Getting Out of the Box
By Stuart Chapin
On the first weekend of the school year, Michael Lowry and I went with the new Outdoor Program Student Instructors for a leadership training trip. Our goal was to build a cohesive group of leaders through a challenging experience and a curriculum of decision-making and experiencing consequence. Our aim was to let the boys make critical decisions and see where that would take us… literally.
It is our belief that by letting the students make decisions about what to eat, which direction to walk or where to camp, they will have to communicate with each other, work to build consensus, use their critical thinking skills and bond as a group. Ultimately the boys are highly motivated to cooperate with each other in order to eat well, sleep comfortably and find the bus at the other end of the route.
Our sights were set on a route through the southern section of the Joyce Kilmer and Citico Creek Wildernesses. The boys had done much of the preparation including picking out what gear to bring and doing the food shopping.
All of the boys had terrific and thoughtful attribute and could point to specific examples of how they contributed to leadership. A long discussion flowed from here about the subtle things good leaders do.
We arrived at the Wolf Flats trailhead a few minutes in front of 7 p.m. A late start for the 2-mile hike to Bob Stratton Bald, and we had not even eaten dinner yet. After a short discussion, the boys decided as a group to hike first and eat at camp. So we geared up and were walking by 7:30 p.m.
We arrived at the bald tired, hungry and grouchy, well past dark. This is a recipe that often spells disaster for a group’s capacity to cooperate. Our group held it together amazingly as we scoped for camp and water, put tents up and had tortellini in our bowls by 10:30 p.m.
The dawn broke fresh and bright on Bob Stratton bald. The grass and spider webs heavy with dew, the clouds dancing close over the tents in garish shades of orange and purple. It had been worth the drive and the hike to be on top of the mountain at dawn.
That day’s hike would lead us down a little used trail into the South Fork of Citico creek. The boys led the way, finding the trail when it was vague or intersected other trails. Eventually we found camp and rinsed the sweat off in the creek. After the boys made a fine meal of burritos, it was time for the talk that was the true reason for the trip. I wanted them to think about leadership, what it means to them, and what they were going to do with leadership within the Outdoor Program.
I chose a simple format: four questions and some listening. Any educator knows that a format of this kind can either fly or flop depending on the mindset of the group. I was not sure we were ready for it yet, but we had firelight and full bellies, which was a good start.
The first question: Why do we have a Student Instructor program at McCallie?
Ross: “To give us the opportunity to learn about and practice leadership”. Good answer.
Bear: “So that we can help students who are new to the program have a better experience”.
I then asked: Why is the Student Instructor Training Trip designed to be one of the most challenging hikes of the year?
Thomas: “So that we can work on the advanced skills.” Thomas, a veteran of these trips, may have had a better clue of how hard tomorrow’s hike was going to be than anyone.
Bruce: “So that we can be reminded how it feels to struggle at something.”
Our third question was: Why is leadership an important component of outdoor adventures?
Fox: “Because the group has to work together to have an enjoyable trip.”
JB: “It is important to find our way and to have good food and shelter. We have to work together to make those things good.”
To wrap up, I asked them to think of one attribute of a good leader.
Bruce: “Communication Skills”
Mr Lowry: “Listening”
I added: “Initiative and Persistence”
All of the boys had terrific and thoughtful ideas and could point to specific examples of how they contributed to leadership. A long discussion flowed from here about the subtle things good leaders do. After that excellent discussion we passed around the cheese cake, sharing highlights of our trip, and then headed off to the sleeping bags.
Sunday was the “off-trail” segment of the hike. Off-trail hiking (a.k.a. “bushwhacking”) is a terrific tool because the students really have to work and think to navigate. Without a trail to blindly march down, every step of the way must be earned; each student must pay close attention to the map and to where he is going. Details count, and the consequence of sloppy work is a longer bushwhack. Everyone is motivated and engaged because they want to get back to the bus and back to our other obligations.
After more than three hours of strenuous thrashing, 2,000 feet of elevation gain and a couple of bee stings, we popped out onto the trail that would eventually take us to the bus. It was hard but also deeply gratifying to find the way without a trail. We decided that if the trail is a box, we had just spent the last three hours outside the box.
After finishing off the last of our food, we hiked the remaining mile to the bus. The group was tired but happy. Michael and I were proud of them for their terrific attitude and their fun loving approach to the challenges that they had faced.
Stuart Chapin is director of McCallie School’s comprehensive Outdoor Program. To find out more about the program, visit their web page.