Working at camp makes you a better teacher

In 2013, the Globe and Mail published an article entitled “Why being a camp counsellor is great training for becoming a prime minister”. In it, the author named skills such as mediating conflicts, balancing competing interests, developing communication skills, and maintaining an optimistic outlook in spite of sometimes difficult conditions, as necessary preconditions for positions of great leadership. At the end of the article, successful people, from politicians to sports commentators and CEOs, weighed in on the benefits they found in having been a camp counsellor. I believe that working at summer camps builds creativity, quick thinking, teamwork, and grit.

Camp experience can be directly applied to the classroom.

I have been a parent for 11 ½ years,  a teacher for 19 years, and a camp counsellor and administrator for 29 years, and I can confidently say that the skills I learned in my first job prepared me in innumerable ways for the later two. I went to teacher’s college in the ‘90s and then decided to go straight into graduate school. While there, I was given a contract by the Learning Disabilities Association (LDA) to write a manual and conduct training sessions with the B.Ed. candidates who would work as tutors in a joint pilot project between the LDA and the Faculty of Education. Why me? At 24 years old, without a single year in a classroom under my belt, my faculty advisor nominated me for the position because I had the best background in learning disabilities of anybody in the full-time Master of Education program. That background came entirely from my experience at Camp Kodiak. And much of the training workshop that I developed was borrowed from training I had received during staff training.

Three years ago, a student was coming to my school with a diagnosis that nobody had heard of: DiGeorge Syndrome. I sat at a table with my principal, a psychologist, a social worker, a speech and language pathologist, and three other special education teachers during the intake meeting. While other people took to Google, I said, “that’s 22q. I’m familiar with it. We’ve had 10 or 12 kids over the years at camp with 22q.”. I looked around the table at surprised faces before I went on. “Sick Kids hosts a conference every year, and I’ve attended it.” I was able to be a resource to the classroom teacher and let the parents know about the foundation that helps connect families and provides support.

Even as a new teacher, I had a confidence that my colleagues didn’t have. My first job was in a portable classroom, teaching a “Junior Special Class”, which meant that they put all of the hard-to-teach kids in one room with my teaching partner and me. He had twenty years of classroom teaching experience, yet he leaned on me for guidance because of my special education background.

My next-door neighbour at the school was also a new teacher. He was in his mid-thirties and had left a career in business to pursue teaching. I walked into his portable at recess and saw that he had a few students with him. Detention. He explained to me that they had earned detentions for the next many months, built up one day or week at a time, for various transgressions. “Why would any of these students behave well now if they know that they have already lost months of recesses?” I asked. This led to a conversation about classroom management, discipline, and motivation that, I’m happy to say, convinced him to rethink his detention policy. Teachers’ college hadn’t prepared him for the realities of working in a classroom, so he defaulted to what he knew from his own schooling—and it wasn’t working. We talked about having class meetings to build community, letting the students have a say in the policies and procedures in the classroom, and, if necessary, taking away recess five minutes at a time so that they knew they still had something to work for. He had come to his classroom as a businessman; I had come to mine as a camp person. That was the difference.

Former Kodiak counsellors that work in teaching fields identified many areas where they learned how to be a better teacher through their experience at camp. Three key themes emerged:

1. Relationship Building
2. Pedagogy
3. Professionalism

It occurred to me that I am likely not the only Camp Kodiak alumnus who brings what I learned at camp into my year-round professional role. I put the question out on Facebook and got some wonderful responses. Three clear themes emerged: relationship building, pedagogy, and professionalism.

“Camp [Kodiak] has single-handedly been the best experience in preparing me for the realities of the classroom.”

Sarah Mayberry, Teacher

Many of the respondents talked about how they learned to prioritize relationships with students over covering curriculum, and it paid dividends in terms of classroom climate and student success. “Camp taught me that students are looking for connection before they are looking for direction. If you can connect with your students, they will show success both academically and socially. You see this each and every day at camp!” (Sarah Mayberry). “Connection over content” (Keigan Page). As much as teachers often feel rushed to jump right into their long-range plans, camp models the importance of taking time out, especially with a new group of students, to set the stage for what is to come.

“You take the time to build the community and the rest will fall into place. Behaviours, learning and work ethic all come from the rapport you build. Connection over content.” (Keigan Page).

“There are some teachers who are here to teach content and some who are here to teach students. Through my experience of getting to know the kiddos at camp, I learned the value in that connection. High school math doesn’t spark joy for very many people, but it sure makes it easier when they know that their teacher cares about them and is a genuine person with them” (Lance Small, Teacher).

“What I learned in university about teaching special education students was so little compared to everything that I learned at Kodiak.”

Colleen Hickey, Teacher

John Scanlon teaches pedagogy to teachers from foreign militaries. He focuses a lot on “teaching and modeling how to make the classroom a safe, comfortable and inviting place. Most of that comes from the relationship building [he learned at camp]” (John Scanlon, Teacher Educator).

He only learns when he’s under my desk.

