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What I’ve Learned from Travelling with Students: Part 1

At the end of 2012, I travelled with thirteen students to Thailand and Cambodia for four weeks over the Christmas holidays. This was a leadership expedition that the students and I had planned for 18 months prior to leaving. The premise of the trip was simple: the students were in charge. I was there to step in in the event of an emergency or safety concern. The only things that were booked before we left were our flights and the first night’s accommodation in downtown Bangkok. It was up to the students to sort out our transportation, food, accommodation, and itinerary once we were in the country. They had to carry the funds that would get us through the four-week trip, budget, and plan how the money would be spent. Students rotated in their roles while on the trip, allowing each to be the day’s leader at least twice, as well as experience the different roles in organizing the needs of the team for the day.

As part of this experience, we embarked on a seven-day trek through the jungle of Northern Thailand. I have no trouble saying this was easily the most challenging part of the trip and one of the most challenging things I’ve done in my life. Carrying our packs, treating and rationing our water, catching crayfish by hand in the stream to steam in bamboo shoots for meals, sleeping on banana leaves, spiders the size of my head, and 30+ degree (Celcius) heat every day tested the relationships of our team daily. Of particular note, the first three days of our trek were uphill the entire way. I mean the hands and knees, tree-trunk grabbing, making it up ten feet and then sliding back five, mud in your teeth kind of uphill. Tears were shed, frustrations were at an all-time high, and some days we didn’t think we would make it to the end. But we did (teenagers are amazing, you know!). And we celebrated.

Ten years on, and I still reflect and take lessons from that trek (and the whole trip) into my daily life. Today I’m sharing my top three trek tips that can be applied to any learning environment:

#1: Don’t hike too close. Those of you who are avid hikers are probably well aware of the feeling of being on a crowded trail. You’re working hard to get to where you’re going, carrying the items you need with you. You might feel hot, cold, or wet from a downpour or a combination of all those things. For me, having an awareness of another person right on my shoulder can make me feel pressure to hike at a pace I might not be comfortable with. Sometimes it has made me feel as though if I slip in the mud or trip on a root, I might also take the other person down. It might mean I miss some of the scenery or wildlife along the way because my focus shifts. On the other hand, it can also help me feel supported and that someone is there to help me if and when those falls happen. On our trek, our team dynamic became comfortable with being at a hand’s reach if we needed help but with enough space to try everything on our own. We each have our comfortable distance from others when hiking, just as our students each have their own comfort levels for working through new or challenging learning problems or situations. When we know our students’ comfortable distances, we can help them be successful in the learning they are taking on.

#2: Those hiking uphill have the right of way. Stopping mid-way up a hill when you’ve finally found momentum and then having to get going again is difficult. This is why, in hiking etiquette, those going uphill always have the right of way. Moving to the side on your way down and pausing to let those on their way up the pass is the common courtesy. It acknowledges the effort that’s needed to get up the hill, the work that’s gone in to get to the current point, and the journey that is still left to get to the top. Bells ringing, teachers changing over, transitioning to a new topic, or trying to follow too closely to a time schedule can all disrupt a student’s uphill momentum during learning. How can we intentionally give the right of way to those in the uphill portion of their learning?

#3: Rest together. The hills on our trek were steep. Sometimes the front of the group would stop to rest while the back of the group was still battling through spiders and tree roots to get up the hill. When the back of the group would get to the rest point, the front leaders would be ready to go, getting everybody moving again before the back of the line had a chance to rest. It only took this happening twice before a student spoke up to let the group know that the back of the line needed a break; it would be better if we could all rest together. How often have we moved on in our classrooms or lessons as soon as “everyone’s got it” without first considering the hill that was just climbed or who was at the front or back of the pack? What practices can we implement in our teaching and learning that allows everyone to rest together?

Distance, direction and rest, and reflection are all pieces that contribute to the depth of learning that takes place both in and outside of the classroom. They are understandings that build our relationships with each other, the world around us, and the story we are part of.


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