Written by Maayan Feintuch
I’ve always known GUCI would have an ever-lasting impact on my life. I could feel the difference in my preteen/teenage/young adult self when I would come home each summer ten-fold times more confident, more willing to take new risks, bolder in and out of my social circle, and an all-around happier version of myself. I also knew, even then, that the friendships I’d cultivated year after year at camp would follow me through life’s ups, downs, rocky shores, and smooth sailings, without any sort of expiration or “best by” date. And now, 16 years after I first set foot on camp on a terribly rainy Kallah Aleph Tuesday afternoon, I look back and I can see how true all my premonitions have held up.
What I would not come to realize until many years later was the profound impact GUCI would also have on my future professional life, and how much knowledge I learned from camp that I would be able to apply to my vocation before ever taking any college course on campus. The correlation I now see between camp (all of it, really, but particularly from my 2 years spent as a counselor/staff member) and my profession today as an elementary educator is tremendous. Here are just a few of the many lessons I’ve learned from camp that I apply to teaching on a daily basis:
- Relationships, relationships, relationships.
Yes, relationships are key in any professional setting. And though I may be a bit biased, I truly believe that relationships between a teacher and a student (much like a counselor to camper) are possibly even more crucial than other employee-to-patron relationships.
During the first session of my Machon year, there was a girl in my cabin who seemed to be a bit of a lone wolf. I personally grew up as a very shy girl (until coming to camp, that is!) and I imagine that I sometimes could seem this way as well, even though I desperately wanted to be included and accepted. Once out of my shell, I was naturally an exuberant extrovert. I needed my peers and mentors to reach out to me, include me, and encourage me to participate until I felt comfortable enough to do so independently.
I thought I would be able to relate well to this camper of mine. I thought that if I reached out, pushed her, and encouraged her peers to do the same, we would definitely be able to reach this girl and have her join us in our community as a cabin.
I soon realized, after numerous failed attempts, that this camper of mine was different than me – she did not want to be a part of the group, she did not want to be included, and she did not particularly care about being accepted by her peers. She wanted to be by herself, separate from the group, and do what she felt like doing. She was not oppositional or defiant; rather, she just had little to no interest in the many community-building activities we immersed our campers in.
Years later, I realized that there were similarities between this camper and some of the students in my classroom. I learned that not all children needed to be coaxed into sharing during share time or working with a partner. Some children are simply not wired to enjoy these types of activities. At the end of the day, the well being, safety, and happiness of a child is what matters most. Why try to force something that is clearly so unnatural and uncomfortable for some? Of course, I do still attempt to engage each and every one of my students during whole-group activities, though I’ve learned to note the clear signs of discomfort (and even embarrassment) as well as the value of connecting to these kids in more personal and private ways instead. Relating to kids is not a one-size-fits-all method, and it’s imperative I find ways to bond with all students.
- Say yes as often as possible.
A large part of my job as an elementary educator is to ensure as many students as possible love coming to school each day, love to read and learn new things, and love to solve challenging problems. Accomplishing these objectives, in addition to guiding students toward mastering social, emotional, and academic goals and standards, is a huge challenge. It can be so easy to sometimes allow authoritarian teaching styles to come into play just to maintain a sense of order and control – “No, you may not get a drink right now.” “No, you may not ask a different table for an orange. You can use your red instead.” “No, you may not bring a friend with you to go to the library.” “No, you may not erase the board right now.”
Children are constantly being told they can not. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely understand the importance of children having boundaries, and learning, from our guidance, what is and is not a strong choice to make. But I often will remind myself of what Ron once told us during a Machon meeting – say yes as often as possible. Even if it’s a bit of an inconvenience to me as the authority figure, allowing a child to do a simple task or to have a short, yet special privilege can create a huge uptick in the happiness and overall climate of a teacher’s classroom.
Of course, I don’t allow my students to do whatever they please or walk over me. But, when I can, even if it’s not ideal for me and/or seemingly unnecessary, I remind myself to say yes as often as possible. A small act to an adult, such as getting a drink the first moment you become thirsty, or using a “true” orange instead of a red, bringing along a friend for a short trip to the library, and erasing 5 words off the board at the end of a lesson all add up in the eyes of a child. None of the preceding examples are especially time-consuming or complicated, so I try to remember this bit of advice to help keep the kids at the heart of each decision I make – no matter how small.
- All The Works.
Counselors at a summer camp are there for the kids just as much (if not more!) than teachers at an elementary school. Much more so as a teacher than as a counselor, I would lie down at night and reflect about the many, many hardships I faced that day and all the poor decisions I made. It is incredibly easy to lose myself amongst these thoughts and bring myself down, leading to a stressed and less confident version of myself, which reflects onto our classroom climate and makes the kids feel uneasy. Being a counselor at GUCI provided me with the prerequisite knowledge that I was there to have a positive impact on the lives of children, in addition to model how to be actively involved within our community.
In order to be impactful, I needed to work hard to make each day fun and exciting, fresh, new, and memorable, and exude an indomitable amount of ruach. During some of my toughest days (and toughest years) of teaching, I found myself looking back at the campers I danced with during song session, the inside jokes we made during bunk night, and the amount of energy I pretended to have on a daily basis (ie: waking the girls up in the morning when I was not yet awake myself, jumping during the “Na Na” song at roll call, energetically leading Rekudaiam on Shabbat, being a Yom Sport Team Captain, etc…). These memories I obtained from camp and camp alone gave me that extra ounce of zest, the extra pep in my step I needed to make it through those toughest days and years. Knowing I (pretended to) had this energy within me to do what I did at camp gave me the ability to (pretend to) have this same energy at school. “Fake it till you make it” have truly been words that I’ve lived by!
- Early Bird Gets the Bagel.
As many of you know, Shabbat mornings at camp are full of excitement – sleeping in, extra free time, and bagels for breakfast. These bagels were one of my favorite breakfasts on camp. You had to be up and at ‘em and down at the Chadar Ochel early enough in order to snag one of these bagels before they either a) ran out or b) closed up shop. As much as I loved sleep and sleeping in, I also loved this breakfast and definitely would become hangry if I didn’t have anything to eat until lunch after services. This simple meal each week helped to teach me to prioritize taking care of myself as well as getting things done early. Just as the early bird gets the worm out in nature, the early GUCI-ite gets the bagel, and the early teacher gets the “good” copy machine before the mad morning rush begins.
GUCI has taught me so much more than this throughout my life – during camp and many years after as well. What lesson has camp taught you that you still apply to your life today?