Don't Lead Student Trips For Them!

Hiking - Outdoor Education

What's the point of spending time and energy setting up an outdoor ed program aimed at building leadership, teamwork and initiative, then subsequently provide no opportunities for students to actually take responsibility for any of this themselves?

So often I see teachers ‘run’ programs, in that they take the students out, think for them, navigate for them, constantly give instructions on how to do everything and determine the whole schedule for each and every day.

Realistically, students can get this sort of experience any day of the week at home or in the classroom. So don't make the mistake of doing this in your experiential education program!

The command and control operational management style is often starkly noticeable if contracting out your program out to a third party. Whilst some organisations are great, many of them process groups the way you'd process cattle through a dairy. They get herded in, run through the process and led out the other end none the wiser. For cows, the experience seems ok, having chewed a bit of cud and hung out with some other cows. However, has the cow learnt or achieved anything from this? Not really! The only enlightenment she’s achieved is having less milk. But there's lots of money in pointless processes. Look at government departments. They're great at it! I mean really great at it! I guess when you’re onto something good, you should stick to it.

Experiential education however, is not about a process of running fun activities for the sake of it. There’s so much more depth to it than that. It’s about the opportunity to lead, not to be led! The opportunity to take risks, not to have someone tell you what to do. It's about teamwork and decision making.

For teachers, to giving up the reigns and allow students be challenged, experience new things and grow from this may feel awkward and difficult at first. However, if you don’t, then you’re wasting some fantastic educational opportunities.

I've seen teachers on experiential education trips wanting to control and run everything and I mean everything!!! From setting up tents, to collecting firewood, to holding onto a bag of cereal in the morning and dishing it out flake by flake. Some teachers just can't let go of control. If you're like this, it's time to stop as you're not helping anyone with anything.

You need to stand back and allow your students to take the risk of leadership, decision making and self-management and allow them to have the chance to shine and the chance to fail! They're going to learn more from this than they ever will if you were to jump in and catch them before they fail. All you need to do is frame an effective debrief if they do fail, to create a great learning opportunity from this. Conversely, when they display initiative and leadership, use this to extend and challenge your students. You will be amazed the difference this makes.

To be able to do this effectively, when you get into the field, provide your students with a clear and detailed briefing on what needs to happen and what roles need to be fulfilled. Only do this once, as failure to listen can lead to some great learning opportunities for those who choose not to. On the conclusion of your brief, the responsibility needs to then be given to your students to make it all happen. Your role now is purely a safety one to ensure that the wider range of risks are monitored and addressed without intervention in the group decision-making process. The only time you now step in, is if there is a potentially dangerous risk that arises and requires your experience and knowledge to manage.

By allowing students the chance to take on responsibilities they’d not normally have, helps to super charge the learning opportunities in a short period of time. Mistakes are made, tempers are frayed and people are pushed well outside their comfort zones. Whilst this may sound like chaos to some people, it’s a natural and highly effective way of teaching and learning for everyone involved. You can achieve more growth and development from any of your experiential education activities by allowing your students to run them themselves, rather than having you or any other teacher do it for them.

So for your next experiential education activity: Set it up once, let go of the reigns and allow your students to take the initiative and shine.

Being Vulnerable In Debriefs

Debriefs - Experiential Education

One of the recent debrief questions I posed to a group, made me think and reflect on my own experiences. Whenever I run a debrief, I’ll always frame the question, then provide an example from my own experience before asking the students to share their thoughts and feelings about the topic or issue. This isn’t just about story telling though. This is about relationship building and whilst you’re not telling them your life story, you're giving them a glimpse at how you think and feel. This can be a very powerful way to effectively engage everyone in what can be, at times, a very challenging, yet positive conversation and educational tool. For me, this is very easy to jump in and do, because we have groups come for a short period of time (generally four weeks on my current program). They know nothing about me and I know nothing about them and the only way we get to know each other is through sharing stories and experiences. However, one massive problem for most classroom teachers who don’t do experiential education programs all the time, is that they only know their students from the classroom context. Consequently, getting out on camp and sharing a vulnerability, can be extremely difficult and confronting.

