Educational Ice Axes: The Art of Self-Arrest

Some days, this job of being an educator is difficult.  For awhile now, I have been watching a student, with whom I have invested a great deal of time, slowly slipping into the educational abyss.  Today, he took another slide in that direction.

I am not a mountain climber, but I know enough about the sport of mountaineering to understand the importance of a good ice axe.  One of the first things climbers learn is how to arrest a fall by driving their axe into the snow and ice on the mountain slope.  Wikipedia defines self arrest as follows:

Self-arrest is a mountaineering related maneuver in which a climber who has fallen and is sliding down a snow or ice slope arrests (stops) the slide by himself or herself without recourse to a rope or other belay system.

This technique not only slows their loss of forward progress, in some cases, it means the difference between life and death.  Experienced climbers would not dream of tackling a challenging summit without this essential tool.

When you think about your school, or your classroom, do you provide your students with a proverbial ice axe – a way to arrest their fall?  Most of us would agree that failure is a given, even essential, part of life.  Under the right circumstances, making mistakes can be a valuable learning experience, but only if students are given the opportunity to stop their slide, re-establish traction and experience the feeling of success.  Giving students the tools and skills they need to maneuver through the challenges they face involves fostering hope, self-confidence, desire and resilience.  Here are three tools that educators can provide students to help prepare them to “self arrest” in the event of an academic or social slip.

  1. Personal Relationships: meaningful relationships with adults on campus is the most powerful tool we can offer our students who are coping with challenges.  Every student should have at least one adult they trust to confide in when times get tough.  This person should be an advocate, a coach, a mentor and a cheerleader.
  2. Connectedness: students should have a variety of opportunities to “fit-in” and play a meaningful role in the fabric of their school.  Whether it is through clubs, peer groups, athletics, or leadership opportunities, every student needs to feel like they have a place and that they are a welcomed part of the school community.
  3. Educational Autonomy: we should not underestimate the power that instructional freedom has on our students.  Giving students opportunities to direct their own learning, exercise creativity, problem solve and address issues of personal interest serves to engage and motivate.  Getting students to realize that education is about meeting their personal needs, not those of the adults in school, is a huge step toward fostering resilience and determination.

These are just a few of many “life-lines” that educators can use to help students deal with challenges and failures in their academic careers.  Even these don’t guarantee success, but the more tools and resources we provide our students, the better their odds.

What “ice axes” do you provide students at your school?

cc Flickr photo by Tim Snell

Cross posted on Molehills out of Mountains

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