Never Take a Rock for Granite

Stephanie Nebel Leadership Programs, Pedagogy Of Leadership®, Student Leadership

By Dr. Stephanie Nebel, LL’17, gcLi-PennGSE Scholarship Recipient ‘19, science teacher and advisor, The Elisabeth Morrow School (NJ)

It was a warm September day a little over a year ago when I, hot, sweaty, and covered in various bits of nature, bumped into my colleague in the dining hall of the outdoor education center that was to be our home for the next few days. It was Adventure Week, an annual middle school tradition at The Elisabeth Morrow School that brings our students into the great outdoors to bond as a class at the beginning of each new school year. As I walked toward her, my colleague asked, “How was your afternoon?” I quickly responded “I tangoed with a rock… and lost.” 

Several hours earlier, our Adventure Week adventures were just beginning. My 8th grade students and I engaged in the fairly typical “getting to know you” activities with our facilitators. We then graduated to activities that extended our focus to developing group trust and cohesion. These activities and the debriefing that followed began to frame our discussion and understanding of leadership, a core component of our 8th grade curriculum. 

As our afternoon of activities together continued, our group donned blindfolds and went on a group hike through the woods lead by our (un-blindfolded) facilitator. We navigated using our other senses and relied on each other, communicating what we encountered so that all members of the group could be aware. The leader led us individually to a rope and told us not to let go. Our facilitator informed us that we were in a maze and that we needed to find the exit without letting go of the rope. Lots of laughter and collisions ensued as we tried to stumble our way out of the maze. 

I kept hearing our facilitator shout “if you need help, ask for it!” which I ignored, partially because of my own stubborn determination to find the exit on my own and partially because I enjoyed the sensation of relying on my other senses. After several minutes of carefully walking around in search of the elusive exit, I tripped, spectacularly, over a giant boulder that was sticking up slightly from the ground. I fell flat on my face. The facilitator rushed over to me, asked me if I was okay, helped me up, and promptly guided my hand back to the rope. At that point, my colleague, who was not participating in the game, came over to me and whispered, “you are actually walking around in a circle. There is no way to solve your way out of the maze. You need to ask for help. Asking for help is the exit.”

A lightbulb went off.

“I need help!” I declared. With that, I was immediately led out of the maze by the facilitator and asked to remove my blindfold. I took stock of the damage; I had cut my hand and bruised my knee but was otherwise okay. 

As a teacher and a student of the world, I consider myself to be in a state of continuous learning. As a geologist, I was (and still am) fascinated by the layered and interesting stories that rocks have to tell. I suspect the boulder was a glacial erratic, plucked up by a continental sized ice sheet during a previous ice age, transported sometimes hundreds of miles by that glacier, deposited when the ice began to melt, and slowly buried beneath accumulating soil in the tens of thousands of years between then and when our paths intersected. On that September day, after years of listening to and interpreting rocks at the top of mountains and the bottom of oceans, a giant boulder taught me an important lesson about myself. 

I quietly reflected on this moment during our (un-blindfolded) hike later that afternoon. As we climbed over hill and dale, balanced our way across rope bridges, and took in the scenery of the outdoors, I realized that my tendency to puzzle things out on my own extended well beyond this activity. I literally had to fall on my face to realize it, but I found myself wondering that afternoon why I found it so hard to ask for help and, perhaps more importantly, how I could get myself to a place where I felt more comfortable doing so. 

I would continue to grapple with this question as I encountered one challenge after another in what would become my hardest year of teaching. In these moments of struggle, I came to rely on the advice and help of my colleagues and friends, who listened to and guided me as I encountered and tripped over one metaphorical boulder after another. Being an educator is really, really hard. Openly acknowledging this; owning, sharing, and persevering through my own missteps; and coming to understand that I don’t have many of the answers and need to ask for help were among the most significant lessons I learned last year. Yet, to be honest, I still struggle with this and will for some time. Recognizing that I need to ask for help was step one in a multi-step process.

This work – educating young people – is blissfully rewarding yet filled with countless boulders to trip and fall over. While these missteps inform, navigating these obstacles individually is daunting and time consuming. We don’t have time to continually stumble over these impediments; rather, we must navigate them together. As educators, both seasoned and new, we must ask for help by seeking to build pathways of collaboration within and outside of our schools. Collaboration extends our work beyond the four walls of our classroom and amplifies the impact we have on our students as they become more curious, compassionate, and considerate citizens of the world that they will inherit and shape. In turn, it is ultimately the young people that end up educating us. 

A year later, almost to the day, I found myself back at the same outdoor education center with my newest group of 8th grade advisees. This time around, I played the role of observer, watching my students persevere through their own challenges, developing closer bonds with each other, having fun, and grappling with their own understanding of leadership and the many forms it takes. In this collaborative learning space, I was delighted as my advisees shared their major and minor “aha” moments and takeaways. Their wisdom, authenticity, and perspectives inspired me. 

The morning of our departure, wearing helmets and belay harnesses, we hiked out to the high ropes course. I watched as one student after another climbed their way into the canopy of a tree, stepped out onto a thin metal wire, and walked across to the other side while being encouraged by their friends. Feeling inspired, yet marginally (okay, greatly) concerned about heights, I too, found myself perched atop this wire. After taking a few moments to internally freak out, quietly question why I was up there to begin with, and then steady myself, I slowly began to make my way to the opposite side while the kids down below shouted words of encouragement and cracked jokes on my behalf. I made it to the other side with a lot of help from my friends that morning, no tripping over boulders and falling on my face required.

Stephanie Nebel gleefully collected rocks as a child, accidentally (and thankfully) stumbled into geology in her first year at Bryn Mawr College, and continued her studies in graduate school at the University of Delaware, studying oceans, coasts, and everything in-between.  Currently, Steph teaches middle school science and leadership at The Elisabeth Morrow School in Englewood, New Jersey and is consistently inspired and amazed by her students. Ski racing coach and Program Coordinator of the EMS Summer String Festival, Steph is also this year’s recipient of the gcLi scholarship for The University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education [PennGSE]. She is always in search of rocks to add to her (ever-expanding) collection.