Rick's Journal

Thursday, July 3, 2014

I Answer Two Excellent Questions About Training 40,000 New Nature Educators

A recent class trip retreat at Hawk Circle.   Photo by Jenny Shannon Harkins.

It's been a day or two since I posted my original 'bigger vision' awakening, and a day or so since my last post about ground rules, and I got this very excellent email from a bloke over in the UK!

Question Number One:
I'm very interested in your new vision in increasing the amount of instructors teaching earth living skills. I run a school here in the UK called Native Awareness, we have been running for 8 years now. I started the school due to a vision quest I took when I was 16 in 1995... It was the first time I had heard about TB... Cutting a long story short I believed that my vision, as many others, is to reunite people with the natural world.

When Native Awareness started, there were about 40, 'Bushcraft' schools in the UK, now 8 years later I've been told that there are over 80.

When I started teaching it was amazing, having full participation in all of our classes... When the recession hit, many schools closed but we ended up becoming more successful and attracting more students etc.   Unfortunately the past couple of years the student intake has dropped, partly I'm sure due to the other schools that are running now...

I was wondering if you could give me your thoughts and advice relating to your proposal of having more instructors etc... My worry is that established schools may suffer due to the loss of bookings etc and have to close.

I really don't want you to think that I'm being negative, we share the same vision. It would just be great to have some advice from you, one that has had so much more experience in reaching out to more and more people!

Best wishes,

 So, first off, I wanted to thank James for asking about this.  You, my friend, are awesome!

Second, here are my thoughts.   

Let me start by saying that I don't have the definitive answers for everything, and that there may be other people in our greater community who may have other ideas and thoughts that can offer more insight or help, so that is something that we will be looking at in the near future, as this thing actually gets off the ground.

My initial thought about your school's experience is that it is fairly typical.  Many schools get started by a founder or small group of founders, who begin sharing their skills and experiences with people in their area, and have a great initial success from the organic process of connecting with like minded people.  It's awesome when that happens.

However, if the economy changes, or someone in the organization leaves, or whatever, sometimes, the success starts to shift and come in different forms, maybe not as steady as before, or whatever.  This is very, very common.   I am sure there are a bunch of people who will read this post and think I am talking about them or their school, and actually, I am not.  I am not pointing to any school in particular, actually.   It's a mix of things I have heard from instructors and school program directors again and again over the last 27 years or so.

So, the problems you are currently having are very real and they are a concern.   How do you reach more students?

And, won't there be even less students if we flood the world with 40,000 new educators and instructors?

The short answer is no, it won't mean that.    

The fact is, your particular school's problem, in my opinion, is that your marketing and communications approach is too general. 

Your website or brochures might not be speaking closely to who you would ideally like to teach.   So, your 'general' message is getting lost in the cacophony of the rest of the modern world.   

The way to reach people is changing, and changing fast.    It's harder than ever to pierce through the noise and reach your ideal clients.

So, your school may not even be around to compete with the thousands of new instructors that we hope to be training.   That's a valid possibility.   

Unless you actually solve the problem facing your school.    

I would say that it's a lot like a trapping problem.   If you have a 'general' trap, you sometimes having a hard time catching an animal, because it's not specific enough.  You have to know your quarry, inside and out.  Where does he like to eat?  Where does he sleep?   How does he move across the landscape, and what makes him feel safe?   What bothers him?  Etc.

So, that should help you on that end.   Let me know if you want to connect further about it, if you like, too!  I will try to help if I can.

On the other side of your question and this issue, the 'lots of new instructors' side of things, you are missing one important part of the equation.   

You are assuming that there are a limited number of students, and with more instructors, we will be competing for a smaller and smaller market share of that pie, right?

My friend, nothing could be further from the truth.  

The fact is, the number of people who need to get connected to nature, on a practical or on a spiritual or healing basis, is massive.   A recent study in the UK, (Spring, 2013) as reported in the Guardian, found that only 20% of our kids today are connected to nature in a meaningful way.   That means 80% are functionally disconnected from nature.

Think about that for a moment. 

80% of the children of the UK and Europe is a pretty freaking big number.   In the US, it's even larger.  

We absolutely, positively, have to reach those kids and give them a meaningful connection to the natural world.    It's the prime directive for our species if we want to be around beyond the next century.   Maybe sooner, even, depending on who you read, and so forth.

