Saturday, September 20, 2014

A defining moment in failure.

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We all have, at least, one great story!
A defining moment in our lives where our thoughts and actions changed and we became better people because of it. The trick with teaching is that you incorporate your learning moments to impart and spark learning with your students...

Base Camp, Windless Blight, Ross Island, Antarctica

My defining moment began when I looked at my watch and the group of people congregating for a briefing. I had 15 minutes. Surely that was enough time to go to the make-shift bathroom to do my business and pack the required gear needed to go practise self-arresting. A survival skill needed in case one found themselves sliding down an icy peak while in Antarctica.
Antarctic toilet
I nipped to the toilet with my pee bottle and she-wee. The Madrid Protocol requires those in Antarctica to take all waste back to Base to be disposed of correctly while in Antarctica. New Zealand prides itself on following this protocol and setting a standard and upholding the values of the Antarctica Treaty.
So, I found myself fumbling around with this unfamiliar devise and my layers of clothing. I thought I had everything in place to successfully pee, but when I started the act, something felt wrong. After checking once and everything appearing to be in order I continued. Nope! Something definitely felt wrong. I took out the she-wee and found I had missed my underwear layer and wet it. Adrenaline and cortisol flowed through my body and my instant reaction was to run back to my tent and get changed out of my survival clothing. A time consuming act. I could have managed not changing, but instead, I sprinted across the ice, which would have been more of a causal jog with the clothing layers and mukluks I was wearing. As I ran, I watched more and more people gather for the briefing.
Inside a polar tent
Once I got to the tent I found my tent buddy's legs sticking out of the shoot. I told her I needed to get in the tent, which started a small debate and quickly ended when I said I had wet myself.
Climbing back up the 'birth cannel', a joke to describe our tents, with my tent buddy's legs sticking out, I got inside and immediately started stripping. I changed and chucked some things in a bag (not knowing what) and climbed out the shoot and ran to the briefing.
Being extremely late and realising I wasn't wearing any gloves raised the attention of the Antarctic Field Trainer who thought to make an example of me in front of the group. "Go and get your gloves!" I turned around, but my boot-laces were not properly laced up and it meant a lace got tangled in my other boot's hook. I face planted on the ice. I got up to the sound of group sniggers. I agree, it would have looked hilarious from their point of view. I told everyone I was okay and then continued running, fighting back the hot tears and red face.  I heard the same AFT say 'Watch her fall over the guy rope, too." Instead, I cleared it and got the rest of my belongings.
Mt Erebus, Ross Island, Antarctica
I, vividly, remember looking at Mt Erebus while running back to my tent and questioning what this experience was trying to teach me, knowing I had to endure another 10 days of potential embarrassment.
We headed off in the Hugglands to a strip of safe ice to practice self arresting. For most of the time I was lost in my thoughts as I completed the manoeuvres. I had, initially, applied to do a Post Graduate Certificate in Antarctic Studies because I was passionate about Education for Sustainability. I wanted to get a better understanding of our planet and what was happening to it to be more effective in my job. However, this goal changed while on the ice and, like Shackleton but not so extreme, it became about survival and getting back to New Zealand with my hauora in tact. Over the next 10 days of camping on the Ross Ice Shelf I learned vital skills around the importance of trusting team-mates (with my life), time management, leading and following and focusing on the 'here and now'. An extreme version of the Outward Bound experience.
The most important aspect I learned on the ice was 'learning includes failure and to embrace it'. This is what I incorporated into my pedagogy and share with my students regularly.


I recently watched a TEDTalk by Diana Laufenberg who sparked this thinking for me again. Laufenberg talks about the importance of experiential and authentic learning, and how failure should be built into the learning process for students.

I support this thinking by adding when things do not come easily to us and we go through hardship we develop a strong value around what it is that challenged us. When we think of our achievements, it is never the time when everything ran smoothly that we remember fondly, but the time when things didn't go according to plan which we define our success by - case in point. This thinking is even stronger when groups of people come together in support of each other and a sense of camaraderie is built. We remember the camaraderie, not the work. Just imagine if we focused and developed classroom environments like this? Imagine what our students could achieve?

Me, standing over a crack in the ice
The growth which came from my experience in Antarctica and doing PCAS were beyond anything I could imagine. It keeps on giving back in so many facets of my work, that I will be forever grateful to those who provided me with a defining moment of failure, which I have built so much of my teaching around.