Is My Work About Me, or About My Students?

This is a topic that I have been thinking about for a long time, probably ever since I started teaching. It's tricky, because talking about my thought process involves me talking about my mentors, and assessing how I learned my own skills and survival methods through their programs.

When I first started learning wilderness survival skills in a formal way, through the Tracker School and Tom Brown, Jr, I never thought about the 'Teaching Model' I was going through. I never really thought about the 'Teaching and Experiential Learning Process' either. I just signed up for the program, and tried to contain my excitement about the impending class.

During each class, we all just learned whatever Tom decided to teach, and we followed his instructions and plan, which was ever changing due to weather and other factors. We learned what we learned, whether it was tracking foxes in the sandy swales of the Pine Barrens, or exploring the cedar swamps covered in clay and ash camouflage. We had fun, we worked hard, we shared great meals and great stories around the campfire, and it was awesome.

It wasn't until a few years later, when I was teaching children in summer camps and youth programs, that I began to think about the best ways to teach these skills, because the intense, immersion methods that Tom Brown had used on me, weren't working too well. I realized that my students were struggling to live up to my very high expectations. They would carve their wooden coal burned spoons around the fire with blisters on their very soft hands, hands that had very little carving experience and no callouses for protection. They would struggle with motivation to keep working to get a bow and drill fire, after several failures, just due to exhaustion. Or fear of failure in front of their friends.

In my programs, I played the role of Tom Brown, as the head instructor, director, and all knowing guide to the wilderness. Tom didn't ask for student feedback either before, during and after his programs, and I never once filled out an evaluation sharing what worked and what didn't in all my time there. His school is very clearly his castle, and he makes the decisions and choices like the family Patriarch. When I was a student, I knew it was my job to learn and focus on that, and let Tom do the planning and delivery.

But here I was, sitting in the summer twilight, watching the fireflies wink in and out in the mist, hanging out at summer camp, questioning my decisions and my vision.

In the end, I had to trust what I was seeing in my campers, and I chose to make a series of shifts in the way I began teaching wilderness skills and awareness. I began to relax, and have a little more fun. I began to look at these young people as kids and not as fully grown adults. I had to tell more stories, and be less intense.

In the past 30 years, I've made lots more changes, and gotten tremendous results for our students. I've changed my program a LOT over those three decades, too. I'm not afraid to admit it. I've been less 'all knowing' and more collaborative. I've let my staff experiment with different games and activities, and we've been willing to fail, too. Again, we take this seriously, but we also know that in the end, we are a youth program and the key is to have fun doing what we do, and helping our students have fun too.

Looking back, I can say that it's probably the most important thing we can do as educators, to listen to what our students are telling us, both verbally, or on evaluations, or in their body language. What we have to offer is incredibly valuable and powerful and needed today, more than ever before in the history of the human species, and we need to keep listening to what our students are going through in order to teach them in new and better ways!

Check out the video of the changes that we're making at Hawk Circle to do our part, and help these kids! Let me know what you think and then send me a note to let me know what changes you are seeing and how you're adapting your work too!

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