So, maybe your school doesn't really specialize in kids, right?  That could be the case.   Maybe your school is great at teaching adults how to get connected.    

Well, if we need to train, say, I don't know, maybe 8,000 more instructors in wilderness or nature education, don't you think that is something you might collaborate with us on?   Would you want to be part of this project if that was the case?

Don't you think that some of those kids and their parents, once they get taught, might want to out and have a deeper experience?   That could bring you more business.   In fact, it probably would bring you more business than you could handle.   And guess what?   We will have great, well trained instructors who can help you out when you're ready to expand.   I am sure there will be ten or fifteen people would love to hang with you and learn from you and help you out.  Especially if they were getting paid for their work, too.   Which is absolutely essential, too.

So, hopefully you are following me with this line of thinking.   I am sure it will be a little messy and not quite as neat and polished as what I just listed, but I do very seriously think that my reasoning is sound.   And I fully intend to work closely with anyone who is interested in collaborating in a mutually beneficial manner, too.

I know we have a long way to go before any of this actually rolls off the line and is fully operational, but it's coming.   We are going to get there.   We absolutely have to do it.   It's essential.

I will also add that you can also choose to just do your own thing, too, and that's great too.   We can go either way.   I know there are a lot of people who won't want to join us for one reason or another, so we will just support each other from afar, maybe, and share a bowl of wild stew or something around a campfire at a gathering or whatever, when we can.   It's going to be fun.

Honestly, I know that there are going to be many, many people who will disagree with my premise, or my reasoning, or my ideas of what makes a good instructor, and how a wilderness program should be taught, or so many other areas where we could disagree or rub each other the wrong way.   I am sure some people will look at what I am proposing and say, "Hey, I can do it better than that guy!" and I think that would be awesome.  I totally support that.  

By all means, please, do it better than me, and beat me to it.  Change the world two years earlier than my goals, please!    Then we can all take a break, go on vacation or just hang out and shoot some arrows or whatever.   It's fine by me.

Anyway, I hope some of this makes sense, even a little bit.  And thank you for sharing your thoughts.

And now, on to Question Number Two!

Got this post this morning on Facebook:
"From my experience I must declare, any expectation of increasing the flow of new, capable and qualified wilderness instructors from the current trickle and dribble into a flood that will change the world is only a dream so long as the "liberally grease my palm in exchange for knowledge" training structure exists. Restricting knowledge based solely on who can pay is not a plan for positive change. Any barrier which prevents access to knowledge necessarily limits it's audience, and $900 a pop for a nugget here and there is a definite barrier to learning. Some might say a college education costs more. But I would counter, one does not go to college to become educated. One goes to college, and pays for the privilege, to get a diploma...an acceptance label for polite society, and a proof stamp for recruiters and Human Resource desk jockeys so that they may say, "Ah, I see you have a diploma! Surely you are dumber than a box of rocks, but I too have a diploma, therefore I deem you worthy, and so you may pass." No, an education doesn't come from a school, it comes from learning, and knowledge is where you find it. It is said that "when a student is ready, the teacher will appear." The greatest teachers, the ones that really do change the world, are always those who pass on their knowledge freely, without reservation or condition...because they believe so completely in the goodness that will come from the spread of their teaching. When the hippie made his way to the ashram, the guru didn't stop him at the gate and say, "Namaste! the price for spiritual enlightenment is 54,000 rupees per week." Jesus didn't charge admission for the Sermon on the Mount. Master Yoda didn't train Luke in the ways of the Force in exchange for payment. And awakening millions to positive change just is not going to happen from behind the blockade of for-profit camps. It's only going to happen simply, locally, openly...when a teacher teaches because there is a student that wants to learn...one on one, or small gatherings, where one becomes two, becomes four, becomes eight, onward and outward. And so, the temple isn't a camp in the pine barrens, The temple is nature, the temple is me, we are one. If I am open, and allow myself to see, she will teach me. As I learn of her, I learn of myself."

This is another great perspective, and one I am happy to address right out of the gate.  I was expecting it, and frankly, kind of disappointed that I haven't gotten it asked much sooner and with a lot more passion!   This is a very well thought out comment, and I really appreciate it so, so very much!

So, there are multiple things going on in this comment, some which are solely the opinion of the writer and thus not for me to say whether they are good or bad.  

