Lessons from the Wild

This blog was first published in TES FE, August 2021

I don’t know about you, but the last academic year categorically did not go out with a bang for me. There was no sprint to the finish; only a fatigued stumble across a hazy line. I was itching for a finale of any description; a clear mark of completion, and so we decided to hit the road and head north the very next morning. My fellow educators will understand that this is an intrepid move. Our body clocks are relentless timers counting down to feverish self-destruction at the mere hint of a holiday, but it was a risk I was willing to take in order to leave 20/21 as far behind me as my PCP mileage-capped car would allow. After the obligatory celebration with colleagues the evening before, I hopped into the car at the crack of noon and set off. Of course, at this early stage of any given holiday, school and college staff are experiencing an intense cognitive overload. As a result, one hour northwards I realised we had not left a key for the cat-sitter. Much swearing and several hours later I am wilting at the wheel, and quite certain that we must be a considerable distance from our home in Leeds and my professional responsibilities. As dusk descends I spot a sign for a campsite in a small, picturesque village to our right. I have assessed our distance and direction, and asserted that we are likely in the northern quarter of the Lake District, a mere stone’s throw from the Scottish border. This seems like a journey worthy of a brief stopover, and so we pitch up and wander into the tranquil parish to source dinner. Friends, we were in Dent. We had not even made it out of Yorkshire. 

Undeterred, we set forth again the following morning. We stop briefly in Glasgow for a 24 hour whirlwind of family and friend reunions, where well-meaning enquiries about work evolve into frustrated, prosecco-fuelled animations on the discord of education and capitalism. As we move on my bleary eyes and weary soul are grateful to see the city skylines dissipate into the vast, rolling landscapes of the Scottish Highlands. We drive onwards still, and as bustling motorways fade into dual carriageways and single track roads I feel a settling calm. I have always breathed more easily in the wilderness. My lungs seem to expand to meet the horizon and an internal space broadens to accommodate my thoughts. I feel a deep affinity with the wild; wild spaces, wild ideas and wild students.

I must explain that my intended use of the word ‘wild’ here is in no way derogatory. I’m certain that we have all heard children and young people referred to as ‘wild’ in a bid to paint a challenging picture of their behaviour. I much prefer the Oxford Dictionary’s definition: ‘Living or growing in the natural environment.’ (2021)

A natural environment cannot be moulded around a standardised curriculum, of course, but I do believe that the flexibility offered within further education goes someway to the creation of personalised, authentic learning environments.

Environments where wild students and wild teachers can thrive. 

I continue to notice parallels between my profession and our adventure as I reflect on this time in the wilderness. 

Prior to the trip I had settled in front of my laptop one evening with a glass of wine, a map and the fabled teacher’s resolve to diligently organise our escape. Hours into my Google quest it transpired that many campsites were operating on a first come, first serve basis in response to the holidaying surge within the United Kingdom. Rather than descend into panic at this stage, I took a moment to collect my wine thoughts and considered our options. In the end we set off with a sequence of destinations against allocated dates and a mutual understanding that we would pitch up wherever presented itself as available and appropriate at the time. And isn’t this how entire academic years disappear? Our profession is the most capricious cocktail of the meticulously organised and the unknown. Some days it seems that every lesson reveals astonishing hurdles, and yet we overcome, adapting our approach to recentre and resume, guiding our learners to do the same. We welcome the unknown. The wild.

Fortune favoured us on our travels and we discovered some truly glorious locations. Moving so regularly from site to site my partner and I also celebrated the power of recall, retrieval and communication as we whittled our tent assembly to a slick, choreographed number just shy of five minutes.

At each campsite I marvelled at the joy I felt sitting cross legged on the grass by a tiny, gas stove. Veggie sausages and fried eggs would sizzle in the shoogly-handled frying pan as huge dragonflies darted past towards running streams. Cooking dinner is a daily chore of mine at home, and one that I can struggle to find joy in during busy working periods. As a result I will often avoid the activity if I am home alone, throwing together insubstantial snacks if I’m home alone. Yet here, with a change in method and environment, I am delighted by the process rather than anxious for the result. I endeavour to remember this as I plan learning and assessment activities for the coming term. 

Venturing from the campsites to the expansive banks and braes, I find a powerful reflection of our values in further education.

The beauty of the wildflowers painted across ragged landscapes, persistent in their annual display of statuesque diversity, catches many an ardent hiker in their stride, and slows their pace lest they miss a single petal. It has never crossed the mind of an observer, nor a flower, that it would be better to have bloomed sooner. Or that the rising buds around it should be considered late. Their staggered fluorescence extends this colourful display, and this we consider a cause for perennial celebration.

This is a celebration I shall endeavour to share. To share with my wild students and wild colleagues. To bolster our wild belief that every individual, at every stage of every walk of life deserves to bloom. That each and every blossom adds to a rich tapestry of wildflowers, worthy of celebration.