Air Traffic Control or The Lighthouse

Image courtesy of moogs on Flickr

There’s a murky continuum between micromanagement and being “hands off.” In the classroom and as part of a school community, I have experienced both extremes and felt alternately stifled and abandoned. I wanted to ensure my staff wouldn’t feel that way about my leadership, but it took time and reflection to find the empowerment sweet spot.

One conversation with a seventeen year-old junior counselor gave me the insight I needed to define my leadership styles. The counselor had a child in his group whose behavior was causing nearly constant disruptions. It seemed natural for me to take action to address the problem head-on, but when I offered to talk to the camper, my staffer flinched. His reaction surprised and worried me. When I asked him what was wrong, he explained, “The kids know you’re in charge–and they’ll listen to you, but why should they listen to me if they don’t think I’m in charge, too.” He helped me see what I already knew about good leaders. I had to learn to pick my moments and support my staff without swooping in and “fixing” things for them. Just because I knew how to approach the problem didn’t mean it was best for me to take control away from someone who needed to learn.

I left that conversation with a perspective I’d been lacking. In the high-pressure, now moments of camp, I would focus on the problem before me. Like an emergency room doctor, I often handled conflicting needs in triage: scraped knees, lost shoes, borrowed towels, “fairness” arguments, bee stings, and homesickness. These were the frenetic moments where I felt hard pressed to be in three or more places at once, and it’s exhausting to be “the decider.”

I knew I had to empower my staff to make decisions and handle problems without always having to consult me first. It’s inefficient for them and for me if they rely too much on me to tell them what I think they should do next. I knew I wouldn’t be an effective leader if every choice had to go through me first. I knew I had to model the type of leader I needed my staff to be and to give them the right amount of support at the right times.

Image courtesy of archer10 (Dennis) on Flickr

In essence, I understood that sometimes I’m Air Traffic Control, fielding questions and making decisions because there’s no time to waste. It’s good for me to make certain choices or to establish expectations because no matter what: some problems won’t solve themselves. At other times as I walk through the camp grounds, I’m more like a lighthouse. My staff knows I’m there if they need me and it’s my responsibility to model strong leadership and show them I have confidence in them, too.

In reflecting on these two roles, I’ve thought about the leaders who have guided me and leaders who have frustrated me. The ones who have helped me grow were the ones who didn’t try to solve problems for me, but allowed me to develop my capacity. As I shifted my role from leading from the front to leading on the side, I watched as my young staff stepped in and stepped up to the challenge, going beyond even their own expectations.

The Other Side of the Office Door

The Student Becomes a Teacher

"The Other Side of the Desk" Photo by Jennifer Leung © 2010

The first time I set foot in a classroom as a pre-service teacher, my eyes were opened to what I now call “The Other Side of the Desk.” As a student, I had found it so easy to find fault with teachers who seemed scattered and unprepared for class. I wondered why it took so long for them to grade and return my assignments–and why tests didn’t always match what we had been learning in class. I wondered why  I could see the bullying, the slackers, and the cheaters, but they couldn’t. I wondered why some teachers could handle the “bad kids” while others seemed to egg them on and make things worse. Now I was the one with my Objective and Procedure-filled lesson plans and I watched as my idealized version of the classroom dissolved. Like every good teacher eventually discovers, I had to become flexible, to think on my feet, to listen to my students, and to design opportunities for learning and discovery rather than leaning on worksheets and questions at the end of the textbook selection. I learned that even a multiple choice test can take hours to grade when there are six classes worth of tests. I learned how to share responsibility for managing the classroom rather than ruling with threats and detention slips.

The Teacher Leader Becomes an Administrator

Now that camp has started, I’m also learning about life on the other side of the office door. I catch my reflection in the windows of the Administration Building as I move from place to place on campus, tending to campers’ needs and solving problems. I have that harried look I’ve seen on my administrators faces at times. I feel such an obligation to demonstrate every ounce of leadership and educational philosophy I possess, from modeling professionalism with my self-imposed dress code to the finer points of redirection, positive discipline, and inquiry learning.

