I’ve finally found some time to catch up with myself and write for a little bit.
A couple of weeks ago I found myself back freelancing in Devon as walk leader for an NCS wave along the South West Coastal Path – I wrote a blog post about the previous time here. Given the nature of freelance work, you meet a lot of new people and outdoor leaders/educators etc to whom you will spend a short amount of time working, eating and conversing with. It’s a smaller world than one would imagine, as I discovered when I found out I share a mutual friend from North Wales with a freelancer down south, however, it is also a small community where reputation plays a big part.
It also a community where a vast range of people, either with little or lots of experience, with differing ideas and opinions, like to be in the outdoors as their common interest and this, for me is fascinating and I just love to meet new people and hear their stories.
So this week, the usual freelancers were moved to the on-site activities and three new freelancers were on the walking activity. (The site manager does this so regular freelancers won’t be bored with running the same activity for weeks at a time.)
What was intriguing about these new freelancers, as yes, I will be judgmental (it’s a normal human trait, get over it) but I only do so as I found their attitudes to outdoor learning somewhat disliking?
Now, the attraction to outdoor freelance is one of romantic Instagram-able beauty – working in wonderful coastal, mountainous, forested areas delivering developmental programmes for the uninitiated whilst also utilising a unique skill set that, if you’re not strong in, can result in a very unpleasant time for all. It’s desirable for many. It seems easy. It seems fun. It seems like it’s well paid (it depends) and most importantly, you’re outside and who wouldn’t want that?!
The three to join us, two were young – one living in a converted transit van and going around the country freelancing and the other had taken a Level 3 Outdoor Education course wanted this to be their source of income – and the other was an older person who had semi-retired and thought freelancing was an attractable source of income after years spent indoors. So you can see that freelancing does introduce you to people of varied backgrounds.
What I hoped though, after spending a week with other freelancers passionate about outdoor education, was the same attitudes towards the walk they were placed on… it soon became apparent they did not.
First, was the issue around the required kit they were due to carry as part of the risk assessment. They all objected to the 20 man bothy bag (group sizes were 18 including adults) because of its size… and throughout the week wouldn’t shut up about it. Other freelancers and I asked them to consider, should anything bad happen and they didn’t have the required documented supplied kit, what would happen in court? Now this was an extreme consideration but it does happen, but apparently, them being able to carry a small bag was more important than group safety. Red flag one.
Second, each freelancer has a group and the walk is classed as a ‘local explore’. The young people with you are inner-city kids who, for many, have never been to the coast or walked further than an hour a day on anything other than concrete. Maybe it’s me, but ‘local explore’ means just that… going to points on the map to look at what’s there and educate the young people so they have a robust, enjoyable experience. For these guys it seemed walking into the coastal town as fast as possible was their aim so they could sit for longer there… they missed a lot of opportunities, which was either a) because they didn’t have any information about it (research people, come on!) or b) just weren’t interested in their groups. Red flag two.
Thirdly, attitudes towards the young people. Yes, some are unfit. Yes, some aren’t interested. Yes, some want to play their music to keep them going. Yes, some have issues around their social skills… I could go on, but what they all are, are technically “clients” looking for a memorable experience. As an outdoor leader/educator you have to be able to “read your group”, find out what they want to get out of it, adapt it to suit them and use a lot of your knowledge and experience throughout the day. To see a mass of 45 young people walking past a trig point, coastal views, a unique church etc because the leaders wanted to walk together (not leading mind you but rather at the back chatting together) is awful. Where is the safety and control going on? One leader even lost half her group on the walk in the woods because she wasn’t managing them, luckily they had followed others to the correct location – she hadn’t even known she’d lost them UNTIL they all turned up at the same location. Red flag three.
