Learning from Ernest Shackleton


In an earlier post, I mentioned that Superman was my favourite fictional hero of all time. But, I do have two very real heroes that I try to model myself on as much as possible: Sir Ernest Shackleton and Reinhold Messner. This post will look at who Shackleton is and what his story can offer teachers through my experience. I will look at Reinhold Messner in a future post.

Ernest Shackleton

Shackleton had a dream to be the first to reach the South Pole, and he led The British Antarctic Expedition in 1907-1909 (also known as the Nimrod Expedition). During this expedition, Shackleton would fail to achieve his goal of being the first to reach the South Pole, making it to within 97 nautical miles, before being forced to turn back or else risk the lives of everyone on his team. Shackleton would hike through blizzards in order to reach his ship, and also gave up his share of the food allotment so that others wouldn’t starve.

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I took this photo during a visit to London in 2011. A statue of Ernest Shackleton stands proudly outside the office of the Royal Geographical Society.

As a human being after glory, something many humans attempt to attain, he could have continued his long march south and face certain death. However, he made a decision that would prompt many sociocultural experts to declare him to be one of the greatest leaders of all time: he turned around. He turned around when he was close to his own personal goal because it was the best for his team. This failure to reach his goal was not a failure at all: he later told his wife that he was sure she’d rather a ‘live donkey than a dead lion.’

After failing to meet his earlier goal of reaching the South Pole, and then having that historic achievement accomplished first by Roald Amundsen (1911) and then Robert Falcon Scott (1912), Shackleton set his sights on a much more grander goal: cross the Antarctic continent on foot from sea to sea via the South Pole. While his idea may have sounded simple, the execution was far from it. The Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition (1914-1916), or the Endurance Expedition as it became known (after the name of the ship, Endurance) would see Shackleton and 27 other men land at Vahsel Bay in the Weddell Sea and leave on the opposite side, the Ross Sea.

The Endurance never made it to the coast, becoming stuck in the thick pack-ice and slowly drifted to the North. The winter months were terrible, and the ship showed no signs of becoming free from its icy grip. The pressure of the colliding pack-ice pressed so hard against the ship causing it to eventually crack and splinter. On 27 October 1915, Shackleton gave his men the order to abandon ship and to salvage what they could. The ship remained trapped, screaming from the ice compaction for a few weeks until it was eventually destroyed and sucked below the icy water.

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While in London, I visited Shackleton’s old school. This is the actual James Caird.

The men now faced the hazard of camping on the ice floes, facing constant danger, as the floes would randomly break apart. Lack of food and momentum was also a concern. They weren’t moving fast enough to the North for them to survive on the floes, therefore, two decisions were made by Shackleton. First, they would kill their sledge dogs to supplement their own meat intake. Second, they would get into harnesses and march the three lifeboats northward, with the intention of reaching safety. This caused a further issue: wait too long to launch the lifeboats and risk being swept into the open ocean by the current, or launch too early and risk being crushed by the chunks of ice.

On 9 April 1916, the three lifeboats were launched with the intention of landing on a nearby island. The men were stuck on the little, wooden boats without sleep, minimal food and faced constant danger. Due to the conditions being faced and lack of progress, Shackleton decided to change course for Elephant Island, arriving on April 15. Because it was uninhabited, the men knew they would need to reach civilisation in order to survive. Shackleton ordered the ship’s carpenter to strengthen the most seaworthy lifeboat, the James Caird.

Shackleton and five other men left Elephant Island on 24 April 1916 in the 22.5-foot (6.85m) lifeboat and headed for South Georgia Island, 800 miles (1,300 km) away. Again, problems faced included sailing through the Drake Passage, containing some of the strongest winds and largest waves on the globe. Larger ships still face problems crossing this stretch of water. Shackleton and his crew took turns sailing the lifeboat and attempting to sleep in the cramped, wet conditions. They faced death on more than one occasion, however, continued on their journey to make sure that no man be left behind. On 10 May, they had landed on South Georgia Island, battling hurricane winds in order to do so. The final problem had now presented itself to them: they had landed on the uninhabited side of the island; the whalers lived on the north of the island.

Shackleton decided to leave three men behind at the original landing site and set off for the whaling station with two others. Without any mountain climbing equipment or experience, they knew it wouldn’t be an easy undertaking. They put screws into the bottom of their shoes to act as crampons, took a length of rope and a carpenter’s adze as an ice axe and did what no one else in the world had done before: traversed South Georgia Island. Mountains and glaciers proved dangerous, and often they had to backtrack, as they didn’t know where they were. After three days of no sleep and minimal food, they had arrived at the whaling station at Stromness. It took them three months and four attempts to rescue the men remaining at Elephant Island, however, no men died on this expedition.

So what can this teach me about teaching?

  • Shackleton was always optimistic: even in the face of adversity and unwinnable odds, Shackleton was determined to make sure that he and his men were safe.
    • Even when you feel like your day could not get any worse, or when test results are not very flattering, remember one thing: you are human, you make mistakes, and your well-being is important.
  • Everyone was equal in his eyes: doctors and engineers alike scrubbed the floors together.
    • Remember that all students are equal in education: they all deserve the same access to resources and your time. Do not allow yourself to fall into the trap of only helping the students who will perform well because you feel they are the only ones worth helping. Everyone matters.
  • He set realistic goals and held people accountable for their roles.
    • Do not give your students a lot of tasks to complete in an impossible amount of time and then get angry at them for not completing them. If you do that, eventually they will stop taking responsibility for their learning as they do not see the point because they will get in trouble anyway. Rather, give them realistic tasks and hold them accountable for them. Small, manageable tasks give them hope that they can complete anything you give them, and by making them accountable, they will take ownership of their own learning.
  • He still knew how to have fun. He encouraged social activities to boost the morale of his crew after the work had been done.
    • After the class work is completed, reward the students with some fun (educational) group work. Play a Kahoot! or have them invent a new product. I am using Genius Hour more in my own teaching as a side-activity once students finish their assigned group work.
  • He kept troublemakers close to him. This allowed him to know what they were doing, kept them from contaminating the rest of his crew, and had some influence on what they were doing or saying.
    • By keeping an eye on the students that could disrupt the learning of the others, you can make sure that your lessons run smoothly. Find out why they are acting out. Do not just go straight to disciplinary action, but rather, delve deep into the cause of it. This should do two things: it will allow you to nip any problems in the bud straight away, and it shows them that someone is looking out for them. Remember, you are not their parent and should not be doing their job for them, however, as a teacher, they see you more than anyone else in their day. They need that positive interaction.
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