I used to wonder why my administrators couldn’t stop by my classroom very often–until I spent half a day in the camp office making phone calls to parents who had forgotten to call in their absent camper. Those phone calls took place in between the times I was doling out band-aids (using Universal Precautions, of course), attending to “he-started-it” discipline issues, and answering the myriad questions from my staff that I hadn’t anticipated and, therefore, we hadn’t covered, in training. It used to frustrate me when an administrator would snap at me for what I perceived as a misunderstanding or an unjust characterization of my actions, until I was in the middle of a serious discipline issue and my curt response to a staffer left him feeling undervalued. (I found him later and apologized, adding yet another hard-knock lesson learned to my list.)


Campers expect that I know their names and will be fair, just, and let them have fun. Parents expect that I know each child and will care for them as if they were my own children–personally ensuring Jeffrey (not an actual camper) brings his towel home, Maribel (not an actual camper) uses her inhaler before swimming, and knowing from memory which days Adam, Harold, Julie, Tina, and Beth (not actual campers) will ride the bus and which days a parent will pick them up. Junior Counselors expect that I will empower them to make decisions and enforce the code of conduct and not undermine their authority. Senior Staffers expect that I will provide the materials they need to do their work and that I will be available to help them solve problems or address concerns as they arise. The board of directors expect me to uphold the camp’s mission and to maintain the founders’ vision while guarding against liabilities and keeping an eye on the budget.

Is it any wonder my walkie-talkie handle is “Momma Bear”?

Life on the Other Side of the Office Door

"First Steps on the Path" Photo by Jennifer Leung © 2011

It has been sobering and at times overwhelming to be the last stop on the way to making a decision or addressing a problem. I feel the weight of that responsibility and my overwhelming desire to ensure the safety and well-being of every person at camp–from the youngest camper to the most veteran volunteer. It’s a different feeling than the one I had for my students and my classroom, and I’m not ashamed to admit that the responsibility for all those young lives can sometimes fill me with terror that something I do (or fail to do) will cause inadvertent harm. Constant vigilance is both physically and mentally exhausting.

As the days go by, I’m learning to balance my expectations for myself with the reality that this is a lot of on-the-job training and that I can learn from my mistakes as well as my successes. I’m learning that the other side of the office door, like the other side of the desk, is its own universe and that there’s nothing like “living the adventure” to understand what it’s like. Camp hasn’t been filled with stressful challenges either. There have been great moments where I know I’ve made a positive difference for a camper or staff member–and it feels so good to know my leadership can make that difference. After this summer, I’ll have to consider my options carefully and decide how an administrative role may play a part of my future.

The Camp Director Files: Lessons in Administration

"The calm before the campers." Photo by Jennifer Leung © 2011.

The majority of my experience and background in education has been in English or Language Arts classrooms, teaching middle and high school students. As I’ve developed more confidence, I’ve taken advantage of opportunities to grow in other directions and take on leadership roles on school committees or as a coach or teacher leader. As a theater director, I learned how to manage a budget and balance schedules in order to bring my shared vision to life on the stage with my students. I created new structures and developed a team to build some institutional memory for the program that wouldn’t be forgotten when I had to move away. All these experiences allowed me to work side by side with students or colleagues and act as a sounding board to help them reach their goals. In all my experiences, I’ve been a team member or my leadership centered on an area of my expertise. This summer, I am facing a new challenge in uncharted territory: administration. Not only am I taking on a new role, I’m also helping to reshape and reimagine an existing program to help leave it stronger and more organized with a fresh vision for the future.

I’m learning how to handle the pressure of too much to do and too few hands to do the work; how to delegate and how to show my staff I trust them to do what’s best for kids; how to follow policy set for me from an ideal standpoint that doesn’t match the messy and unpredictable nature of reality on site; how to train my staff and work with my Assistant Director to mentor the junior counselors and CITs as they struggle to become leaders; how to manage tears, illness, homesickness, conflicts, misbehavior, and concerns for our campers’ safety and welfare at home; how to manage misunderstandings and personality conflicts among my leadership team; how to adhere to all the state regulations and requirements–even when that means letting kids go hungry at lunch because the food didn’t arrive at a safe-to-serve temperature–and explaining that to the kids so that they understand. In short, I’m getting a crash course in administration and a six-week internship as a mini-principal.

