This year, VOBS has laid out a bold 2021 Strategic Plan. The ’21 Plan calls for VOBS to “Retain staff and improve employee satisfaction.” Readers might imagine that a pandemic can be a challenging time to do both. We are happy to report that VOBS has made some headway in our support for staff in the first quarter of the year, including field staff pay raises, incentive pay, streamlined reviews and a Human Resources and Finance hire. While VOBS is committed to supporting our Instructors when they come in from the field, mitigating COVID-19 and running courses as safely as possible continue to be top priorities for staff (and student) retention.
When we aren’t in the middle of a pandemic, but even more so when we are, our Instructors embrace challenge and welcome adversity—challenge is a key condition for learning at Outward Bound and VOBS Instructors relish challenge. But this year in the field, challenge and adventure take on new meaning, and servant leadership requires something more than an appetite for risk.
Our Field Instructors—each one of them a servant leader—have embraced the opportunity to do what they do best, with students who need Outward Bound more than ever. The pandemic is posing some substantial risks that go beyond physical health for young people today, and our Instructors want to help mitigate those risks. Belonging, strength and purpose? Try disconnection, doubt and apathy.
The good news is, our Instructors are running safe courses. The better news is, our Instructors are running effective, and satisfying, courses.
We caught up with two of our Instructors, Rachael Pace and Julia Sachs, to find out what it’s like to Instruct during a pandemic. Spoiler alert: turns out, it’s still Outward Bound, and it’s pretty satisfying.
What is your name?
Both: Our students tend to call us by our course nicknames!
Rachael “Paché” Pace
Julia “Julia G Sunshine” Sachs
What course did you just instruct together?
A Texas to Minnesota Leadership Semester, where we backpacked and canoed in Big Bend for the students’ first half of the course, which was 25 days—before sending them up to Minnesota to go Dog Sledding in the Boundary Waters.
Where did the course take place?
Big Bend National Park and the Rio Grande River in Texas.
What is your favorite thing about this course area?
Julia: Warm, sunny weather! Well, usually, but we’ll get to that later…
Rachael: I was born and raised in the desert, so I love being able to explore Big Bend. In terms of backpacking in Big Bend, my favorite thing is to see how varied the desert landscapes are. As we travel, every couple of days, the rocks and plants are totally different. The terrain near water sources in the riparian (river) areas is so different compared to the greater desert landscape we spend the majority of our time in. When you’re backpacking, you get to experience the diversity up close.
How many students did we have?
Most memorable student learning moment on course?
Julia: Early on in the course, one of our students took the initiative to ask us about a lesson they didn’t understand. Instead of disengaging or just going with the flow, they actively sought us out to understand. It challenged me to think about how we as Instructors have to think outside of our own box, to consider how we are reaching students. It was powerful for me to learn from the student and it helped me reframe how I teach.
Rachael: I was continually impressed by our students’ perseverance, their ability to find joy and their tendency to support each other in hard moments. There is one moment that stays with me. After a pretty hard day on the river—I think it was our first snow day (yes, just like most of Texas, we also had snow on the Rio)—we were all snuggled up in our sleeping bags, and the students started singing and harmonizing together. They just sang into the night. It was incredibly beautiful.
Most memorable Instructor learning moment on course?
Julia: I’m always learning from the students. What types of lessons work for their learning styles, what do they want to talk about, what matters to them? We had many deep conversations on this course. I love how every course brings together different people and creates a safe space for us to share different experiences. I always learn from these exchanges of perspective.
Rachael: I think I should say something about our unexpected snow days during what was supposed to be the whitewater canoeing section of the course. What do you take away from such an unexpected experience? Sure, it’s just plain wild for it to snow like that, but I appreciated how, at the core, it was simply a very classic Outward Bound opportunity and challenge, to pull your resources and experience together and put them into play. Five years instructing, winter staff training, experience in both the Boundary Waters and Big Bend, in a variety of weather conditions—we had to put all of that together to stay safe, keep travelling and maintain a positive and supportive environment for learning, for ourselves and the crew.
Most unusual, funny or moving thing that happened on course?
Julia: Snow days on the Lower Canyons! Not one, not two, but… THREE!
Both: Yup, we were caught in that “polar vortex” storm that hit Texas towards the end of February. We were told it would be cold for a day or two, but next thing we knew, it was snowing!
We felt more or less prepared that first day of snow, but, remember, our first day on the river was around 80 degrees. When it kept snowing, we ended up taking two layover days. We didn’t travel and made big fires to keep people as warm and dry as possible. Hypothermia is a big risk in wet, cold conditions like that. We caught up on some course lessons, did some fun baking and got to know each other better. Then the weather broke. It was beautiful and sunny and we headed down river, happy as can be.
However, that was not the end of it! Next morning, we woke up to three more inches of snow and it just kept snowing into the afternoon. When it stopped, we had the students hang out their sleeping bags to dry in the sun and we started another big fire to dry our clothes. We didn’t feel quite so prepared for that second round. Luckily, the next few days were sunny and warm enough to travel. In the end, we were able to paddle out, it just took a few more days than we expected!
It’s interesting to note that the Rio’s lower canyons are the most remote area that Outward Bound operates in, so we knew we had to take extra care to mitigate hypothermia. When we re-purposed plastic bags for our feet and then put on our wet shoes, we felt a little silly, but it kept our spirits high and it kept hypothermia at bay.
What do you most appreciate about your Co-Instructor?
Rachael: Julia encourages my creativity! Both as an Instructor, and as a person, Julia inspires me. She urged me to get back into drawing, especially because it’s a great way to see and reflect on the nature we have the privilege of exploring together.
Julia: I appreciate Paché’s commitment to mental health—learning about it for herself, and being an advocate for students and co-workers. I learn from Rachael that you can bring personal expertise and interest to the student experience. It’s also just a lot of fun to work with someone who enjoys laughing so much.
What course do you want to instruct in the future?
Rachael: I’m really enjoying working courses with the semester age group (18-24), so hopefully I also have more Pathfinder in my future.
Why should people come instruct at VOBS?
Julia: You might think you’re coming here to teach students, but you’re actually going to learn a bunch about yourself as an educator and a person too, and in a very cool place.
Rachael: I agree. Learning is the number one thing I love about working at VOBS. I learn so much from students, colleagues and the expedition itself. It helps me grow.
Also, in terms of working during a pandemic, it’s been a really wonderful way to engage meaningful community-building, which is hard to come by when you’re in quarantine. Yah sure, we are working with vital, necessary safety measures that include masks and physical distancing, but at the core, we’re running Outward Bound courses, just like we always have. It’s still Outward Bound and I’m still a VOBS Instructor. We are changing lives by doing challenging and fun things, figuring it all out together and travelling through some truly amazing places.
Thanks to Pache and JGS for sharing their life-changing Instructor adventures with us.