Lastly, I mentioned about the fitness of young people. Yes, fitness does turn an easy couple of hours walk into something a lot lot longer… six miles shouldn’t take five-six hours but it does with unfit people; that shouldn’t mean you should loudly and openly moan about it to your group and especially walking off and telling the ones at the back “you’re going too slow, hurry up” then proceeding not to stop and wait for them so they can catch up. I wanted to scream at them WE SHOULD BE ENCOURAGING THEM TO ENJOY THE OUTDOORS SO THEY WANT TO COME BACK LATER, NOT HATE IT. Red flag four.
I kept my group separate from the others. I wanted them to have an experience, learning about history, laugh on the route, bond as a team and find out about them. I stopped frequently, I let them set the pace, I reassured them that the route was manageable and encouraged along the way…
When I got into the town and sent them for lunch, the Wave Leader who had been walking with me, after conversing with the other team leaders, told me that there had been a lot of tears, threats of quitting and hurting legs and feet from the other groups because the other freelancers hadn’t been stopping the groups on route, showing them anything local and being rude to the slower members. She was livid. She asked me about their experience and refused to talk directly to them. She wondered why they weren’t doing what we were doing. She wondered why they’d even bothered to do the work if they didn’t care for people. She wondered why they’d been employed in the first place.
After a chat, she asked me to lead all of the groups to ensure they would have a relaxing time. She wondered if I could “teach” the other freelancers about group management etc…
Now, I’m not comfortable leading large groups in small, local areas; just because of the size really than anything else as it impacts on the public and environment, but I agreed to anyway as the team leaders threatening to leave calmed down when it was suggested and I took over.
So, placing one freelancer with me and two at the back we walked through the forest to the next stop, stopping frequently on the way (yes, the freelancers moaned that we were going too slow and about the “unnecessary” stops…) and generally allowing them time to take in their surroundings.
Learning to manage a group on a walk comes a lot from experience. You learn quickly about keeping control, the group together and the varying leadership styles to manage all this. When we reached the last major stop, a National Trust building, I knew the route would be switchbacking steeply uphill and for some, this would be a very big physical and mental challenge. At this point I didn’t have trust in the freelancers at the back – mainly because of their attitude and opinions on slow walkers – so I decided to swap the front leaders with the back… can you guess what happened next?
Yes, the front freelancers “ran off” as to be expected, with a struggling group trying to catch up as best they could panting and puffing – even our calls at the back to the front leader were ignored as the group ask him to slow down. Though it was infuriating, I didn’t mind too much as the route was simplistic enough to get back to the campsite and the group hadn’t exerted too much energy from the slowed-down walk they did before the stop, (plus they had topped up with water and food at the stop); I knew that issues usually occur at the back of the group, so felt it better that I was placed at the back to handle any incidences. Can you imagine any of these three dealing with issues? I dread to think about it.
Predicably slow at the back, we did have a big issue. A young girl, not from my group, who a year into her knee operation recovery, was clearly exhausted. I’d never seen iris’ go pale before in a lightheaded person! It was nerving, but, after a lot of rest, water, energy and reassurance we slowly paced up the hill (at this point the freelancer with me left quickly – I don’t think they wanted to help deal with any issues as the frightened look on her face suggested!). The wave leader, who had joined me at this point, and I stopped frequently to keep her rested and safe and when at the nearest road a call was made to pick her up to take back to the site. This must have taken about 30-45 minutes overall… I joined in with the ride home having realised the other freelancers hadn’t bothered to send one of them to return to check up on us… when we got back to the site, the group was already there!
I know this experience is not representative of the world of freelancers, that each person views outdoor activities from different perspectives etc but what resonated with me was the seemingly lack of care to make the experience memorable for the young people involved. Maybe it is because I’ve been working with young people for longer, enjoy exploring new areas deeply or I set a standard where I want to feel as if I’ve done a good job? Whatever it is/was/will be, this experience did surprise and frustrated me. These were inner-city kids who, for many, was their first introduction to a longer, coastal, hilly walk on the South Coast and for many, this experience sadly involved walk leaders who paid little attention to their welfare, didn’t want to involve them in the local area and felt that being rude and mean was the appropriate way to manage a group.