Time to walk away

To lead – or not to lead?

As an Outdoor Education instructor, David Gregory has learned to strike a balance between taking the lead in the field, and allowing others to do the leading. Everything depends on the needs of the students

Sharing the lead

Recently I was involved in a Year 6 program in which I was one of the lead instructors for the outdoor activities. However, the students’ Year 6 teachers were the ones running the overall program. This created an interesting dynamic and one with which I’ve worked over the years. However, this approach can work exceptionally well . . .  or end up as an unmitigated disaster.

To avoid such disasters, clear lines of communication and responsibilities are vitally important. However, this is not about demarcations of responsibilities and how to effectively communicate in a team environment. This is about the value of understanding when not to be involved.


My involvement in the camp started when we ran a canoe session for the students to introduce them to some basic canoeing skills before taking them on the expedition. Given the age of the students and their experience, this was very much a day where we were actively teaching and running the activity to ensure skills were learnt and the group was being safely managed. There was a lot of proactive engagement and interaction throughout.

At the end of the session, the teachers walked the students back up to the campsite, whilst my colleagues and I packed the canoe trailer ready for the next day. There was an important distinction in what we were doing and trying to achieve from an educational point of view. The year 6 teachers who were on the camp were there to develop better relationships with their students and we were there to facilitate a safe, yet appropriately challenging environment in which this could occur.

Out on the water

The next morning, the other outdoor ed. teachers and I drove the canoes down to the boat ramp from where we were starting out. If I were running a high school program, the students would be there doing most of the work themselves, however, this was a different situation and required a different approach. By the time everything was set up ready to go, the students and the teachers arrived. The other instructor and I organised everyone so they were ready to get on the water.

We proceeded to paddle our way up river for the next few hours. Covering 8 km in total and having just learnt all the basic canoeing skills the day before, this was a big day for the Year 6 students. As instructors, we spent a lot of the time actively instructing students, helping them to correct and improve their techniques whilst carefully managing the group.

We made it into camp by mid-afternoon where we ran a demonstration on to how to set up a tent before allowing the students to work in small teams to replicate what they’d seen.


At this point, the other outdoor ed. teacher and I transitioned from a very active role into a passive role. The year 6 teachers took over the afternoon’s activities, which included gathering firewood and a couple of different games. We faded into the background to cook dinner.

It was dark by the time we finished and the students were keen to light the fire. Remaining in the background, we cleaned up from dinner, made a cup of tea and sat back to watch the group now sitting around a blazing fire.

With most groups, I would’ve been over at the fire running a debrief or activity of some sort. However, that wasn’t the point of this exercise. There was a distinct difference in what the group needed from the staff present.

The Year 6 students needed to hear and share stories with their teachers, whom they were now getting to know in a completely different context. For that reason we didn’t become directly involved until much later in the evening.

The group’s needs

As outdoor educators, it is a really important to understand the educational and emotional needs of the group and how they are best served. It can often be the case that we feel we need to be involved in absolutely everything that happens on a camp-out or activity. Yet this couldn’t be further from the truth. The benefit that the other staff and students received from us taking a back seat was huge. The temptation is often to lead the discussion or allow the focus of the evening to fall upon you as the instructor, but in this case the most important thing was the bonding between the teachers and their students. It was important in this case for the instructors not to be at the centre of things.

Understanding your role

It’s important to understand the context in which you’re running, facilitating and leading any sort of activity. This can help you to understand the needs of the group and adapt your approach and involvement with the group accordingly. As instructors, we want to make the most of any opportunity to help and teach others. However, this can lead to the temptation of becoming too involved with a group when there is no need to be.

The next time you find yourself in a situation where you’re running a session as the expert in that particular activity, when the activity is over, sit back, observe the dynamics of the group and assess whether you really need to be directly involved for the rest of the day, or is it time to sit back, make yourself a cup of coffee and let others take the lead.

It might just be time to walk away.


David Gregory

David is an experienced outdoor education teacher from Australia who’s worked on various domestic and international programs for over 16 years. David has planned and led outdoor education programs for students from primary age, through senior school.

For more about his work, click the picture or see http://www.davidgregory.com.au/


Feature Image:  by Benedikt Geyer from Pixabay

Support Image: by skeeze from Pixabay