During my second year in that Junior Special Class, I had one student, ”Bobby”, who squirmed and moved around so much that he would fall off his chair every day. He was distracted by the lights, by the other students, and by the sound of the second hand on the school clock. In those days, classrooms didn’t have Hoki stools or other types of alternative seating, and I was a broke new teacher without a budget to start buying equipment. One day, when I was circulating and helping the students, Bobby hid under my desk to try to escape his assignment. We made a deal: he could stay under the desk if he got his work done. This was the beginning of Bobby’s school productivity. It was quiet and away from distractions, and he would stretch out on the floor and get to work. And frequently I would sit down beside him on the floor to explain a concept or correct his work. Bobby’s science teacher still couldn’t get him to complete anything, but in science class he was expected to act like the other students and sit on a chair at a desk. The science teacher was teaching science; I was teaching Bobby. I was open to discovering which accommodations would help him be successful, and I found one. Knowing that different students learn in different ways is something I learned at camp.

I picked up what I knew as a beginning teacher from camp: reading camper files, talking with senior counsellors and other professionals, pre-camp workshops, and daily interactions with kids. I built up a backpack of strategies, but more importantly, I learned to be flexible, creative, and open to finding what would work for any one specific child. Camp Kodiak was invaluable in helping me develop the knowledge and tools for working with all students, but especially with students with special learning needs.

“A few years ago, I was in a meeting where we were planning a new camp-based practicum experience for Teacher Candidates. Someone said something to the effect of ‘they can’t just be camp counselors!’ I proceeded to say that 90% of my approach to pedagogy and classroom management in a formal classroom situation is informed by my experiences as a camp counselor.”

Blair Niblett, Faculty, Trent University School of Education

In addition to learning facts about and strategies for students with learning disabilities, ADHD, ASD, and other neurodiversities, working at Camp Kodiak teaches about pacing a lesson, providing descriptive feedback, being present, and supervision (Blair Niblett), analyzing tasks to try to anticipate areas of difficulty and breaking down instructions to ensure they are “comprehensive, yet concise” (John Scanlon), and an “experiential [approach] to instructional design” (Aaron Sheedy, College Professor).

Camp Kodiak was my first experience as a professional

I started working at camp as a student. I was young and inexperienced with a lot to learn. By the time I got my first classroom, I had worked at camp for many years. I had already learned how to write reports on children, how to plan a lesson and record daily observations about student progress. I knew the importance of keeping up with my paperwork and communicating clearly with colleagues. I knew how to talk to parents, how to work with my peers, how to lead a team, and how to communicate professionally with parents. All of these experiences made me feel like a teacher before I ever had my own classroom.

Helena Frank was very experienced in working with children when she came to camp, but she hadn’t yet completed her professional training. “Kodiak gave me the language and framework to explain what I already did with children and youth and helped me to be able to explain the strategies and methods that I intuitively used; firm, fair, patient, predictable, and it’s not about me. Amazing foundations!” (Helena Frank,

Chris Organ was a Camp Kodiak counsellor when he was in university, and he credits it with setting him on his career path and building up his professional knowledge. “Kodiak was where I found out I wanted to be a teacher. The experience there helped shape my understanding of students with different abilities and needs, as well as understand the power of strong relationships. Even now in my role as a school administrator, I find myself falling back on a memory or experience that I can apply to my practice today.” (Chris Organ, Vice-Principal, FMPSD).

Brendan Docherty talked about communicating with parents: “Kodiak gave me lots of experience speaking with parents and having, at times, difficult conversations. Framing conversations in a way where you are demonstrating to parents that you care and want what’s best for their child makes life easier as a teacher and gives you a better chance of ensuring student success.” (Brendan Docherty, Teacher).

Other staff members commented about learning how to write professional reports. “As predicted, I got good at them and admin has never returned a report card for rewriting” (Keigan Page). They also learned how to “differentiate to reach every learner” (Sarah Mayberry).

“During my first practicum, my supervisor from Queen’s watched my class and afterwards said, ‘What you have done in there was not anything we taught you. That’s something else.’ That something else was Kodiak.”

Keigan Page, Teacher

Every year, new and experienced teachers tell us how much they learn (or relearn) from their summer at camp. Workshops in training week cover a wide variety of topics from disabilities, group building, and behaviour management, to task analysis and social skills autopsies. Teachers often comment that they wished they had received this type of training during their formal schooling or in-service workshops in their school boards. Once the campers arrive, they learn so much more about building relationships and community, seeing strengths where others just see challenges, setting up routines, communicating clearly, exercising patience, working collaboratively with colleagues, creative problem solving, and thinking on their feet. As in teaching and parenting, there will be many moments when you feel exhausted and like you have overspent your emotional bank account. But then you get to see the light of success in a camper’s eye, help someone overcome a fear or vault past an obstacle, and you know that you’re getting out of camp at least as much as you’re giving. “Kodiak has … taught me that you’re never really done learning” (Lance Small).

At our closing campfire we sing a song that includes the line “I’m a better me for the knowing of you.” I truly am a better me for the knowing of the kids and staff of Camp Kodiak—I’m also a better parent and a better teacher for everything that I have learned there.

About the Author

Shari Stoch

Shari has worked at Camp Kodiak since it began in 1991. She has been the Academic Director since 2010, and is one of the Camp Directors. During the year, Shari works for the Peel District School Board as a special education teacher. She earned her Masters of Education from Queen’s University.