What being a camp counselor for 13-year-olds in Spain taught me about leadership
Fellow adults, we give ourselves way too much credit. At our core (especially in our most vulnerable moments), we’re not that much different from our 13-year-old selves. Working as a language educator in Spain gave me the experience and clarity to lead people in a common purpose - especially in a changing world full of distractions and challenges.
Picture it: a bright and chilly day at the foot of the mountains in a tiny village outside Avila, Spain (70 miles northwest of Madrid). You’re a part of the group of English educators charged with fifty 13-year-olds. They are having some unstructured time (otherwise known as play) and your task of the moment is to reel them in for an activity which is seemingly less fun - armed with a whistle and a friendly but stern voice. Just as you’re working your way over to start this task a group of girls comes running at you, full speed, panting and talking all at once “Ana...Ana...started her...her.... menstruación!”
Yes, it’s Ana’s first period. Just another day at camp.
My road to working as a camp counselor in Spain back in 2013 was perhaps a less conventional one. For starters, I was 30 (not a 20-something on a “gap year”). I wasn’t looking to find myself or make a new start - this was a practical way to earn an income while my husband went to school full-time for an International MBA in Madrid. Leading up to this moment I had worked in marketing, and had very recently become a people manager for the first time before leaving my marketing job in New York to depart on this journey.
I originally thought I’d teach adults, which I did part-time, but my main gig was working as an English Teaching Assistant at a secondary school (grades 7-12 in Spain). It was incredibly challenging and rewarding, and everything in between. When school was out and I had the opportunity to work at camps - and after my first camp I never wanted to be confined to a classroom again. It’s a job that started when you woke up and ended when you went to bed, but the impact you can make, the memories you created, the connections you forged - I fell in love with it. When faced with returning home and re-starting my path in marketing - what I feared may have been a career-damaging diversion turned out to be a critical professional development step. When you can get a group of teenagers to care about learning a language and literally - do anything - you realize you can motivate and lead almost anyone. I found my superpower at camp: leading with empathy.
I’ll preface this by saying, I’ve likely always been a “camp counselor” at heart - naturally silly, with a high level of curiosity in other people and an even higher tolerance for chaos - and those things definitely helped. But there are some key lessons and skills I learned along the way which I carry with me when building and leading teams today.
1) Use your heart (and bring your authentic self)
The first camp I ever worked I right away understood the responsibilities were much deeper than being an assistant in a classroom. One of my primary jobs was to keep the kids safe and I felt the weight of that - out in the countryside - teenagers that could easily get into a myriad of troublesome situations - etc. I took this very seriously and felt like I really needed to play the role of the “adult” to do the job well. The result is I held back in moments when I needed to be a whole person and address the whole person in front of me. I missed out on opportunities to truly connect, which made them less likely to share when they actually needed my help. Being someone they could turn to was an important part of my job, and enabled me to be a more effective ‘authority figure’.
So for the following camps, I remembered I had to lead heart-first - it sometimes meant plans could change or evolve reasonably to act in situations as they arose. It meant actively listening to the campers, on topics both big and small. It meant the extra 5 minutes to talk about anything with the campers was worth it vs. optimizing every moment of my time. I needed to slow down a little to have more one-on-one time with the kids to make myself a more effective leader when it mattered the most.
2) Forge trust (and remember who you’re serving)
An add on to the above is building trust. In simple terms - it’s being reliable and consistent. It’s also remembering the core needs of who you’re serving. You are working for them (not the other way around). This was a powerful lesson for me.
When I was in the classroom, after spring break I remember looking up at my seventh graders and realizing almost everyone had grown a few inches. They all looked like different kids. It was a reminder to me of how rapidly they are changing - mentally and physically all the time. My objective was to teach them English but I could not forget that this was an incredibly dynamic and stressful time in their lives. They could not leave that at the door and neither could I.
Remember being a teenager? It was hard. Meeting them where they were in that moment w
as important, as was building structure (this is where the consistency bit fits in). Structure helped them feel safe and confident during a time that is just a challenge for most people. In its essence it meant laying out what we were doing, why we were doing it, why it was important and how we were going to do it - and allowing space for questions, exploration and discovery. I had to show up everyday and deliver on a promise - modeling that behavior for them. The sense of security this created all together enabled me to be a better leader and reduce negative often attention-seeking behaviors.
3) Focus on the main mission (and don’t let daily annoyances distract you)
So working with fifty 13-years-olds in a camp, as you can imagine, is filled with day-to-day stressors. The people you are serving are uniquely focused on their needs and their needs only. They do not care that you have a headache. They are trying to be cool, or popular, or maybe just make it through the day without being mortified 20 times - and the resulting behaviors are not fun to deal with. It’s remarkably easy to get caught up in all the things that are bothering you because - you are a human too.
One thing I would remind myself on the days I was feeling frayed was: the core of my job is to make sure they have fun, make memories and go back to their families the way I found them. Yes, that cabin that interrupted my sleep by singing at the top of their lungs at 2AM, that was very annoying and there were repercussions, but that can’t distract me from my main mission. I have to optimize my time to facilitate the best experience possible for the campers and their emotional and physical safety. Sometimes that just meant - giving myself a moment to breathe and realize these setbacks are actually small as compared to the overall mission. It required some self-care too - I’d wake up extra early to experience 30 entire minutes of quiet in the morning before we had to wake up the kids who definitely did not want to wake up. Things that needed my focused attention are things that degrade the experience of campers or are potential threats to their safety. As a leader, having a core mission helps you focus and filter out annoyances that aren’t that impactful in the grand scheme. So yes, deal with the small things swiftly - but don’t let them take over mentally.
4) Humor helps (and don’t take yourself too seriously)
Our camp near the mountains was also a working ranch - so we’d take the kids horseback riding on the trails almost daily. I had one, very serious rule: in order to go ride the horses we had to all gallop to the stable. Remember - these are 13-year-olds whose main life focus is to avoid embarrassment at all costs. But this worked in a few ways to bond the group and add another fun memory to their experience (one of the most important parts of my core mission).
Of course, at first not everyone would gallop. There were the kids that had a high reverence for authority who galloped first, then maybe the kids who were unusually confident, of course there were the kids who rolled their eyes and made fun of my galloping as they kept their distance walking behind us. As the days wore on, one by one - the most resistant kids would start galloping. After about a week, the “coolest” kids would gallop to me (unprompted) laughing hysterically. They’d gallop without being asked. It was our inside joke - and even if I was the joke - it was OK. It was our tradition, our shared memory and something they could look back on and laugh about. It let their guard down.
It’s important to a leader to show vulnerability is a strength not a weakness - but you have to go first. Start galloping. Show your team it’s not always so serious.
When I came back to lead marketing teams - it was remarkable how many of these lessons I pulled over: create traditions, be consistent, acknowledge their challenges and their strengths, laugh, show calculated risks are rewarded not punished, show up and really be present. Be the leader you’d want. Remember your campers come first.