I hit the road in the city and drove toward the cloud-kissed mountains, back to basecamp. I felt the stresses of my life in Asheville slide from my mind. They stayed within the city limits and were replaced with thoughts of menu planning and gear pack-out lists. I thought about how to teach an effective poop-in-the-woods lesson that is both engaging and informative, without freaking teenagers out about the lack of a flushing toilet in a national forest. It was time to go back into the wilderness. Time to go Outward Bound.
I’m an Assistant Instructor fresh off of my first season at the Outward Bound School in North Carolina. I spent the past five months working primarily out of the Table Rock basecamp near Morganton, NC, where I traveled from the nearby city I lived in when not on a course—Asheville. Over the course of this summer and fall, I spent 76 days in the field. Here are some of my learnings.
1. Be Brave
“Rachel, I can’t do this. I’m telling you, I can’t do this. Emotionally, mentally, physically—it’s too much.” I patiently listened to the 14-year-old across from me as she repeated these words, tears streaming down her face. We were standing at the base of Table Rock Mountain after a hike all morning, and she was struggling. Being away from her family and in an environment entirely new to her, and doing an activity that was physically challenging, were all factors that had culminated to throw my student way out of her comfort zone.
As an outdoor experiential educator, it’s my job to facilitate difficult experiences for students. Outward Bound Instructors purposefully place students in settings that push them out of their comfort zone and into the unknown, and we do it for a purpose: to inspire self-growth. Growth can’t occur where we’re comfortable and complacent, and it’s in that unfamiliar place—what we call the stretch zone—that we’re faced with ourselves. As one of my students vocalized so well, it’s hard to sit in our stretch zone. It’s hard to face ourselves. It takes courage to confront our fears; to stand in the face of fire and continue forward even when we’re uncomfortable and terrified. This season, I watched uncomfortable and terrified students tap into courage and continue forward. I watched the once scared student summit Table Rock Mountain and reflect on her experience days later, vocalizing how grateful she was that she didn’t give up. I watched pivotal moments when students’ stretch zones expanded, and I was reminded of the power of bravery—the power of doing something every single day that scares you, and the growth that ensues.
2. Be Present
I’m an appreciator of pattern and structure. After a few courses, I quickly realized that every course is different. Every crew is different, made up of entirely unique humans who all have different needs. I learned that coming into a course with expectations of any kind, like how long it takes students to master a skill, what a crew’s dynamic will be or how I can best support individual students, is unfair and unrealistic. The importance of showing up and engaging with the students presently around me, and not allowing my perspective to be filtered through a lens of expectation from prior experiences, was crucial in enabling every course to have its own experience. Once more, I learned to appreciate where I was at in the course process—whether I was on a summit or in a valley. Knowing that no moment was permanent helped me to appreciate the present phase I was in and what I was learning in each.
3. Build Your Community
As a new Instructor entering an intimate, established community of talented outdoor professionals, I was initially intimidated. It took me a couple of months to realize that the folks I was working alongside were absolutely the people on my team and in my corner. Once I opened up my heart to building relationships, my job became easier. My coworkers became my people—people who saw my value and could remind me of my worth when I needed help remembering. Just as our students were experiencing courses together, so were we as Instructors, laughing, learning and making mistakes, and pushing each other to pursue growth. My work community became my support system, and it was through this support system that I felt enabled to try new things and step out of my comfort zone, which is something we teach our students while simultaneously experiencing ourselves.
4. Check the Ego
I was humbled again and again this season. As a proud individual, I struggle hard when I’m in a space of learning. I learned that hyper focusing on my performance blinded me to the needs of my students and took up more mental energy than it needed to. As soon as I acknowledged that I would be in a constant state of learning this season, that it would take time to master new skills and trust the natural learning process rather than hurry through it, I was able to shift my perspective from inward-focused to outward. Accepting that I was a student just as much as I was an Instructor helped me put my ego in its place.
5. Remember Who You Are
One of the most important things I heard from a colleague this summer was, “Being an Instructor is just one piece of who you are.” It was easy to get wrapped up in my identity as an Instructor this season, to come off of a course feeling huge learnings shake me to my core, and feel like mistakes I made while working defined me as an individual. Yes, Rachel is an Instructor—and she is also a friend, a runner, a photographer, and an empathetic human delighted by light-filled mornings and shared conversations around a well-prepared dinner and relationships built through shared experience. When I put less pressure on this one facet of my life, I was able to dig into instructing with a healthier perspective, and face successes and failures more gracefully.
The 2019 season has drawn to a close, and I’m settling back into Asheville for the winter. As I continue reflecting on my learnings for the next few months, I already know one thing to be true; everything I’ve taken from my first season with Outward Bound is applicable to all aspects of my life. On expeditions, we highlight transference—the idea that what students are learning on a course is transferrable to their lives back home. As outdoor educators, we use the wilderness as a trainer for the outside world, pushing our students to the very center of themselves to pursue growth in the face of challenge, and learning about ourselves along the way, too.
About the Author
Rachel Veale is an Instructor for the North Carolina Outward Bound School. With a degree in Electronic Media and Communication from Texas Tech University, Rachel thrives at the intersection of content creation and outdoor spaces. Her go-to road trip snack is black coffee and donut holes. When she isn’t on course, you can find her running down a trail in western NC or chasing golden hour with a camera in hand.
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