Hike Back to School: 10 Lessons from the Trail

About the time I was posting final grades last spring, and going through the stored papers and projects that marked the school year, I felt tired. Not just that normal end-of-the-year tired, but really tired. Like “I hadn’t taken a deep breath in too many years” kind of tired. And honestly, it scared me. I wondered if this is what the singed corners of burnout felt like.

Kind people often remind me to “take care of yourself.” But it’s tough in this profession, where in the giving of oneself seems to be the premise of commitment and dedication. I worried that if I paused, I might not regain my pace. Remembering those singed edges, I realized it would be far worse to succumb to a flame.

Eight weeks later, I found myself in the Rocky Mountains on a solo hiking trip. I was ready to think about how I’d spent the last months trying to recalibrate a balanced life, and more importantly, how I would live one as the craziness of a new school year approaches. Perhaps the lessons I learned from the trail will resonate with you as you walk towards your next year, too.

Hiking Back to School

Use your map, follow the trail, but remember all the detours. We aren’t short of maps in this profession. Those algorithmic barometers of where we’re headed with standards, curriculums, and assessments. While there’s no doubt that having a map is important, I’ve learned that that’s not what sustains us; rather, it’s the detours that energize and enthuse, and mark our willingness to explore, our ability to find joy in unexpected places of learning.

Don’t forget to look up. It’s easy to keep your head down while on the trail. Sometimes it’s necessary, in fact. We don’t want to trip over loose rocks or uneven ground. But working too much with our heads down keeps us from seeing the big picture, and we need both in order to stay well-oriented. Whether it’s that relationship between the long term goals of learning and the daily lessons that get our learners there, or whether it’s about finding and maintaining that necessary balance, seeing the grand landscape is crucial.

Don’t confuse the path with your purpose. Even though we traverse the trails and follow our maps, it’s not why we hike. We use the trail to see everything around it. As we forge ahead, we must be careful not to confuse the path with the purpose, the obstacles with the opportunities. Instead of seeing a dead tree limb, perhaps it becomes some much needed shade. Or that last steep ascent can become the final steps to a breathtaking view. That feeling of accomplishment doesn’t just come from completing the route, it comes from remembering the purpose of the walk.

Drink your water. Have plenty on hand and drink it frequently. In short, replenish yourself before you get too thirsty. Any park ranger will tell you it’s tougher to hydrate when you’re already depleted, rather than steadily drinking throughout your hike. We too must be aware of monitoring our own intake of the essentials before we are parched and ready to turn around. Whether it’s a classroom that must peal with laughter as much as it needs to be quiet in thought, or the personal commitment to whatever “fills your bucket,” taking care of yourself isn’t selfish, it’s sustaining.

flowersRemember the small is not insignificant. It’s easy in the presence of waterfalls, mountains, and vast landscapes, to overlook the smallest details. A single yellow flower, hidden behind a tree. A ray of light, turning green ferns to golden tresses. It’s the smallest of moments that coalesce into the greatest experiences. Overlooking the smallest moments of beauty (e.g., “Tyler brought his pencil today” or “Jasmina was willing to share today”) may mean overlooking the greater balance at play.

Find a good rock. Because you’ll need it. To lean against, to rest upon, to table your lunch, to share with others along the way. Whether you find your rock in another person, in the pursuit of a passion, or in the constancy of a centered self, never confuse the dependence on something steady and sure with a lack of self-reliance.

We’re in the space of in-between. As I hiked, it didn’t take me long to realize I was always in-between. Whether it was two points, two elevations, or among those who had already gone and those who were just beginning, I was in-between. Not sandwiched, not suffocated, but surrounded. Sometimes that in-between is the struggle-space, the place where we have to contend with uncertainty and ambiguity. It’s also the space that demands our presence. To be fully present in our in-between spaces is to not only appreciate them, but see in them an implicit balance.

Be mindful of what you carry. There’s a tenuous line between security and burden in what we carry on our backs. There are necessities, plans for emergencies, extra clothes, food, and bug sprays. It can feel comforting to try and stuff that backpack full. We take off on our journey confident with the “stuff” of security. But you still have to carry it. And a too-heavy pack can change the experience from a joyous walk to drudgery. Balance isn’t born of consumption, rather, it breathes mindfulness of purpose.

Pay attention. Especially when we get tired. It’s tough paying attention to what’s around us when we just plow ahead, when we forget that we’re not just on this hike to “finish it,” and when we forget to slow down or even stop. That’s the most important time to close your eyes, listen to the breeze, feel the sun. It’s the difference between enjoying an experience and finishing the task at hand.

You’re never really alone. Before I left on this trip, I talked with my kids about it. I told them why I was excited, why I needed this kind of time. My daughter, especially, was concerned that I wouldn’t be safe by myself. I understood why she was worried — it worried me too — but the truth is, I knew I would bump into people along the way. There were the extreme marathoners, the physics/history/meteorology student with the English professor grandfather, the newly engaged college students, the family making their way with three very young children, and siblings who had determined to take their blind brother on an adventure. Undoubtedly, I sought and found solitude, but also understood the hard work of walking by yourself doesn’t mean you’re walking alone.

The mountains reminded me that balance isn’t achieved alone, and no complex work gets done in isolation. I’m ready to return to my community of teachers and learners — I’m ready to tackle the new year.

Sarah Brown Wessling is a high school English teacher in Johnston, Iowa. She is the 2010 National Teacher of the Year and is the Teacher Laureate for Teaching Channel. Connect with Sarah on Twitter – @SarahWessling.

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