Me leading a free educational day hike/experience for the Adirondack Mountain Club at Hawk Circle.
But the issue of getting paid for teaching and leading people back to nature is one that has been around since my very first class at the Tracker School, and probably will grace every gathering campfire on into eternity by buckskin wearing lads and lasses, with opinions going every which way, etc.

So, my answer to this is again about the same issue I shared in the first question:   Who is your audience?  Who is your ideal client?  Who are you wanting to work with?

When the goal is to teach 'everybody', then the field is wide open.

And if you follow my Rule Number One in my ground rules post, you'll know that if that is what you want to do, you should go for it!  I'm not gonna come around and try to stop you!

But honestly, for most people, or schools or whatever, they all know that if they want to have a quality experience, they should expect to pay something for that person's time, and for their training, and for that person's professional preparation and experience.   You get what you pay for.

I paid a lot for my training.  I never asked anyone for a discount, ever.  I worked a lot of crappy, disgusting, soul-breaking jobs to pay my way, and I was happy to do it.  I mean, I made $3.35 an hour in the California Conservation Corps back in 1984 to save the money and take some of the classes I did back then.   

I also worked in my free time on my skills, practicing tracking, fire-making, doing survival treks and making buckskin.  I did a ton of hard work getting in my dirt time, while most of my classmates from high school were working jobs, getting promotions, and making a ton of money.   I didn't have their soul sucking jobs, but I also didn't get paid vacations or a car that wasn't ten or fifteen years old, either.   It was a trade I made at the time, and it felt right.   

But don't kid yourself.  Getting these skills is an investment.   A major investment.   

To give it away, well, it's kind of like saying it's not worth anything.   I know that's not what you are saying, but I hold a different perspective.

If you try to offer something for free, many people (not all), will not actually value your training or your teachings.

The worst students I ever had were ones who I offered to teach for free.  They didn't show up when we planned to go out into the bush and train.  They didn't come prepared.  They didn't practice their skills like I asked them to, so they would be ready.   They didn't take it seriously.

Why should they?   They didn't have ANYTHING ON THE LINE.   They didn't have anything to lose.   

When there's no investment, you get poor results.   Poor results aren't going to cut it.   And most of the people I know who want to be good instructors and nature educators aren't independently wealthy.   So, they aren't looking to get rich, per se, but they would like to make a fair wage for doing quality work for their students.   It feels right when we have a great yoga class, or martial arts class, or a healing session with someone who is really, really awesome and does life changing work.   I personally don't have much money, but I always feel good about paying someone who is awesome for their time and their energy.  Especially when I know it means so much to them to be able to get paid for their time and their work, which they love to do.

It completes the circle, and closes the gap.   It also means I don't want to be late, and disrespect them or their time.  It helps me stay accountable and on my own best game.   (Please note:  I am a work in progress!)

So, I don't have anything worked out as far as price or whatever, so we aren't talking numbers here, but the bottom line for me is, yes, for some of our projected projects, we will probably be working on creating a pay scale that will be a livable wage.   I don't have any problem with that.

If you don't want to pay $900 for a class, no one has a gun to your head to write the check.  Just don't go.

Enjoy a few hours on YouTube.   Scroll around on the blogs or survival message boards.  Chat with someone on Facebook.   Attend a workshop at a gathering, or hold a MeetUp, or do an apprenticeship at a survival school or something.  There are lots of ways to get training or taught and not pay a ton of money.  That's a good thing, and it's awesome!

For some people, though, time is very valuable to them, and they would rather pay for someone to teach them and get what they really want, without searching around on the internet or meeting unknown strangers who may or may not know what the hell they are actually talking about.  These folks don't want to mess around with all that stuff.   And they certainly don't want those people messing around with their kids!  They are willing to pay to get the right person for what they need.

Think of a mechanic.   You could go get your car worked on by a guy down at the end of the street who says he can fix your transmission.  But how much confidence will you have to make a 500 mile trip after he is done?   It's even scarier when it's your life on the line, and you are in the bush, counting on the skills you learned to save your life, or that of your family.   Not a good time to find out the instructor was a bargain basement deal.   (Kind of like a carpenter who buys the cheapest tools and then loses money when his tools fail on the job, etc.)   Sometimes, you just want to get someone you can trust, and not have to worry about micro-managing them, or 'checking them out to be sure they are on the level' etc.   

