With the summer winding down, long days becoming shorter, and kids going back to school, I learned a lot from being a summer camp counselor. So how does art, fun, and play relate to improving my skills as a technical communicator? In fact, there was a lot that I learned from working with Kindergartners to 6th graders and it’s great practice to observe how everyone else behaves. Aside from applying first aid and being responsible for others, think of this entry as a crash course on management, communication, logistics and patience.
The challenging part about working as a summer camp counselor was to get everyone on board without the kicking, screaming, or complaining. For example, there were disputes that occurred left and right which varied from drama to fighting. It was difficult to be the center hub for so many kids while there were three or four kids talking in my ear at the same time garnering the same attention. This type of attention was difficult to balance at best, but I found out that prioritizing and delegating tasks made my job easier. For example, not every kid knows how to tie a piece of yarn, fold paper, cut paper, etc. When I was working with them on art projects, there were kids who were experts and I sought them out to help their buddies. It was great to see how they cooperated together while I was able to move them forward.
Another aspect of getting through the day was to make sure that I communicated clearly, effectively, and consistently. When it came to speaking in front of 60+ kids on a daily basis, it was imperative to say the right things and act upon them. (At one point my summer camp had 125 kids, but we had plenty of staff on hand). Us counselors kept rules consistent, had clear instructions, for which the most part kept many kids out of trouble. The issues I had were kids not listening and not following instructions multiple times. Most of these small problems at first were easily resolved by first having all the instructions laid out at first without interruptions.
I remember two instances in which communication was very important, especially during emergencies. Communication had to be clear and projected in a calm manner in order to be direct and honest with the kids. Those two times were especially difficult because rumors spread like wildfire and each of the counselors had to be ahead of the issue and diffuse the situation. One of the times was due to a child becoming injured enough that an ambulance took the kid away and we had to shuffle the rest of the camp to another location while emergency crews took the injured kid away.
As counselors we had the freedom to use the gym, two classrooms, the patio, and the parking lot. Like with the child who was injured, us counselors had to move everyone in an efficient way. It was a matter of directing kids to group up as pairs, line up in their groups or clubs, or herd them towards a location. How do you get your group of 2nd graders or 5th graders to follow a certain counselor? For my group of 2nd and 3rd graders, we established a group name early on so that anyone who was in that group would follow my calls for lining up, sitting down, etc. Then it was up to us counselors to negotiate where we would go and how to do so with the least amount of effort so we could focus more on doing activities with the kids rather than keeping all of them cooped up in the gymnasium.
One of the aspects that makes a great communicator is patience. It was important to not show frustration or exasperation in front of the children. They’ll pick up on it and run you over with it. But what was important was letting your patience work for you. I learned that it may be easy to rule over a child but there had to be balance. For example, picking my battles to make my point across that what they did was unacceptable and to show responsibility for when their actions went too far. Some kids needed consulting while others were like bystanders who simply reported the infractions to the camp counselor.
How does this relate?
Like I mentioned early on, think of this as a crash course on management, communication, logistics, and patience. While none of these topics directly relate to technical communication, I did learn that sometimes doing a job like this can improve my career in these areas of my professional life. For example, I managed many operations and people to complete multiple tasks. In addition while I was a summer camp counselor, I communicated differently because of my varied audiences and acted upon certain thresholds which were under my authority. I also moved my group from point A to point B without leaving anyone behind, even while it meant helping certain individuals catch up. Then comes patience which at times was tested but nevertheless kept cool and serious.
In the future, I may encounter difficult situations in my technical communication profession and reflect back on this opportunity I had as a summer camp counselor, and make better decisions as a result.