This begins an occasional series of posts I’ll be doing on keys to success for camp counselors. These are just tips that you’ll hear over and over again in training and during the summer work session, but that are good to read about as preparation for the job. Please subscribe to my RSS feed to stay in the loop with this series and other news about camp.
At first glance it might seem obvious what it means to “put others first.” But in practice, this really is an art and a skill that helps you as much in life in general as it does in jobs like camp counseling.
Jobs which require workers to “put other first” often fall in the category that sociologists call “emotional labor.” The reason why is because, even though the worker might be performing a variety of other tasks, involving a different kind of effort like physical strength, intellectual effort, planning, communications, or whatever else, the worker still must bring elements of his or her emotional life into it. Examples of this kind of work include:
- Flight attendants and wait staff: Service with a smile
- Nurses: Monitoring both objective health and tuning in to how the patient feels about treatment.
- Teachers: Conveying academic information but also how the student is processing and dealing with the information.
- Social workers: Helping clients through various situations that may be stressful or troubling.
- Eldercare workers: Both health management and emotional states of being.
- Doulas: Looking out for a new mom and baby both physically and emotionally.
- Parents: All the work in raising a child including the child’s emotional life.
- Camp Counselors: Leading campers through every aspect of every day including its ups and downs.
The reason that one aspect of this work is called “emotional labor” is not only because the caregiver or provider of a service has to keep his or her own emotions on an even keel (but also open and warm) but also because he or she needs to be tuned in to what the other person is going through.
At camp, in the best case scenario, most campers are resilient or are in the process of developing resilience skills and the level of “emotional labor” called for on the part of the counselor is relatively normal. It includes:
- Keeping a friendly, accessible disposition.
- Using clear, direct, and kind communication skills to convey information.
- Making certain that the campers know that you’re there for them.
- Being ready to respond to the emotional needs of campers as they arise.
- Managing your own frustrations or personal concerns so that your campers are unaware of any personal issue (your period, upsetting news in a letter, trouble working out a scheduling issue, etc.)
Day in and day out
As I said, most of the time this goes off like clockwork. Your campers are excited to be at camp, you’re excited to be a counselor, and we have a full raft of scheduling to keep each moment moving in to the next, from activities to meals to rest times. In the course of normal events, there’s enough happy stuff going on that there’s little focus on how we feel beyond the joy of just enjoying camp as a special place.
But let’s face it, we are all people and things happen.
From the tears of a scraped knee to the challenges of trying to master a new skill to the personal needs that each individual has to the intricacies of sharing tent space and bathroom time and the comforts of meals there are bound to be the little ups and downs that occur for and between campers. Counselors are coping with all this personally, too, but their role is different. Their role is to both cope with and to a degree sublimate their own concerns and be ready to respond to the needs of campers with compassion, kindness, and problem solving.
In our training sessions we go over scenarios that are likely to arise to help you anticipate needs and learn the best skills for coping with them. And it’s a fine line.
For example, on one hand, we want a physically or emotionally hurt child to be safe, comforted and healed. But on the other hand, we shouldn’t confuse “emotional labor” with belaboring a point. Part of the skill and “art” is knowing how to properly be emotionally available to your campers so that healthy emotions are expressed without creating dependencies or overly babying or forgetting that ultimately we want to build and foster resilience in our campers.
In some ways it’s mostly about working with focused, informed cheerfulness. And then, in crises — from little bumps in the road to a bigger quandary — we respond with a combination of purpose, knowledge, and intuition to deal with and solve the issue in its proper measure.
Putting others first
But all of this does require that we “put others first.” Campers are not there to hear about your college or relationship problems, or to wait for you to make yourself beautiful, or to sit back while you doctor up your dinner plate. In every case (except your time off) the campers are your charges and their ease, learning, comforts, and fun are your primary concern.
Fortunately, that’s why you’re here!
Most counselors are eager to do exactly this kind of work because it’s the beginning of a career road that will involve similar roles in the future; whether you become a mom, teacher, doctor, or businesswoman, you’ll need to anticipate and meet the needs of your children, students, patients, or clients.
Part of the art and skill of all this is knowing how to thoroughly yet efficiently meet your own needs. It’s about taking care of yourself first, behind the scenes, to bring your best self to work.
For example, if you know you love to exercise, and that doing so keeps your stress level down, then by all means, use your free time to get that run in! Or if you’re the kind who wants to write it all down in a journal to process, find that time to take pen to paper and make it happen (by the river is a great spot for this!). Some folks like to take a quiet walk to “come back to center,” perhaps through Crystal Creek. Others are social and enjoy lively conversation as a way to laugh, let of steam, and let it all go — the Counselors’ Lodge is perfect for this. Or maybe it’s a little bit of all of these things.
But self-care is a responsibility that makes your work much easier and more successful. In my graduate program we talked about self-care being so important when it comes to caring for others because you can’t take care of them if you haven’t first taken care of YOU! (My grad program was for counseling, and I love how the word “counselor” can mean so many things!).
What’s key is to know how to leave your personal life behind and step into your role fully focused on its unique demands ready to meet them.
If you truly take care of yourself first, understand your role at work, and then strive to bring your best to that role, you will definitely be ready to “put others first,” and so be successful in your work as a counselor which means making camp a joy for your campers.
–Elizabeth Dawson Shreckhise, Assistant Director, Camp Alleghany for Girls