Field Experience Reflection

Evaluation matters.
Evaluation has never seemed insignificant to me, but I have very rarely been in a position to see how tremendously the process of evaluation can affect the quality, consistency, and intentionality of a program. Generally, I have been involved in programs that include a certain amount of evaluation at various points of a program and with multiple audiences. Parents, students, staff, and volunteers are all part of evaluation at some level, even if that really only includes informal verbal conversations over coffee or when picking up a child.
The day camp I worked at this summer utilized almost no evaluation, even informal, at all during the course of the summer. This lack of evaluation clearly affected many areas of the camp. Most noticeable was the staff attitude, sense of value, and work ethic.
The camp employs about 60 counselors each summer, plus about ten additional program staff to run things. While the counselors certainly did a good job caring for their campers, they rarely put in extra effort or sought out ways to improve the experience for their campers. This reality is in no way a reflection of the counselors’ capabilities or eagerness to love children. The first year counselors entered the summer with excitement and eagerness. The seasoned counselors a lesser amount, but still with a desire to love kids and enjoy them. But as the summer moved along, and counselors became worn, this excitement waned.
This is a normal trend. It happens. But often, throughout the summer, counselors are having moments to share their feelings and concerns. They are given time to express ideas for bringing excitement back into their jobs. They are being told specific ways they are doing a good job, as well as specific ways they can improve. In short, evaluation is happening. Whether it is a program staff member assigned to pay attention, the program director who sets up meetings to plan new things, or a simple suggestion box for new ideas, many camp programs have ways for counselors to feel they are part of improving their summer. Their summer that is now becoming harder and more tiring. My day camp offered no such opportunities.
Counselors did not have a mid summer evaluation, nor an end of summer evaluation. There was no suggestion box. We never met to come up with new ways to reinvigorate our program. We never asked counselors for ideas. Many counselors spent the whole summer with no one ever specifically noticing their counseling methods or style and commenting on it. They simple existed in the program, expected to do their job, and only heard from our boss if they were in trouble.
We, the program staff, had almost the same experience. As staff who helped in the office, we had more contact with our boss, but the only moments of evaluation and reflection that happened for me were moments I intentionally sought out. And they were difficult to create. I spoke with my boss twice all summer about how my job was going. She never came out to see a class to ensure it was quality. No one, except the counselors, ever even knew what my lesson plans looked like. And they weren’t asked to evaluate me as the Nature Director. It is now almost October, and other than individual counselors letting me know they enjoyed my classes, no one has even asked what my programs looked like or let me know how they think I did. I have been given no feedback for improvement and no positive affirmation from my boss. And this won’t happen, because no evaluation of my work was ever done.
An interesting experience, one in which evaluation did take place, was an afternoon meeting towards the end of summer where my boss got the program staff together and asked us to evaluate the program. We all really appreciated this, but it also offers me a memorable example of how evaluation can be misused. She collected the wrong data. She asked for very specific advice on parts of the program, like our tye dye station and skits. We spent hours talking through these areas SHE felt were most important, and given no opportunity to discuss the bigger issues that the camp had been struggling with all summer.
Prior to working with day camp, I worked (and still do) with the outdoor education program at the same camp. Within this program, we do extensive evaluation. We work with schools and teachers and principals and state testing standards, and so evaluation is clearly necessary to ensuring we do what is expected and keep groups coming back. Sometimes, I think we have too much evaluation.
Going from an evaluation heavy program to one where evaluation is almost non-existent was eye opening. I know that having this experience will make me more aware from this point on of how valuable even the most basic and simple evaluation can be. The missed moments with my boss will also be remembered and I know I will be more intentional in making sure my evaluations are asking the right questions and evaluating the most important areas.
I love creating and running classes.
Since my teen years, I have known I enjoy the outdoors and the camp environment. And my school year job as an outdoor educator includes those to elements, as well as teaching. Up until this summer I had believed I enjoyed my job in spite of the teaching aspects. Not that I disliked leading classes, but I do not have a great passion for most of the classes I teach in our school year program. I enjoyed taking the students for walks through the woods and talking about critters and plants, playing games with them, and getting to know them. Talking about metamorphosis and watersheds was just part of the requirement to be able to do those things.
This summer I completely recreated the Nature program for the day camp, and taught this new curriculum to students over and over again. I adapted the lessons as I went along, making changes as I learned what worked and what didn’t. I made changes for different ages and different weather conditions. And I found through creating and teaching this program that I loved the process.
Making my education ideas come to life through games, activities, stories, and observations with the campers was thrilling for me. I made rain and clouds with them, having researched and chosen very intentionally which experiments I would use, and was elated watching them understand through those experiments the processes water goes through. I was able to teach high school students the difference between arachnids and spiders in a way that made sense to them for the first time. I chose games that made sense to me. I read and even wrote stories that I believed would be memorable and helpful to my four-year-old students.
And each week I was excited to learn how to best teach the new curriculum. Each week I looked forward to adapting my lessons and seeing these kids get excited about the environment for maybe the first time, and in a way I hadn’t really experienced in my school year job.
Reflecting on the summer, I am aware that the big difference between my summer work and the school year was the curriculum. During the school year I use a mostly pre-set curriculum. This summer I completely created my own from scratch. To test this difference, I am intentionally recreating the curriculum I use during the school year. I am seeking out all the ways I can change the classes to make them my own. I no longer teach aquatic ecology the way I was originally taught to teach it. I teach the same concepts, but I am working to use my own curriculum and seeing if that may make even the teaching aspect exciting for me.
Details, and general organization, matter to me.
This summer, a plan rarely existed.
Camps have hundreds, if not thousands, of little details and minor problems that come up each and every day. Many of them are similar problems that reoccur all summer long. While it is really impossible to anticipate every one of these, I really struggled with how disorganized the camp became as a result of not preparing to address these small issues.
For this camp, parents coming randomly to get their children was a common occurrence. At least a half dozen children were dropped off or picked up partway through the day each day. This was a consistent small problem that was simply never addressed. So every day, someone needed to be running around finding children and shuttling them to their parents. This in turn prevented someone from preparing their class completely or being on time or some other small problem.
Another consistent problem was that counselors would change age groups from week to week. This was a great way to keep things fresh for them; one week they would work with older kids, the next week younger ones. Or they’d get to do an archery camp or a water camp or a horse camp. Changing things up for them added excitement, but often the counselor was not appropriately trained for their area. A counselor would be assigned to a climbing camp but without belay training. A counselor who had never taught archery would be given a group who needed to do archery. A counselor would find out they were assigned to a science camp just hours before teaching it. Small problems that were never addressed.
