Being The Eyes And Ears In The Field
I’d like to begin with a quote…
“What we call the beginning is often the end. And to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from.”
It was my hope in writing this post to share about my presentation at this year’s Wilderness Therapy Symposium. However, as I sat down to begin writing, I found myself struggling to choose a starting point. Reflecting on T.S. Eliot’s wisdom, I realized that there were several beginnings and several ends that led me here. Although it feels counterintuitive, I have decided to start with the end and work backwards in the hope of capturing the full scope of my presentation.
The end of this story took place in late August. It was my second time attending the Wilderness Therapy Symposium, and I was ecstatic (and also quite nervous) to be presenting my own workshop. I would be moderating a discussion panel on the role that Field Instructors play within the wilderness therapy schema. I had spent two and a half years living the Field Instructor way of life, and I wanted to give a voice to that experience at this year’s symposium.
In looking at the beginning of the Outdoor Behavioral Healthcare Council, the organization that supports the wilderness therapy symposium, one could find that it was founded to share ideas and improve upon existing practices. In my experiences at the 2014 symposium, I found that Instructors were afforded several opportunities to teach what we call hard skill (how to craft spoons and flutes, how to lead drum circles, how to safely coach and instruct our participants in activities like mountain biking and rock climbing) but that these opportunities were focused on Guides teaching Guides. There seemed to be few opportunities to collaborate, troubleshoot, and share our experiences with Clinicians, Program Directors, Educational Consultants, and the WTS community at large. My hope was to change this.
So, leading up to the symposium, I reached out to many of the OBH council wilderness programs and created an application for instructors to speak on my panel. By August I was thrilled to have a panel composed of 5 lead instructors from 5 separate programs. The 6 of us felt that the following components were the most salient:
- What is a Field Instructor/Guide? What makes this position special? What are the most challenging/rewarding parts? What is something you wish you knew about being an Instructor/Guide before you became one?
- What are the differences between the adventure model and the wilderness model? What have you found to be the benefits/difficulties of your model? Are there things we can be doing to improve them?
- Would it be beneficial/possible to have more Instructor collaboration between programs? What is a challenge you've encountered that you would want a fresh perspective on? What are techniques/styles/tools that you would want to hear more about?
I say this somewhat tongue-in-cheek, but one of the greatest takeaways for me was that an hour and a half goes by way faster than you’d expect. After presenting, I found that there was still a tremendous amount of information that we wanted explore but ran out of time. One of the salient pieces from the panel was that we experienced higher Instructor retention when Instructors were provided with diversity of opportunities. To support this, several programs have already begun offering staff exchanges, where Instructors from one program are given a chance to work and experience the culture of another program. So far, this has been hugely successful.
Looking ahead, a goal I have in supporting the trend of staff collaboration is to create a web forum for the transference of ideas. I believe that by giving instructors a platform that can be accessed more often than once a year, we can increase the caliber of the staff across the industry. I also feel that by creating a more integrated community we can augment the opportunities for support that instructors can provide for one another.