Despite this, the right story for the right group can have a powerful effect and change the classroom relationship for good! I can't tell you which story from your life will result in this, but I can say that being honest and genuine is a wonderful relationship building tool and can help you teach some of the most important lessons in life.

The most nerve wracking experience of my teaching to date was when I was working for a school in the country and one of the kids had googled my name. This revealed a number of newspaper articles about bullying which occurred to me years ago when I was at school. Even though the articles weren’t bad, it exposed a huge vulnerability of mine. The thoughts that ran through my mind were horrible and I felt totally exposed because of what had happened to me. However, in the end, rather than shy away from this, I tackled it head on! I spoke with the Yr 9 boys (the entire year in fact) and was open and honest with them about what happened to me and the fallout from the experience at school and after school. There were masses of questions thrown at me and I answered every single one honestly and openly. The positive and supportive response from the students was totally unexpected. I went from thinking my career was over, to ending up with really positive long-lasting relationships with that year group. It actually made every class I taught so much easier than ever before.

So what is it from your life? What is it from your experience that you can share which will help your students face the challenges that life throws at them? This is where the debrief becomes so powerful. It's not just about asking questions to fill in time around the fire or getting the kids to think and reflect a bit, it should also challenge you, as the teacher and instructor. If you're not facing your own challenges head on, how can you expect others to? Sharing parts of your own experience is a valuable tool in conveying real meaning to a debrief.

Back to the original point though of self-reflection, the question that I posed, on hearing some of the students’ responses made me think about my answer more. It made me question if I were tackling my biggest problem in the most intelligent way and sparked my thinking about different ways I could tackle it! Without this transparency and honesty about myself, I would probably get superficial and shallow responses in all my debriefs, which simply makes them pointless ventures. You might as well just tell ghost stories round the fire, if you don't put any genuine effort in to engage with your students. However, by using this wonderful reflective conversation and snippets of your own experience, you can teach some truly remarkable lessons and build some amazing, positive relationships with your students that can totally change the dynamics of their lives and your teaching.

Campfires - Outdoor Education

My Weirdest Job Ever!!!

moving chickens.jpg

Often in life, we find ourselves in situations where you get asked something by a friend and in hindsight you probably should've said no. I found myself in one such situation a few years ago. I was doing some volunteer work in my hometown of Tamworth when one of the committee members who owns a chicken farm, asked me if I'd like to come and help move some chickens. ‘How hard could that be?’ I thought. Move a few chickens from one shed to another, easy! At the time, I'd been doing a few casual jobs, as well as the volunteer work so a few more dollars and the offer of pizza for dinner was a tempting offer I didn't want to knock back.

“Sure, be happy to help out!” I replied, not knowing what exactly I was getting myself into. But hey, let’s not forget the aforementioned pizza! That evening I drove out to the property, which was about 20 minutes out of town. Now it's funny what goes through your mind when you're not sure what you're getting yourself into. I had visions of picking up nice soft little chickens and placing them in little tubs and carrying them a short distance into another shed. I’m not entirely sure why I thought that, but that was my impression of the job. Sadly, this was not the case…

On arrival, I saw a scruffy looking crew of chicken movers and I immediately felt overdressed in my jeans and T-Shirt. I did wear old jeans, just not old enough. My induction was swift and to the point. Grab six chickens with each hand and load them in the crate.
“Ok… How many are there?” I asked
“5000!” was the reply.
“Oh crap,” I thought as I walked into the shed to see thousands of chickens before me. Well it was too late to turn this down and this was certainly a new challenge for me! So I jumped right in and started grabbing chickens by the legs. The whole thing was really well co-ordinated. There were the catchers, who would catch the chickens and then hand them on to the collectors. The collectors would ‘collect’ the six chickens in each hand, then carry them over and load them into the crates. The crates would then be loaded and stacked onto the back of a truck.

This was hard work! It was summer and the evening air was hot. Add to this, the dust in the shed that'd been kicked up by the commotion, the smell, the noise, the pecking, the scratching and the chicken poo all made this the weirdest and hardest night of physical work is ever done. Everyone kept changing roles of catching, collecting and loading crates. After a couple of hours of work, the job was completed. The shed was empty and the huge truck was fully laden with 5000 enormously noisy chickens. My work here was done! Well… not quite. Now it was time to unload them all.