One of our Apprentices drawknives the sap wood from a black ash
log in preparation for pounding into pack basket splints and materials.
I don't agree that the only way to teach students and help us change the direction of our current, death seeking society is to be done

for free, in your free time, to students, when it can be fit into your schedule.  That's not, in my opinion, going to change enough people quickly enough.   This is just my opinion, but I do think that my reasoning is solid.   We can't afford to wait and let this whole process happen organically, over the next twenty five years.   We can't, and we don't actually have to!  That's the beauty of it!

So, to reiterate, I am not saying you should charge anything for your teachings, or your time, or your skills or whatever you want to do.  What you do and how you do it is totally up to you.   I am sure it's awesome, and it's amazing, and that a lot of kids and adults will have life changing experiences due to your work.   I would love to know how it works out, too.

I also believe that for students who can't afford to pay, we should find ways to have their school systems pay, so that this stuff is free for all kids, not just the lower income students.   I mean, maybe we can use some of that stupid technology money that schools love to spend, and instead use it for this stuff!   If that happens, it will be awesome!   

Let me ask you:   If the program was free for the kids, all kids, and the supplies were paid for by the school, and they had the money to pay you and support you and your family so you could do this full time and change lives, would you take the money?  Or would you instead work a full time job doing something else and teach in your spare time?

Something to think about.

Luckily, there is room for all of us!   And there is no shortage of people, that's for sure.

Thank you so much for your question, and your comments and insight, and if anyone has anything to add, you know what to do!

Note:   My next post will be about the Natural History of the Wilderness School Models, and how they will need to be turned upside down to make this vision happen!  Stay tuned! 


  1. I like the comments above as well as your response, Ricardo. However, I would like to raise the issue of those who live at or under the poverty line (something like 25% of all Americans) and/or who are minority. I have been involved in the wilderness schools movement for 5 years and have been to several schools (as have my kids). Pretty much w/o exception, the kids attending are white & middle-class (as are the instructors). I don't think you are going to have a mass movement w/o finding a way to connect with the poor and lower-"class" who are often minority. It would be great if their school districts would pay, but most of them are too poor to even buy their students textbooks. I don't know what the answer is, but at some point this movement needs to find a way to break through the income-and-race barriers that keep it limited to certain segments of the population. I agree with what you are saying, but at the same time, people struggling to put food on the table are unlikely to have the mental space or ability to dig deeper to fund private wilderness camps.

    Afternote: I believe Wilderness Awareness School partnered with a non-profit that funds recess (or maybe it was after-school) activities at some minority/impoverished schools. That may be one option.

    1. Hi Janet!

      Thanks for your comments, they are most welcome and excellent.

      And the issue you bring up, of how to offer these programs to ALL kids and at a cost that is reasonable or free is one that is very near and dear to my heart. We are fortunate at Hawk Circle to be part of a grant program that offers classes in local schools for kids after school, and it's totally free for those kids, absolutely, which we are very very grateful for. And hopefully we can make more programs like this happen all over this country as we begin to understand the tremendous return on investment that nature education truly is for both kids and adults.

      That being said, there are people who are bringing these old ways back to people of color, but it's slow going right now because our populations are dealing with so much poverty, incarceration and general safety and food security (or lack thereof) that it's just hard to get that issue even on the table because it's so crowded. But I do sincerely believe that there are very real benefits that will come in the next ten years or so if we can get the right funding and start reaching out to leaders in those communities and allow for some creativity and renewal to take place, and I think it's going to be amazing.

      Mass movements take time to develop momentum, and there is a lot of inertia and it's definitely going to take a lot of pushing, pulling and inspiration to get things happening, but it's most important to take lots of small steps towards our goals each year, rather than only focus on one or two big goals, because research has proven that incremental progress is actually very, very addictive and positive and reassuring to the human spirit. I believe we will get there, if we keep going.

      All of your points are spot on!

      So, my question to you would be this: What do you think it would take to get more Latino/African American/or other minority instructors working in nature connection type programs?

      What are the barriers to getting them involved, and seeing the movement as something belonging to them?

      We just have to keep going and reaching out and learning as much as we can, but I would love any insight you might share as to possible solutions or directions we could go towards to make good things happen!