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Written for the AAEA Newsletter for October, 2013
While hiking the Ozark Highlands Trail, my buddies and I came across a couple of college students. It was their first time on the trail and one said, “I’m carrying 60-pounds in this pack!” Surprised, I said, “Why?” He seemed a little confused by my response, and I then realized he was expecting me to be impressed but I felt only sympathy.
When we met these two guys on the next day, they were sprawled out in the middle of the trail totally exhausted. I casually mentioned that the forest road we were crossing went straight to Highway 7 where there was cell phone coverage. A few minutes later, I noticed them slumping down that road with their 60-pound packs, wisely cutting their trip short.
Hiking on, I began to think about some of my first outings when I carried about 45-pounds, equivalent to the World Book Encyclopedia volumes A-S. With experience, I found that some items were not essential or could be replaced with lighter items. Over time, my pack weight came down to 25-30 pounds depending on the season. My wife says my obsession with packing light saves money because when she suggests a new piece of equipment, I typically reply it wouldn’t be worth the added weight.
As an educator, I often feel like other people are trying to drop stuff in my pack, especially during legislative sessions. Successful organizations maintain dexterity and the ability to move fast, but our schools often stumble under the weight of requirements that can limit our ability to respond to the needs of students and teachers.
Sometimes, I spread out the items from my pack and try to eliminate what isn’t essential. I like Swiss Army knives and used to carry one. I found that a small single blade knife was all I needed and saved several ounces. It would be nice to have a complete set of cooking pots, but one small well-designed pot will work.
As my pack-weight came down my enjoyment went up. No longer walking head down looking at the trail in front of my nose, I could hold my head up and see the beauty around me. I became more responsive to changes in the terrain and could see land features that helped me keep my bearings. Challenges that would have been insurmountable with a 45-pound load were easily climbed with the lighter pack.
As educators, we have a responsibility to scrutinize everything we do in our schools to be sure our time and resources are benefiting students. Ounces add up. There may be practices we can drop or change. Some essential tasks might be better placed in someone else’s pack. We might develop leadership capacity in our schools by thoughtfully placing important items with others to complement their talents and strengths. “We’ve always done it this way” is not a good rationale for loading a pack or setting priorities.
Earl Schafer, the first person to thru-hike the 2000-mile Appalachian Trail said, “Carry as little as possible but choose that little with care.” It’s important that we, as educators, have the flexibility to pack what we need for our particular schools while avoiding having outside forces load us up with weight that doesn’t serve the needs of our students and teachers. Our involvement in the AAEA is critical to this process. The AAEA’s strength comes from the involvement and collective voices of its membership.
Bring legislators and community leaders into your school. Share your vision, your strengths, and the needs of your students. Share your expertise and make yourself a resource for state leaders as they grapple with matters impacting schools. Use the AAEA to stay informed, and be ready to speak up on issues when needed. These actions will help ensure that we carry what we need while traveling light enough to move our students, teachers, and schools toward success.