership role as Chair of the English Department at Dickinson.

He elaborates, “I’ve found that management skills- in terms of chairing, in terms of working with my fellow colleagues on personnel matters and so forth- requires a huge amount of leadership experience that you get at a camp setting. And I’ve found it really beneficial, as I’ve chaired the department and chaired a bunch of committees, to have had this summer experience. I imagine there are a lot of people who could say that.”

The Whole Picture 

It takes a lot of people to raise a child. Parents and extended family, community members, clergy, teachers, after-school activity instructors, and summer camp staff all lend a hand in this partnership of many. Different personalities and experiences influence child development in myriad ways, from the neighborhood bully to the 19-year-old camp counselor. But some of the most valuable partners parents can have in their child’s growth are the educators and camp professionals working in this intertwined cross-section of teaching and learning. Educators who work in both school and camp settings get the benefit of a year-round perspective of child and youth development−not just in school, and not just at play, but the whole picture.

“There’s such pressure in school to meet goals and increase test scores and all that, so we can never lose sight of the fact that learning should be really fun for children, and camp is so good at that,” Nielsen sums up. “You see how much they learn and how much fun they have, and it’s really good for me to be reminded constantly that in the end, they should enjoy learning in both settings.”

Photos courtesy of Camp Howe, Goshen, MA