It has been daunting, uplifting, challenging, and fulfilling–and that was just for the first week of training before the campers showed up.

I plan to reflect on my experiences and list the links to those reflections from this starting point in order to document my journey. Comments and your wisdom are most welcome.

Let the journey begin:

1. The Other Side of the Office Door

2. Air Traffic Control or the Lighthouse

Saying “Yes” To What Scares Me

The first time I said yes to fear instead of what scares me was during a family trip to Kings Island. I was seven and old enough to ride some of the rides, but not all of them. I watched as cousins, uncles, aunts, and even my grandmother got in line to ride roller coasters with names like “The Beast” or “The King Cobra.” I spent my time with bumper cars and flying swings, secretly wishing I were old enough to ride the roller coasters and, at the same time, relieved I had an excuse not to go.

There was one small problem with my plan. In one area of the park–dedicated to kids–there was a reproduction of “The Beast” that was kid-sized.

The Beastie, image courtesy of Jay Hull on Flickr

I would be allowed to ride that roller coaster.

I watched as the filled cars inched their way up the first incline. Each click and clack of the cars sounded to me like the bolts breaking loose. For a moment, as the cars reached the top, they glided in an arc to the left before plunging down the first hill, washing over the crowd with a roar and a sustained, gleeful scream from those delighted riders. The shrieks would peak and fall with the hills and curves before the train rumbled back to the platform. Some riders’ faces were flushed, others were laughing.

I watched and was afraid.

I got as far as the top of the platform only to turn around when it was my turn to step into the waiting car. My fear told me that no matter how many times I watched others ride safely, it was too dangerous for me and I should stay on the ground. Weighted with shame and embarrassment, I plodded back down the ramp, going the wrong way past other riders and into the blinding summer sunlight while my father and older brother waved from the ascent. I watched with envy as my older brother and my dad sat side-by-side, throwing their arms up in the air. I could hear my father’s carefree laughter through the screams and cheers.

I held my breath, knowing they would be safe, but still afraid to trust the ride would not crash or fly from the tracks. When the ride ended and they came back to where my mother and I were waiting, my dad offered one more time to wait in line with me, but this would be my last chance before we had to leave the park. I stared at my shoes and said “No.”

My brother laughed and called me a chicken–because that’s what eight year-old brothers do–and I hated him for it. I was a chicken. A coward.

The rest of the day I followed along with my mother and brother, riding the kiddie rides and getting sunburned. I listened to the gleeful cheers and screams throughout the park, piecing my courage together to ask for one last chance to ride the Beastie. By the time I was ready, it was also time to leave the park. My parents would not be swayed by tears or protests. I’d had my chance and chose not to ride. Now I would have to wait until the next trip to Kings Island in a couple of years.

When to Say No to Fear and Yes to Opportunity

A few years later I visited another theme park but this time I left nothing to regret. I rode my first, second, third, and fourth roller coasters–wooden coasters and metal coasters and tracks with loops and cars that went forward and backward. I had learned my lesson. Was I still afraid to take the chance? Yes, but I wasn’t going to say yes to my unreasonable fear. In fact, the more coasters I rode, the more I conquered my fear.

It was a good life lesson for me. As I’ve grown older there have been more opportunities that have come my way and I’ve had to choose whether or not to go along for the ride or to stay safely in one place. I’ve learned to differentiate between good risks and real danger, and I’ve learned that those opportunities in my life that are tinged with the fear of the unknown are usually the opportunities that have the most potential for me to grow.

This summer, I am taking a chance and working in an administrative role for the first time. I tend to gravitate toward supporting roles when it comes to leadership, so to take on the responsibility for leading a staff as well as students is definitely outside my comfort zone. When the position was offered to me, there were so many reasons to say no: I didn’t know enough about the position. I had no administrative experience. I’m too young. I’m not young enough.

I had thousands of excuses.

The opportunity was there in front of me: a chance to grow and to test my leadership in a new way. It scared me, but in the same way all good opportunities come wrapped in a fear of the unknown. I knew I had to say yes and take the chance. It’s going to demand my best and I know the students and staff will test my skills as a leader, but in a way it feels like waiting in line for a roller coaster ride: anticipation, excitement, and nervous energy soon to be released in a gloriously wild ride.