I’ve spent the last two weeks facilitating two back to back outdoor education programs for an international school from Jakarta. Two weeks straight, 150 middle school kids, and an amazing team of 6 facilitators backed by our logistics superhero. I was working for Odyssey Institute, a Bali-based company whose mission is, “Contributing to global sustainability through experiential education.”
I’m covered in mosquito bites, sore in places I didn’t even know existed, and so tired that I’m considering installing voice to text software so that I can complete this post in a starfish position. But it was worth it. Working in Outdoor Ed is exhausting, but it’s one of those rare jobs where every once in a while you look at your co-workers and ask, “We’re getting paid to do this?”
Here are five reasons why:
1. Oh the Places You’ll Go: Like I said – teaching outdoor ed means getting paid to travel to new and exciting places. Over the last year, my job has sent me tubing down a river, camping in a volcanic caldera, balancing atop a high ropes course in the rainforest, and snorkelling a world-class reef. I also get paid to revive my weary muscles in therapeutic hot springs and sleep in 4 star eco-resorts.
Working in these places is different from being a tourist because passivity is not an option. On this last program, I led an all-day rainforest hike. The facilitators completed the hike once before the kids arrived, but the next 3 times it was up to us to make a lesson out of it. More than just walking through the steamy jungle, we drew metaphors for human communities out of the layers of the rainforest and stopped to create ‘sound maps’ while the kids sat in silence in a riverside clearing. Creating focussed site-specific activities allowed me to connect actively with these new places.
2. In-tents-ity leads to transformation: Sometimes in the classroom, days and weeks can blend into a monotonous drone. This is never the case in outdoor education. The intensity is high during these short, challenging programs.
When I was researching my MA thesis (source long forgotten), I remember reading something about how in many ‘peak experience’ youth programs, full-on schedules stretch teens into a sort of liminal space (often intentionally through physical exhaustion) which opens them up to lasting emotional transformation.
On one program, there was barely a minute of real down time. By the time we reached the evening program – a ‘true self’ mask making activity – the kids were exhausted, but they were also in a space where they were able to share deep self-reflections that would never come out in a classroom setting. Many of the kids (and in one case, the teacher chaperones) ended up tearily confessing their self-doubts and regrets – a level of emotional honesty that rarely surfaces in self-conscious adolescents.
Whether the intensity peaks during emotionally charged programs, from pushing physical boundaries, or from extending one’s comfort zone, I believe that these are the educational moments that are truly transformative.
3. Teachable Moments: It’s dark and rainy, and eighteen grade six kids are walking through the forest in silence without flashlights. It’s a short night hike, and we’ve been stressing the value of integrity. The idea that integrity is about doing the right thing when nobody is watching. One of the girls trips and stumbles, scraping her knee.
In the debrief, we ask, “Who did not stay in integrity throughout the hike?” and a girl sheepishly admits that she turned on her flashlight and broke the silence to help her friend when she fell. This sets off a discussion about what integrity really is, and the difference between following rules and sticking to your values.
Another day, we reach the spot where we planned to have lunch and notice that a huge branch has fallen from one of the emergent trees next to us. One of the teacher chaperones happens to be the science teacher, and he leaps into a conversation about epiphytes, mutualism and parasitism, allowing the kids to examine firsthand the ecosystem thriving on this one branch.
The messiness and unpredictability of experiential outdoor education create endless teachable moments.
4. Teamwork: Collaborative unit planning and PD days aside, classroom teaching provides few opportunities for teamwork. This can lead to teachers whose classrooms are fortresses of old habits and stale ideas.
Because of health and safety, outdoor educators rarely work alone. In the last two weeks I was paired with two different inspiring educators, and I had opportunities to work alongside the whole team for big group activities. In this team of six, our experiences were amazingly diverse – from a professional rock climber to a university lecturer. I learned so much from my co-facilitators and I will take these new strategies, games, and insights with me.
5. Get outside and get into it! Outdoor ed is never dull and working in this field has made me more resilient and resourceful. Every day presents new challenges – the kid who is afraid of everything, the thunderstorm that cancels an activity at the last minute, teachers who treat the program like a personal vacation, leaky tents and broken sandals and leeches and sprained ankles…
The facilitator has to overcome all of these unexpected things while keeping everyone safe, managing the schedule and flow, and maintaining high morale. I let a millipede crawl on my face so the kids wouldn’t be afraid of bugs. I faced my own trepidation to smile and cheer as I completed the high ropes course. I invented a ‘Jungle Boogie’ vocal jam to lift everyone’s spirits in the middle of a tough hike. With every program I facilitate, I become stronger, more flexible, and more patient.
I definitely haven’t left the classroom behind for good. Being an outdoor educator has given me valuable skills and insights that I can apply to classroom teaching.
What do you love about outdoor education? If you don’t know…find an opportunity to take your students outside, get messy, and grow.