secret exposed

Camp is not for campers, but it’s also not for counselors: the well-kept secret of the unit head

[This article is part of a series from the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education of JTS: Student Voices: Perspectives on Critical Issues in Jewish Education.]

While strolling through a summer camp, you can feel the children radiate as they play games, create art, swim, play sports, and laugh together. Campers constantly learn and grow as they discover new parts of themselves and shape their identities. Behind the scenes, however, staff members orchestrate all of these experiences. These staff members may think they work only for the sake of their campers; however, they undergo their own transformation as emerging adults developing new skills and growing their identities through their work.

The concept of camp existing for the benefit of counselors is far from a revolutionary idea, and many have shared how working as a counselor has shaped them more significantly than their camper years did. Many have already revealed the well-kept secret of summer camps, that campers are really just a part of a larger system to shape counselors. However, while working as a counselor for a summer or two will teach counselors useful skills, the growth and development that counselors undergo lays the scaffold for a more fully realized metamorphosis.

The more summers a staff member works at camp, the greater the positive impact in identity formation, both personally and professionally. I believe that a third- or fourth-year counselor learns much more and at higher cognitive and deeper emotional levels than someone in their first or second year on staff. Researchers have found that individuals who return to work summer after summer frequently do so primarily because they feel the work aligns with career goals, and thus will give them skills needed in future work. With the additional motivation to develop professional skills, veteran counselors tend to invest more in their role and thus get more out of it. Veteran camp staff who reach higher levels of leadership during the summer season likely view camp less as a social opportunity or a chance to “give back” after their summers as consumers of the camp experience; staff seniority becomes more of an opportunity for professional growth and development.

While third- and fourth-year counselors benefit so much more than younger counselors, the staff members who stick around long enough to become unit heads are the ones who really reach the true pinnacle of the camp experience. Not only do unit heads obtain unmatched opportunities for career development, but they also receive the opportunity to truly transform into leaders.

Individuals who serve in this role use many of the skills that I learned in the class I took on Leading and Managing Jewish Non-Profit Organizations at the William Davidson School. Unit heads must navigate conflict among staff members, oversee programming, provide feedback, and enforce rules, among many other responsibilities. Many of these are soft skills that can only be learned via experience, rather than through classroom learning. When we participated in role-playing exercises in the leadership course, I felt more confident in my leadership abilities in those scenarios because of the unit head experience that I had under my belt.

Based on personal experience and word of mouth from numerous peers, past summer camp unit heads often disregard all other work experience and talk only of their unit head work during job interviews. The number of relevant stories of overcoming challenges and reaching success are abundant. A close family friend who works as chief medical officer of a large hospital notes that he relies on the lessons he learned as a unit head to do his job.

Unit heads engage in reflective analysis of their work and the systems they supervise in ways that forever shape their professional approach. In managing their own staff, they begin to cultivate a range of stances and dispositions indispensable to thoughtful leadership. The books we read in the leadership course at the William Davidson School provided me with more ways to envision how I could approach this role, from how to lead a staff meeting to how to lead with empathy.

While the role of unit head provides a number of opportunities to develop concrete professional skills, it also offers a rare, unparalleled opportunity to learn how to be a leader. Camp leadership teams should not only recognize this but promote it. They should advertise that working as a unit head not only applies to professions but creates professionals. It shapes who people are. While some staff members only return because of explicit career applications, perhaps if they knew of this transformational growth, they would understand how invaluable it would be for their futures.

The question then becomes, how can young staff members learn that the longer they stay at camp, the more they will grow as people and leaders? Staff retention already presents a significant challenge. In 2018, only 43 percent of Jewish summer camps reported that more than 60 percent of college-age counselors eligible to return to camp actually did. Summer internships often tempt counselors, especially those who are already a few years out of high school, to use their summers to “focus on their careers” and “develop their resumes.”

When I learned how much counselors receive from their camp experience, I was shocked. When I learned how much more unit heads learn from their camp experience, I was stunned. This is one of the best kept secrets at summer camps. It remains a secret because most only discover it once they have lived it themselves.

This should no longer be a secret. Camp leaders must share with anyone who will listen that the role of the unit head is the best resume-building, leadership-forming summer internship that exists.

Shira Forester is currently studying at the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education of JTS, where she is pursuing a Master of Arts in Jewish Education with a focus on pedagogy and teaching.