Collaboration with the Camp Staff Dream Team

Hello from the Head Counsellor - #2

Some of the Cairn Dream Team of 2012

Some of the Cairn Dream Team of 2012

In the off season, when I’m not camp hacking with Travis, I study Music Education at Wilfrid Laurier University. This past year, I took a high school music education class with an amazing professor, Doug Friesen. This guy is awesome, my friends. All you teachers out there (especially music teachers) need to check him out. He has some very insightful opinions on education and the place of creativity and collaboration within it. 

In class, we took a real hard look at collaboration and how by giving kids an opinion on things like educational content and even classroom policies, it results in them being more invested in their education. Our talks really spoke to me and I was excited to start experimenting with collaboration as soon as I could. Since being a teacher is a bit down the road for me, I decided that with the prospect of being the Head Counsellor at camp in the summer, I would try to take a collaborative approach while working with the counsellors. What was the worst that could happen? My thought was, if the counsellors were given an opportunity to work with me and each other in designing how we were going to operate, that we would all be that much more invested in the summer. 

My approach was twofold.

The first collaborative effort, and less complicated of my two ideas, was to collaborate as a group more often. We have a very structured schedule at Cairn so it was tough to come up with a time that worked well for camp but eventually, we settled on having a 15 minute meeting with one counsellor from every counselling pair or trio, every day at the end of rest hour (which for us, is after lunch, and before the 3rd session of the day). These meetings were meant for quick, daily reminders and then the remaining time strictly used for a facilitated discussion about how everyone’s week was going. Topics included cabin morale and dynamics, magic ideas, how to handle specific struggles and many others. My intention for these meetings was to not speak a whole lot. My hope was that the counsellors would draw from their own learning experiences and have them use each other as a resource network more often. While this approach to collaboration wasn’t specifically what we had talked a whole lot about in my education class, it was one that I was definitely glad to have given a try...but more on that next article!

My second collaborative experience for the summer was more along the lines of what had inspired me to explore collaboration in the first place. I was extremely curious to see how a community would work, grow, and perform under expectations that were created and agreed upon by those that would be directly affected. I decided that to have the counselling staff be able to create a comprehensive list of expectations, I would provide them with a general framework and then have the rest of the process be up to all of us from that point on.

For the foundation, I created expectation categories under the following 5 umbrellas:

Dream Big - Supporting camp magic and making camp truly extraordinary

Reach A Little Higher - Going above and beyond the bare minimum of the basics

Equilibrium - Finding balance in all things camp (ex. Finding the line between friend and counsellor, being social with the staff but being camper focused while with the kids, etc.)

Always Campers First - Understanding that campers come first and their well-being should be at the top of our priority list

Manage Yourself - Being a good emotional and physical self-manager

With these categories given to them in Leadership Training, I told the counsellors that being a “team” was something that any group of people doing a job together could call themselves. However, we were going to work together to fill in our thoughts of specific expectations that they thought were essential to being what we called “The Dream Team” of Cairn Counsellors. I had the umbrella statements each written out on chart paper so the counsellors could not only write their opinions, but read each other’s and place a check mark next to someone’s idea they really liked. 

Here is the list of what we came up with.

With these expectations, I looked through them with them and we all agreed that they seemed fair. The last step to this process was for the group to ensure we were staying accountable for the expectations that they had created. To do this, I placed 5 letter place holders on one of the walls of the staff lounge. Each was for the letters D R E A M. As the week ran it’s course, I made sure to update these letters when either I saw, or the counsellors came and told me about the community (as a whole) following through on the criteria of each category. We agreed that we would truly be able to call ourselves the “Dream Team” if we could get all of the letters for at least one of the week of the summer.

So although that this initiative did have some direction from me in the beginning and in some of the evaluation stage, the creation and upholding of the values was on all of us. It was something new, that had never been formally done before at camp so none of us had any idea how it was going to turn out...

So there it was, the framework of a collaborative summer was laid out and ready to get rolling. Going into week one, I can honestly say that I wasn’t sure was to expect and looking back on it now, I had no idea the kinds of fantastic learning we were all about to experience. 

So, I will leave you at that for now. Two weeks from now, I will talk about how this collaborative lab experiment turned out. If you have any thoughts about what I’ve talked about so far, please feel free to comment below or email me. I would love to hear from you.

Until then. Happy days.

~Matt “Iscus” Honsberger
The Head Counsellor

Hello from the Head Counsellor - Head Counsellor - #1

The Job Description(ish)

CampHacker Matt Honsberger

CampHacker Matt Honsberger

Hello, friends! Once again, I am very excited to be writing this blog and I hope that you (whomever you may be!) will find some value in these words.

