If Only I'd Known...
Advice for Outdoor Education Instructors

James Neill
Last updated:
13 Feb 2004

“What do you wish someone had told you when you
accepted your first outdoor education position?”

If only I had known…
  • that the pay is generally poor, the hours are generally long, the responsibility is high and the rewards can be high!
  • that the field is so very diverse - and we so rarely make people aware of this.  Adventure education is global but has all sorts of exciting manifestations and styles. We should encourage people to explore these and experience them to create their own style.
  • that there are no rules
  • that if you want a simple life - choose a different career!”

- Peter Allison

If only I'd known that…
  • no matter how much you try to initialize change, some participants will doggedly stick to their own agenda regardless of the effect it has on the group (and my sanity).”

- Erik Henkel

If only I had known…
  • to keep more extensive field notes about each of the programs I instructed.  Years later, I now realize these would have provided a rich resource of examples and a detailed record of my experiential learning as an outdoor educator.

- James Neill

If only I had known…
  • to make a log of all my technical hours as well.  Hours belayed, routes climbed, miles paddled, water levels, lessons learned, routes skied, snow conditions etc. (pick your sport.)  Not only would it be helpful in getting jobs requiring x amount of experience, but if I ever am in involved in litigation, it will help as evidence of my "expertise".  I only recently started mine, and now I am nearly 20 years of experience behind.
  • that for every day when you go to work and say "I can't believe I get paid for this", there will be a day when you say " You can't pay me enough to do this."  Just remember that it is those days that you and your clients are learning the most.”

- Norm Staunton

If I'd only known…
  • that my own bosses and organizations were going through all the same struggles and group processes that I facilitated on the ropes courses, and realized I was an inseparable part of that, I may have had a wee bit more patience with them.

- Tim Reed

If only I had known…

  • that the lived knowledge of an outdoor experience is in itself a powerful thing.  Not all of what we learn can be explained in words, nor need it be.  The intense emotions of sunset, the camaraderie built between people, or between people and place, is hard to articulate, but its significance no less real for the lack of words.  In the last decade or so the field as a whole has become more aware and skilled at facilitation - as it needed to - but experiences can also speak far more than a skilled facilitator ever can.  I wish someone had told me earlier that, for example, the 3 days climbing is in itself a great thing, and that to squeeze the outcomes into increasingly remote boxes may detract from that power and memory of being.”

- Peter Martin

If only I had known…
  • about T.A. Loeffler's work on the relationship between competence and confidence for women field staff.  (See "Assisting women in developing a sense of competence in outdoor programs, JEE, Dec.1997, v.20, n.3, 119-123).  Similar to T.A.'s experience, it took a solo backwoods trip for me to fully realize that I WAS competent in the field—I just needed to pull up my confidence level. T.A. noted, and NOLS has since followed up on this in some of their staff training, that often when women and men have equal levels of competence, the men will verbally express much more confidence in their skill level. This confidence then gets read as competence by others who may not have even worked directly with staff in the field (like supervisors and course directors). This display of confidence (or lack thereof) in turn has strong potential to influence staffing decisions, etc.  So I wish that someone very early on had told me to go out in the field by myself to prove--to no one but myself--that I am solidly competent in the technical skills that are necessary to survive and thrive at leading wilderness courses.

-  Kara Sammet

If only I had known…
  • not to feel inadequate if your participants leave without realizing some life changing moment they had with you... all you should do is attempt to place just a spark in their minds and hope it ignites down the road somewhere.
  • that the group of kids, goofing off, laughing at the serious moments, not even looking at their challenge zone let alone moving toward it, and constantly asking "are we almost done?" were actually the ones who would return years later to say, "thankyou."

- mlbir@voyager.net

If only I had known…
  • that it wasn't a good idea to let the four vegetarians in the group plan the meals for the other fifteen of us.
  • that trailers would become the bane of my existence
  • that The book Summerhill should never have been written. I spent a lot of time, early on, waiting for students to discover what they wanted to learn instead of taking responsibility to provide the necessary structure.
  • that a career doing Experiential Education is 40% being good at playing institutional politics, 40% being good at marketing yourself and your program, and only 20% being good at teaching experientially.  If I had known that sooner, I would have learned a lot more about how to do the former two.
  • that there will always be a hard core of colleagues opposed to anything that is different from what they do.  I would have spent a lot less time trying to convince them with favorable research and articles, and instead have concentrated on working with the best teachers who already know the value of direct experience.

- Tom Lindblade

If only I had known…
  • that when you confiscate lollies from students/ participants that you don't eat them half way through the course after a moment of weakness - without being able to replace them prior to the end of course or without being ready to face the angry mob come end of course.
  • to pack thermals no matter if the weather outlook is fine and hot or cold and miserable - always.
  • to savour the star filled nights on course when the air is clean and fresh and life is simple and carefree.

- Paul Gravett

If only I had known...
  • Nothing - it would have spoiled the adventure.

- Roger Greenaway 

If only I had known…
  • that if I followed someone else’s advice I would have lost out on something that may have been unique to me.
  • to be what you be and do what you do with personal integrity.

- Eric Brymer