On Friday afternoons, the whole camp would get together to play games. But no one was ever assigned to plan these games and set them up. So almost every Friday, lunch time would come around and all the staff would look at each other and try to figure out what games to play with more than three hundred children and no preparation time and no supplies. Another fairly small detail that became a big problem when added to the dozens of other details that never became organized.
As program staff, all of my time not teaching was spent dealing with these hundreds of small problems as they popped up. I spent a great deal of my summer more stressed out than I needed to be. Any number of the problems that we dealt with for hours each day could have been easily addressed and at least partially solved, but they never were. Rather, we spent the whole summer simply dealing with each thing as it came up. Never proactive. We never tried to organize ourselves first, and deal with changes later. We never listed all the details we could think of and addressed them. We did a whole ton of running around, had a great deal of time where we had no idea what was happening, and had no time left to plan quality lessons.
Were I to start the summer over, I would insist on time being set aside to talk through the problems of the day and come up with as many solutions as we could to prevent or limit them in the future. A simple few minutes each day to do this would have saved all of us, program staff and counselors, a great deal of stress this summer.
I am okay with plans changing, failing, or being adapted. Often with the camp environment, a plan is made that simply does not make sense when the time comes to use it, and it is thrown out and something else takes its place. I love that. I really enjoy thinking on my feet and making something come out of nothing. But I want a plan to exist. I want to have had enough intentionality to have put together what I, or we, think is going to be fantastic. Steps should be in place to get things done, and identified methods that work well and are efficient should be generally used. Then, after we’ve done everything we can to create excellence, if something needs to be changed or thrown out it can be. When there’s a solid grounding and everyone knows their roles, changes can be made more easily and with fewer negative consequences.
I enjoy staff development.
My field experience this summer was a struggle most of the time. A great deal of the job was frustrating and felt unnecessary. The hours spent teaching my curriculum were one exception. The times I was able to engage with the counselors and help develop their leadership and teaching skills were another.
The day camp I worked with had a very simple, largely ineffective, leadership structure. The program director was in charge, and was responsible for approximately 70 staff. I was a member of the program staff, a set of about 10, who were not in the same job position as counselors but also didn’t truly have any leadership responsibilities.
Because my boss was responsible for far more staff members than she could practically manage, I was often in a position of being able to assist counselors with their needs. Sometimes these needs included program aid, skills development, and teaching instruction. While none of this was done in a formal setting, I know that many counselors left at the end of the summer with improved skills as a result of our conversations and interactions.
Looking back over the summer, the days I most enjoyed were those days where I had opportunities to help with staff development. I truly enjoy being part of the reason staff members learn new things, improve their capabilities, and leave camp at the end of the summer better prepared for either their future jobs or the next camping season. I feel a sense of accomplishment when I am able to assist staff members, even if it is only in being able to point them in the direction of someone else who can help them. I loved being able to share my team building tips and tricks and teaching counselors just a few facts about the nature around camp that they could share with their campers. I enjoyed explaining to counselors why I created my lessons in a particular way, and what each aspect was ideally meant to accomplish. I valued time spent listening to a counselor’s current frustrations and helping them to sort through possible solutions.
In processing my appreciation of staff development this summer, I have also come to realize that I have taken on this role in each of my previous jobs. No matter what role I am given, or what organization I work with, I have found myself in the position of developing other staff members in various capacities. Whether it be my volunteer role with the Red Cross and assisting new volunteers find their courses and choose the areas they want to serve within, or working at a college to help professors, students, and non-profit organizers connect, I naturally find myself seeking out those areas where I can be a connector and a developer.
Now that I am aware of this natural tendency and preference, I believe I will be better able to make career choices that fit me and my personality. I know that I need to seek employment that allows and encourages me to interact with fellow employees in ways that encourage mutual development.
Organizational structures can really limit teaching possibilities.
Until this summer, I had the naïve attitude that a good teacher would be able to rise above any environmental and organizational challenges he or she faced. I would hear people talk about the difficulty of their teaching environment and largely dismiss them. Sure, better resources would be nice, but a good teacher could work with almost nothing. Sure, students who wanted to learn would be easier, but a good teacher could make anyone want to learn. Sure, being able to teach the content you want would be beneficial, but a good teacher could turn any lesson into something great. While I did believe their complaints to be valid, I also assumed them to be less capable and eager teachers if they were unable to rise above them.
This summer I was confronted with an organizational structure that forced these assumptions to be directed at me for the first time, and for a length of time I battled with my own feelings of inadequacy as an instructor.
Teaching an hour-long class on nature seemed a fairly simple task as I was creating my summer curriculum. I knew I would be required to balance educational components with activity and games; students came to camp expecting fun and adventure, not school. And putting my lesson plans together felt good; I felt really prepared to teach. I was not, however, prepared to teach within the particular organizational structure I later realized existed within the day camp.
Throughout the summer, I came to understand the day camp functioned very much the same way a large day care might operate. While educational components might be nice additions to the day, the main objective for everyone involved was simply to keep children occupied and safe until the end of the day. And many campers had been coming to camp multiple years, sometimes the whole summer each year, and were very aware of this philosophy.
Because of this reality, the structure of the camp was designed to support this objective. Staff resources were heavily dedicated toward parent communication and behavior management. Emphasis was heavily placed on making family night appear successful and ensuring take-home elements looked presentable. Counselors put their energy into getting students from one place to the other without incident, focusing attention on students who tended to struggle and largely ignoring the majority of the group.
None of these are bad in themselves. But these tendencies made for a very difficult teaching environment this summer.
The students were accustomed to being distracted and inattentive. Counselors were used to having the expectation that their students be together, but not necessarily that they be involved in the class or that they help to lead positive interaction. Resources were hard to come by, and staff assistance in classes or with preparing or acquiring materials was minimal. Combine all this together, along with many more aspects of the camp culture, and an environment resulted that simply did not make for a helpful educational setting.
I didn’t know what to do. I consider myself a capable educator, but this setting left me with very few options. So I stripped my curriculum down to the absolute basics, so simple it seemed almost ridiculous, and taught at the level the organizational structure could support.
In being forced to make that decision, I have a new and growing appreciation for those teachers who must discover ways to teach within environments that have been poorly designed for the education of their students.
I see great value in pairing traditional classroom principles with outdoor education philosophy.

