From Camp Woodmont to Thailand:
The Worldwide Relevancy of Camp Counselor Experience (Fall 2016)
If you had told me six months ago that dressing up as an old lady and making a fool of myself in front of sixty to one hundred 6-14 year olds would help me in the real world, I would have laughed. But, alas, here I am in Thailand, the land of smiles, in awe that my experience as a camp counselor has proven to be some of the most invaluable preparation for being an English teacher abroad.
Let me preface: When my girlfriend and I decided six months ago to leave everything we knew behind and move across the world to Chiang Mai, a city in Northern Thailand, we had little to go on plan-wise. Yes, we had connections over here (two of my friends from university have been in Chiang Mai for a little over a year and have great jobs at a Private Christian School). Yes, we knew we wanted to be English teachers, but how to do so—taking an intensive one month Cambridge course called the CELTA—seemed daunting. And yes, we knew we wanted to go on an adventure. We’re young, we said often. Let’s do it while we’re young. If we don’t we’ll regret it for the rest of our lives. Still, the specifics of how to make our dreams into a reality were, at best, hazy and seemingly unattainable.
So, we decided on our departure date, bought our plane tickets, and signed up for the CELTA, knowing full-well from blogposts online and from my friends’ personal testimonies that what we’d find at the course would be anything but easy. And sure enough, what we found were many sleepless nights, stress-beyond-belief, and more tears than I’d like to admit. All that being said, we were prepared, at least more so than some of the other trainees…All because of Camp Woodmont.
- Learning how to speak with confidence about your abilities
It’s no secret that the first day of every session at camp is stressful. Not only do we get a whole new batch of kids and have to memorize all of their names instantly, but we have to integrate them with each other (if you don’t do this early, it can be problematic later on). And all of this happens AFTER talking with the parents. Camper parents are among the toughest crowd I’ve ever interacted with and rightly so—they’re leaving you to watch over their most prized possession. Camper parents are constantly sizing you up, asking you questions about your real life and past experience: Where do you go to school? How long have you been here? So this is your first summer as a camp counselor? Now, don’t get me wrong, I loved meeting the parents, but there was also a part of me that hated it. Hated it because I wanted them to like me. I wanted to say all the right things so they felt comfortable with me, so that when they left to go back home their minds would be at ease knowing that that awesome 23 year old with the backwards hat and the creepy ceramic doll on the top shelf in his cabin would do everything in his power to make sure their kid had the best week(s) of his life.
Fast forward to now: Megan and I lucked out when we arrived in Thailand. Because of my connections in Chiang Mai, we had job interviews before our CELTA course even began (which is sort of unheard of and very, very lucky). On the day of our interviews, we arrived at the campus sweaty and frazzled and sort of lost (we eventually found our way to the administration building with the help of our friends). The interview style was familiar (as in, similar to an interview in the US) with the exception of a few things. The two directors who interviewed us periodically spoke to each other in only Thai, giving the distinct feeling to the interviewee (i.e. me and Meg) that we were being talked about. Also, when they asked us about ourselves, they didn’t comment after our responses (they didn’t say very nice after I told them about my camp experience and degree in English). What this forced us to realize very quickly is the same thing you realize on the first day of every camp session. You must be confident and sell yourself—speak clearly, smile a lot, show a little bit of your personality (humor, of course, for me), and make them feel like they’ll be lost without you, like there’s this perfect Marvin-sized void that only I can fill.
And we did just that, securing us both full-time salaried positions. YAY!
- Fostering a fun atmosphere in and outside the classroom
It’s no secret that I was a goof-ball at camp. As stated above, I was that guy counselor who was in women’s clothes almost as much as he wasn’t. And it’s not even that I liked doing it all that much…okay, okay I did like it most of the time. Still, that doesn’t mean that there weren’t times when I didn’t want to entertain, there definitely were. Regardless, I always got up on that stage and gave it my all because camp was never about me. Even in the classes I taught (drama in particular), I tried to foster a fun atmosphere where the kids subtly learned about different aspects of acting. I realized early in my first year at Woodmont that if you make the kids feel like they are learning, the response will be….not good; however, if you have a fun activity where they’re learning without realizing it…well, you’ve made it, you’ve graduated from How-to-be-a-counselor 101. No in all seriousness, if you can teach the campers without making them feel like they’re in summer school, you’re doing something very right.
I took this philosophy with me to the CELTA course. Now, don’t be fooled, I was in no way the strongest trainee in the course. I struggled with quite a few of my own personal-teaching-demons. One thing that was never a problem for me, however, was building rapport with my students. What I never realized is that being a camp counselors requires you to build rapport 100% of the time—with the campers, camper’s parents, other counselors, non-counselor staff, the camp director. In the feedback sessions after each of my 45 minute lessons during the CELTA, my classmates always remarked on how fun the classroom atmosphere was: Marvin, I don’t get how you do it. You somehow manage to make this fun. You don’t even look nervous. And, indeed, the atmosphere was fun, even for me—the sweaty guy at the front of the class fumbling with markers as he tried to explain the difference between adjectives and adverbs on the board. I made sure to crack jokes and make light of myself, I made sure to smile and laugh, and I always made sure to listen to my students. To really listen. What I’ve learned is this: People often take themselves too seriously. Camp taught me to have fun—and I mean really have fun. I’ve said it a million times and I’ll say it again: Camp Woodmont was the most self-deprecating job I’ve ever had and that’s honestly what I loved most about it. Once you’ve dressed up as a Georgian hillbilly and entertained a group of kids for an hour and half, nothing really scares you. Not even standing in front of 11 adult Thai men and women who speak little to no English.
And if it’s any indication of how far building rapport gets you, Meg and I have been hanging out with my students regularly since the course ended. We consider them our friends now. In a way, I owe that to camp.
Alyson was right. Being a camp counselor is one of the best jobs in the world. Even all the way across world people see the value of having spent weeks on end in the wilderness, making lifelong friendships and giggling with kids in the summer sun.
I’ll be sure to report back as more of my life over here reveals itself to me. For now, know that camp is in our hearts and constantly on the tips of our tongues (I still tell people about it almost daily). Who knows, maybe you’ll have some Thai kids at Woodmont this summer? Why not spread the word about my favorite place in the world? Rest assured, even in Thailand, nothing compares to our little slice of paradise nestled in the North Georgia mountains.
Signing off for now,
Marvin Keith (and Megan Mann)