Like a surprising amount of educators, I found my start as a cabin leader at an overnight summer camp. My summers were filled with camp chants, capture the flag, and the occasional sunburnt nose. Although the days were often long and sweaty, and the nights sometimes cut short by unruly campers and hungry mosquitos, I felt as close to having found my purpose at camp as any other time previous in my life. When eight weeks of summer camp wasn’t enough anymore, I began to fit in more work at camp on the weekends during my bachelor’s, commuting two or so hours each way to get my camp fix. Insanely, I even I found myself packing my students’ five paragraph essays to grade along with my sleeping bag as I headed off to work at camp during my student teaching and master’s. Camp lit a fire in me, and it led me to conclude that any career worth doing had to be something like it.

Back to Camp

A few weeks ago, I had the chance to volunteer at the camp where I worked all those summers (and even got married at!). It was here a few years back that I made the decision to become a teacher. While camp was everything to me, I guess I always had a sense that camp wasn’t everything; I would eventually have to settle down and commit to a “real job.” Still, though, I thought that teaching could be a means towards living the most important aspects of the camp life while also earning a decent salary.

I expected to feel some nostalgia as I walked the dusty trails of my old camp, but I didn’t expect the sadness. I couldn’t help but feel that my goal of living a camp life in the real world had instead been supplanted by the real world. I was made to face this problem again during my road trip when I listened to This American Life’s episode, “Notes on Camp,” which takes listeners on a sensory-filled nostalgia trip through the world of summer camp. Where camp ultimately succeeds, the episode suggests, is in thrilling children so that they are “made to feel part of something big and special.” Schools, at least most of the ones I have worked at, fail to do this as well as summer camp in many respects.

While I feel that camp has made me a better teacher, I can’t help but yearn for schools where students’ motivation goes up every year (instead of down), and students look forward to the school year as opposed to waiting for the summer. I wish teachers would look students in the eye more and make them feel a part of something big and special. I wish assemblies had some of the pageantry of an evening around a campfire, and that sports days felt as epic as a camp olympics. If teachers would take a page out of the camp handbook and sing and play with kids, value team and relationship building, and say hello to every kid walking in the hallways, maybe students would like us more and be more prepared to learn.

Moving Forward

I don’t know where exactly my career will go next, but I do know that there are lessons and inspiration to be gained from sources outside of K-12 education, including those that I’ve learned at summer camp. Next year I am going to be moving into an exciting position as a design technology teacher. Check out the pictures of my new classroom:

Look at that space! There are tools and tables and places for students to test ideas and be free to make mistakes. There might be more cement than forest floor, and the bunks might look like desks to the untrained eye, but I feel optimistic that I can apply the lessons of camp to make this a place where each child is empowered to be themselves, whistle while they work, and feel like a successful and valued member of a community.


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2 thoughts on “Why Schools Should Be a Bit More Like Summer Camp

  1. We as teachers can certainly do better at building relationships with out students so that they know we care about them and value them individually and collectively. You’re on to something there, and that would improve our schools noticeably. On the other hand, don’t miss the fact that part of what makes that bonding at camp special is that it always involves making new friends and seeing old friends from other years at camp that have been missed since last year’s camp ended. Those are things that are difficult to replicate in school with kids who are together year after year, all year long. Those relationships have to prove to kids that you are in it for the long haul and will be there for them. Good luck in your career!

    Liked by 1 person

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