This summer’s experience with day camp and its complete lack of structure made me realize for the first time the benefits outdoor youth programs could have if they became willing to learn from the traditional classroom. Working in an outdoor education setting through the school year, I have become a strong advocate for schools introducing more experiential and outdoor education into their curriculum, but this summer was the first time I really noticed how the reverse could have potential benefits.

While I don’t believe children should live in spaces of constant structure, the chaos of day camp was not the type of free exploration that can be beneficial to youth. Day camp was a poor mix of structure, chaos, and regulation. And it would benefit in huge ways from including more elements of traditional school organization and expectations. Once I realized this, I began to think about other programs that could benefit from traditional classroom principles and found myself naming most programs I have been involved with.

Outdoor settings tend to believe they have a better youth development philosophy than schools. Schools have specific confines within which to work, and have difficulty seeing ways to implement new techniques using those rules and requirements. But both sides have much to teach each other about how students learn best in varying groups and settings. More than anything, this summer has encouraged me to investigate these connections and this partnership.

I am now in traditional classrooms as a substitute teacher, hoping to balance out my outdoor education experience with experience in the regulated environment of the public school system. Through close observation and conversations with various members of public school staff, I hope to gain greater insight of the obstacles schools face in implementing experiential and outdoor learning. I also hope to take away an understanding of aspects of the traditional classroom that may be of benefit to outdoor settings, summer camps in particular.

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