So as I mentioned in my first article , I had the privilege of being the Head Counsellor at Cairn this past summer. Now, before I continue, I’ll give some context. Cairn is a fairly small residential camp so the position of Head Counsellor at Cairn would be synonymous of the Section Head of larger camps that require multiple Head Counsellors. At Cairn, the position of the Head Counsellor is a part of the senior leadership team (along with the Asst. Director, Integration Co-ordinatior, Program Director and LIT Directors) and answers directly to the Co-Directors. I realize that camps have a myriad of different structural nuances so I hope that all makes sense. 

The Job Description.

Based on my experience, the role of the Head Counsellor covers most of these general aspects:

Supervising the Counselling staff and ensuring that they are a) providing the campers with an extraordinary experience and b) fostering a staff community of learning, cohesion and growth.

Ensuring the safety and inclusion of every camper through direct interactions and being a support system/resource for the Counselling staff.

Acting as a liaison between the resource staff (program/facility and leadership staff) and the counselling staff for the transfer camper information, individual needs and performance feedback.

Along with the general responsibilities of a senior staff, the above is an umbrella job description for a Head Counsellor. For some more specific ones, check out the links below for some from different camps in North America. 

Now, for everything else.


One of my favorite things about being the Head Counsellor this past summer was the room for my own flare to shine in the position. After two summers of having a very specific role as the LIT director, I was thrilled to have a job where I was able to assess what parts of my job I wanted to focus on and when. For me, that meant while I followed my job description to the letter, how I followed it was a bit more lucid. My “Ish”. 

My “Ish” this summer was building up the counselling staff to ensure that the care that they were giving the campers was exemplary. So even though I was still a resource and was ready to jump into a bullying or “cabin-clashing” situation when needed, my focus was on building the community and skills of the counsellors, so that they would in-turn, be able to be more independent in taking excellent care of the campers. 

Now, at this point, you may be thinking that I was a giant slacker and just let my “Ish” develop as the summer went on or used it to avoid a part of my description. To set the record straight (also, to keep my employment for next summer), I had a plan. 

Here are a few things that I thought about when developing my strategy for achieving my “Ish”:

What have I learned about the staff and their skills so far?
- be careful not to develop any presumptions about the staff, before you actually see them in action. Aka. Get to know them a bit first before you start creating a vision.

What skills do I have that can best supplement a certain aspect of my job?
- you know what you are best at, make the best part of you into the best part of your job!

What does camp need from me... a voice of leadership? a person who has been around camp for awhile? a member of the staff community?
And is my “Ish” going to interfere with any of that?

What will be the ripple effect of my Ish...
...for camp
...for me
...for the campers
...for the counsellors
ex. By spending time to develop the counsellors hard skills as a group, would it be possible to have them leave rest hour for a bit for a short development time?

What are my goals for this Ish?
- similar to above but focusing on what results I was hoping to see

What is my back-up plan?
- never leave home without one!

So there you have it! 

Something that I hope you take away from this is that your “Ish” is one way for you to make your summer about more than just the job description. 

I’d like to know, did you have an “Ish” this summer? How did you take your job description and add your personal touch to it? Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below. I would love to hear them!

Until next time!

Matt “Iscus” Honsberger

Staff Footprints Journey Mural

The Gifts of Our Camp Staff


One of the best things we do at summer camp is to help young people slow down and take stock of the gifts and talents they possess.  Here is an activity that can be done during pre-camp or early in the group's time together.  It encourages staff or leaders in training to share what they do well and to recognize the abilities of others.  It can also incorporate the concept of growth throughout the summer.

Footprints Journey Mural

Have everyone trace one of their feet onto construction paper and cut it out.  Then have them decorate it with words or symbols telling about several of the things they do well. Have participants sit in a circle with their footprints and ask them to talk to the person next to them and tell that person about the 3 things they have written on their footprint.

Talk with your group about their gifts and talents.  Ask if any of them found it hard to talk about a something they do well.  While this exercise may not have been hard for some, it will have been difficult for others.  We often find it uncomfortable to talk about things we do well.  This is a great jumping off point to discuss how campers in their care may also find it hard to recognize their own gifts and talents and what the role of the staff will be this coming summer in building self-esteem.

Throughout the summer, you can have them add to their footprints new skills they have learned.  During this initial activity, create a road of paper onto which the footprints can be placed.  Throughout the week of pre-camp or during your summer,  move the footprints along the road to signify your journey together. As the summer progresses, have the staff place markers along the road to signify special events in your months together.