September 30, 2013

Why We Don’t Sugar Coat

The hardest part of my summer job is supervising the LIT (Leader In Training) Program. The mission of the program: to grow our oldest campers into capable staff members. Arowhon’s mission of social and emotional safety depends entirely on the staff’s ability to make it real, so we hire very selectively. Most of our LIT’s enter the program after years as a camper at Arowhon, meaning they are used to staff members seeing the best in them, accommodating the environment to meet their individual needs, and always finding ways they can succeed. Then they turn 16 and everything changes. LIT’s experience the unpleasant sensation of being constantly in a fishbowl. We notice – and point out – every weakness we see. And we’re even more ruthless with staff. It hurts. There are often tears. And it works to create great staff members.

The hardest thing I ever told a counselor was that her campers didn’t like her.  I was surprised when I read the camper surveys (one of many information-gathering tools we use as part of our 360° evaluation technique). At first I hesitated to tell her.  From my perspective, this counselor was one of the hardest workers I’d seen and did everything “by the book”. I worried that if I told her what her campers thought, she would lose confidence and her performance would decline. What finally convinced me (although if it hadn’t I’m sure Jo would have) was thinking about what I would want for myself in that situation. Imagine unknowingly doing something wrong and nobody telling you for fear of hurting your feelings.  What a disservice!  As hard as it is to hear negative feedback, to withhold it would be depriving the person of a chance to grow.

The most common feedback that we get from staff is that they want more feedback.  Yet I still have to steel myself to do it, because I don’t want to upset them. But in the end it not only makes them do a better job, and therefore feel better about themselves, but also strengthens my relationship with them, because they trust me as somebody who will be honest and support them to be the best they can.

When I was 18, my responses to any kind of criticism were things like “I suck at my job, I’m worthless,” or “my supervisor must hate me, they only see the bad things I do.” 10 years later, my mind says “everybody has areas in which they can grow, I’m glad I have been made aware of this so I can fix it.” Since I have a skillful supervisor who also comments on the positives she sees in me, when I do hear the negatives I realize they are only a piece of my performance, not the definition of it.  It took me a long time to get where I am, and the only reason I did is because my supervisors at camp kept giving me honest feedback, even when I cried.

The inspiration for this post was a recent piece in the Toronto Star featuring an interview with one of our camp staff members, Tai Notar, who has published a book with her father on how our education system can develop higher quality teachers.  Tai, who has been on staff at Arowhon for two years and grew up at Arowhon, (and like all of our staff has received her fair share of feedback) advocates that the methods that she learned at camp – honest positive AND negative feedback (and asking the kids’ opinions) – are the recipe for competent teachers and confident students. You can view the article HERE.

By Mara Kates

The hardest thing I ever told a counselor was that her campers didn’t like her.

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