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What I Learned at Camp

How a summer of nature hikes, PBJ sandwiches and skinned knees can help create a great teacher

I was unaware that one could leave skid marks while in reverse, but that is the only way to describe the Bush administration's retreat on aspects of No Child Left Behind. It's apparently difficult to seek reelection when the majority of children are in "failing" schools.

One aspect of the NCLB law requires districts to employ qualified teachers. In this election year I believe it is important for you, my loyal readers, to know exactly where I stand on the issue of teacher quality. I am for it. Recent media reports indicate that an alarming number of teachers in urban public schools have scored in the tofu stanine on tests of basic content knowledge in the subjects they teach. It is one thing to sneak into a job unprepared, but shouldn't you learn a bit while teaching a subject?

The skills of a gumshoe are required to track down the kid who enjoys flushing rocks down the toilet.

We must raise our hiring standards. A principal should be able to determine if a candidate surpasses a standard of sixth grade literacy or numeracy before they employ the person to teach children. How did we get here?

A Modest Proposal

There must be a solution to the teacher quality problem somewhere between reinventing teacher education and the current practice of giving new urban educators 15 minutes of instruction and a pack of "what to do when a student brings weapon of mass destruction to class flashcards" before pushing them into a classroom.

Candidates for teaching jobs should be asked the simple question, "Have you worked at a summer camp?" Completing a tour of duty as a summer camp counselor is an excellent indicator of a person's capacity to be a highly qualified teacher. Here's why:

Camp counselors love children Since camp salaries make teaching look like winning the lottery, counselors take the job because they love children and enjoy being around them.

Classroom management Many believe the top skill necessary for teaching is classroom management. Safety, productivity and order are critical aspects of any learning environment. Camps offer remarkable opportunities for prospective teachers to master these skills in a much more fluid dynamic context than a traditional classroom. A counselor has to keep track of kids who have a habit of strolling off, provide lifeguard service, referee dodgeball, and retrieve a pair of Spongebob bloomers from the fabled underwear tree. The skills of a gumshoe are required to track down the serial biter or the kid who enjoys flushing rocks down the toilet.

Camps offer terrific mentoring experiences Young assistant counselors work alongside seasoned veterans and perform the same tasks in a supportive collegial community of practice. Since many senior counselors are themselves teachers, their apprentices gain tacit knowledge about the nature of teaching.

Teachers learn how to engage children Try maintaining your sanity during a weeklong rainstorm when your facility only has a few sheltered areas. Such experiences offer invaluable preparation for engaging children and creating productive learning environments. Teacher creativity is born out of such difficult circumstances.

Learning is active Camp is about doing things. Prospective teachers learn that knowledge follows experience.

A sense of the absurd Nothing prepares a future teacher for faculty meetings or ridiculous directives than weekly counselor meetings where lost bathing suits, sea nuggets and popsicle protocols are discussed with the solemnity previously reserved for the Sputnik threat.

Educating the whole child Long before Howard Gardner, summer camps understood multiple intelligences and the need to offer rich experiences in a wide variety of domains and modalities.

Every spring I fantasize about spending the summer at Deerkill Day Camp in Suffern, N.Y. Deerkill took a chance on me at 18-years-old and launched my career. I wish that every teacher could experience the lessons I learned in such a joyous environment.

Gary Stager is editor-at-large and an adjunct professor at Pepperdine Univ.