We drove the truck to the other side of the farm to another shed where we proceeded to unload the crates, stack them onto trollies and then take all the chickens out. Crate after crate I lifted, getting covered with more and more chicken crap. Another couple of hours later, the truck was empty and I was trashed.

I was so tired I'd forgotten about the pizza! But when it arrived, I sparked back to life! It was so worth it. Although I couldn't even look at the chicken pizza without cringing, I hungrily munched several pieces. Looking down, my hands were scratched to pieces, my clothes covered in blood and chicken crap and I couldn't even begin to describe the smell.

I needed to get home for a shower! Just as I was leaving, my friend said, “Thanks for helping out tonight. That's a good start. We've only got another 15,000 to move. So, same time tomorrow?”
Exhausted, I stared back blankly… and with a smile replied, “Sure, same time tomorrow!”

The Trajectory Of Life

Trajectory of Life - Experiential Education

The trajectory of life is a challenging issue about which to talk with teenagers. Unless we understand it ourselves as educators, how can we impart that knowledge and experience onto young impressionable minds that are being constantly bombarded with competing thoughts and feelings?

It’s exceptionally hard to convey to a teenager what life could be like in 5, 10 or even 20 years’ time, especially now that life and society is constantly changing. What can we do?

When I do goal setting sessions with teenagers, and ask the question what are your long-term goals, often I get the overwhelming response: ‘I want to be rich and have a hot wife’; or ‘I want to be rich and have a super fit husband.’ It’s usually the boys who have this very immature approach and all they can think about is about money and hot women. Thanks again to social media for reinforcing shallow delusions.

When you drill down and ask students why they want to be rich and have a hot wife, it turns out that it’s more to do with the notion of popularity at school, than anything real, which is quite unsurprising given their age.

Often, it’s a difficult conversation to have when you suggest that maybe the trajectory of their life may not turn out to be what they want it to be. The reality is, that most peoples’ lives never quite work out the way they envisaged. However, despite the stark reality of life’s challenges, it doesn’t mean that students can’t reach their goals. Instead, as teachers, it’s important that we are able to prepare them for the speed bumps and hurdles along the way.

Many teachers would simply say, ‘You have to work hard at school, go to uni, work hard on your job, then you’ll be successful.’ At this point I’d totally disagree with them. Unless students can establish what their vision of success is, then it’s unreasonable that teachers frame life in this way, because all it’s really doing is reinforcing the shallow ideas of money and a hot wife and not taking into consideration the complexity of life.

Some people have the idea of that success is all about a career and money but what does success look like to you? What’s meaningful in your life? What makes you happy? Not everybody wants to be a lawyer. Not everybody wants to be a doctor. Not everybody wants to be an engineer. Yet for some schools I’ve worked at, unless you’re fighting hard to get into one of those three career paths, then sadly, it makes it impossible for many students please their parents.

I also pose this question to students as part of goal setting. Is pleasing your parents something that will make you happy? Or is pleasing your parents just something to keep them at bay and not necessarily make you happy? I’ve come across many former students of mine who have done exceptionally well academically, but then spent years in the wilderness because they weren’t doing what they really wanted to do. They weren’t doing what they really felt was right for them and as result, weren’t the slightest bit happy with their lives. They were living out someone else’s dreams, not theirs. What seemed like a rocket fuelled ride towards success, with great school results and a wonderful university education, they were disengaged at work and looking for something real.

One of my aims with goal setting is to have students to think about how they see their life developing and start to plan how they want their life to develop. At the same time, there’s the need to help them understand it’s not always going to be easy. Your goals aren’t just going to fall into your lap. When this happens however, we’ve also provided them with the skills to consolidate, adapt and move forward again towards those goals.

We achieve this through experiential education as a metaphor for getting through other challenges in life. However, it can’t be done in isolation. There must be follow through after a program has run its course and there needs to be ongoing support from parents and mentors to help students more effectively plot and track the trajectory that they’re on.

