Arriving at camp with some knowledge under their belts can help counselors build confidence and can make the transition to camp as seamless as possible. For this reason, there is a great deal of value in incorporating virtual staff training into summer camp directors’ pre-camp plans.
This year, virtual training is more than just a nice addition – it’s an essential tool in preparing teams for the upcoming camp season. The fewer pre-camp days needed for training, the sooner camps can open their doors to campers. This matters for the campers themselves, for the parents who need childcare, and for the camps who need to limit non-paid camp days due to shortened schedules.
With these factors in mind, we sat down with Evan Heltay, the CEO and co-founder of Expert Online Training (EOT), to learn some best practices for camps looking to embrace online training for their counselors. If camps are looking for anything related to virtual staff training, EOT is a valuable resource, but Heltay says there are plenty of ways that camps can DIY this process as well. Here are four suggestions, no matter which approach your camp chooses.
1. Lean on Experts and Existing Resources
The team at EOT has spent countless hours combing the camp community, and related resources, for experts who can add value and engage your team’s full attention. If you choose to create your own curriculum, an important tip to remember is that just because someone is a great camp director, it doesn’t mean they’re ready to conduct effective online training. Before you sign someone up to record a lesson or training, work with them to identify their strengths. Do a “screen test” to see if they’re comfortable in front of a camera. If they’re not, consider a podcast-style recording. Or, tap them to create handouts and find another trusted source to occupy the on-screen role.
As you work on the specific lessons within your online training, Heltay suggests you start by looking at existing vetted resources and talking to peers you trust. You may not have access to outside experts on youth behavior or autism, for example, but it’s likely that some of your full-time staff are experts on what makes your camp special. So start there. Don’t reinvent the wheel until you identify a specific resource or training that doesn’t exist yet. As you look through currently available materials, one way to identify the best ones to use or adapt is to check that they are consistent with ACA guidelines.
Finally, before you launch your training plan and deliver it to your incoming staff, gather a few former staff members and ask them to give it a test drive. Think of it as a focus group to help make sure the messages are getting across in a way that makes sense to your target audience.
2. It’s okay to be fun and funny
Heltay describes the videos that EOT offers as “a mix of serious and silly – maybe even a bit goofy,” and explains that this is the style that seems to resonate most effectively with 17-25 year olds. The key phrase there is, ‘a bit,’ and there are some general tips for camps choosing to approach virtual training with a more DIY approach.
Make sure to clearly identify those topics which need an entirely serious approach. Silliness is great, but only in appropriate doses. Any training that deals with physical or emotional needs can absolutely be serious from beginning to end.
But when the training focuses more on running specific daily activities, make sure you’re infusing your videos, audio recordings, or even handouts with a little humor. One idea is to have your trainers tell funny or embarrassing stories of their own experiences as camp staff that relate to the information they’re passing on. Or, incorporate the classic game ‘two truths and a lie,’ and see if your trainees can pinpoint the stories that did or did not actually happen at camp. Funny hats, outrageous costumes, or silly songs to start or end a video, are other ideas. Camp is fun, and you want to bring this light-hearted feeling into your virtual training.
Have your trainers tell funny or embarrassing stories of their own experiences as camp staff that relate to the information they’re passing on.
3. Try different approaches to sustain engagement
Heltay explains that EOT uses various types of lessons in their virtual training. In addition to videos, EOT has handouts, quizzes, and breakout groups, among other options, and Heltay says mixing it up is a good idea. He also recommends that camps look at how counselors are likely consuming information, and then try to mold training methods and formats accordingly. For example, if teens are using fun apps with short videos and silly filters, it’s unlikely that they will be as excited to read dense, multi-page documents.
Beyond adapting content and lessons to the formats that sync best with a more youthful team, leaders also need to recognize and adapt to the different learning styles that exist within any given group. Some are drawn to video, while others learn best with written exercises that they can do at their own pace. Mixing it up so each lesson factors in different learning styles can help your team of diverse learners grasp as much information as possible.
4. Use training performance to identify staff all-stars
In-person training makes it easy to gauge who is paying attention and who isn’t, and to try different approaches to engage your whole team. One of the biggest challenges of virtual training is that it is hard to gauge attention and retention. EOT solves this challenge by using quizzes of various types to monitor performance, and Heltay points out that this has never been more important than this year.
In past camp seasons, you could supplement virtual lessons with in-person training to reinforce the most important information. But this year, camps that choose to operate are going to limit the number of camper-free days, to try and lessen the financial impact of a shorter camp season. This means that you need to feel as confident as possible that your staff members aren’t zoning out and cruising through lessons with limited focus. Even staff members who are fully engaged with the training face unique pressures this year, in the form of heightened anxiety and the need to absorb new health and safety practices.
To help you get a grasp on your staff’s understanding of the material, Heltay suggests that you use an online form creator (such as Google Forms) to build your own custom quizzes. Even if it’s just a few questions, it’s important to get a read on what is sinking in. This way, during the limited in-person training time you do have, you can focus on what’s been missed.
Heltay points out that these methods of evaluating performance can also show camp leaders which staff are really focused and retaining the most information. This can help directors identify leaders among their counselors, who they can feel comfortable relying for more important tasks and responsibilities. Similarly, it may also help directors identify staff that may not be up to the task. Identifying staff members who won’t be effective is all the more critical in a summer where camps and staff will face new requirements and challenges.
Making Virtual Work for Your Camp
Whatever your reason for embracing robust virtual training, Heltay says it’s important for camp directors to understand that shifting away from the typical in-person training doesn’t have to represent a dramatic shift in how camp functions day to day. Every camp is still going to have in-person training, and those are times to both reinforce information and build camaraderie among your team members.
This summer, with so much up in the air because of COVID-19, it’s likely that camps are going to be doing more of their training online. Whether you use EOT or not, Heltay says that camps should not look at this side effect as something negative. Blended learning, the combination of online training in advance of camp with on-site learning, is the ideal approach. It’s all about finding the right balance in 2020. If there’s a silver lining in all this perhaps it’s that camps have been pushed to look at modern training tools that can help them enhance the quality of their staff’s performance while simultaneously helping them reduce operating expenses. That’s a benefit that will pay dividends for years.
Evan Heltay co-founded Expert Online Training (EOT), along with renowned child psychologist, Dr. Chris Thurber. The program allows camps to begin training their staff immediately from any location in the world via a simple web-based app. Camp directors can choose from over 140 camp focused modules delivered by 29 of the leading minds in camping. To date, EOT’s pre-season videos, quizzes, and handouts have helped prepare over 2 million staff for their most important responsibilities.