Understanding and drawing on our own experiences as teachers, can be powerful in helping students to evaluate where they’re at and what skills they might need to develop to be able to stay on their chosen path.

What does the trajectory of your life look like? For someone in their 20s and 30s, it can be easier or harder depending on their approach and their attitude. For me, in my 20s the trajectory of my life didn’t look anything like what it is today.

My life was looking very much like a downward spiral into the abyss. I didn’t have the focus. I didn’t have a vision for the future and I wasn’t doing what I wanted to do. Nothing I was doing made me happy, which made it extremely hard at work, as well as deciding what good opportunities for the future were, versus rubbish opportunities.

However, if you have a clear idea in your mind what you’re trying to achieve and what makes you happy, then everything else in life falls into place far more easily. When you’re making informed decisions based upon what drives you and what makes your life exciting and interesting, suddenly, you’re back on that path to success.

Through sharing your own experience, you’re then able to impart that to be successful, life’s trajectory is not always going to be a linear one. There may be set backs but from setbacks, you can regroup, rebuild and become even stronger. Consequently, as part of a much broader part of any experiential education program, you can use the various activities and challenges as a metaphor for the trajectory of life. By relating success or failure in activities your students will face in life, can provide immensely powerful teaching and learning moments for your students.

Through this approach, you can help your students avoid years in the emotional wilderness and get them thinking, ‘Wait a minute, I can decide my destiny. I can build my life how I want it to be built!’

It’s that passion and desire to build a life of one’s own making, that’s often lost in the daily grind of school and the focus on the academic end goal for a university entrance rank. It’s important however, that students can start to develop real ideas of where they want to take their lives and from a teaching point of view, for teachers to provide them with the skills and ability to seek out opportunities, deal with setbacks, and keep moving towards their goals. It’s never going to be a straight and easy path. However, with the right grounding at school, it makes it so much easier.

Self-Reflection

Self-reflection.jpeg

Now that we’re coming into another school holiday period in Australia, it’s time to hand out some homework! Ergh! I hear you groan.

Bear with me! This is more of a post to question and reflect on oneself, rather than anything else and what better time to do it than in the holidays. The aim of this is to try to get you thinking about what you’re really passionate about! For example, even though my main area of teaching is outdoor education, I’ve taught English before and it bored me senseless. I dreaded going in to class because I was so disinterested with the subject. As a result, what possible quality of lesson was I delivering? If I didn’t really care about the content, why would the students? I had to leave this role as soon as I could and get out of the classroom and into the outdoors where my passion lay! However, many teachers never do this and their students pick up on it so easily.

Being passionate about something yourself makes it easy to then share this passion with others, especially in your teaching. As a result, it can make you the most awesome teacher around and you don’t really have to do anything special, other than do what you love. The other week I decided to try something different and run through some basic martial arts with my Year 9 group for PT. I love martial arts. It helps build focus, discipline and fitness. I’ve missed doing it because I ended up getting so wrapped up in work, I’d almost forgotten one of my passions. So after warming up, I ran through some kicks, blocks and strikes. I had so much fun! Even though the activity wasn’t about my having fun, the fact that I was enjoying what I was doing, helped me teach the lesson in such a passionate way that the kids responded and got right into it.

So what’s the point? Well the point is, if you’ve had a frantic term that’s exhausted you and drained your passion (just teach a Year 8 class and you’ll know what I mean), then take some time now to reflect on what you love about life and about teaching. Let’s be clear on this. Teaching is never just a job. You became a teacher for a reason! Let’s find out why?!

Why did you become a teacher rather than doing something else?

Was it for the long holidays? (I really hope not).

What did you feel when you stepped into your first class?

What do you feel when you step into your classes today?

Is there one class that you’re more engaged in than the others? Why is this?

What is it that you’ve most looked forward to this year?

What’s something new you’d love to learn?

What’s something you’d love your students to know and understand?

Where do you find you do your best thinking?

What refreshes you and strengthens your passion?

Try answering each of these questions honestly and use the holidays to maybe try something new, explore something you’ve always wanted to and relax and enjoy the time away from the frantic pace, so you come back refreshed with your passion ready to teach the next awesome lesson!