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Instructor Effectiveness

The Seduction of Ego-enhancement for Instructors

James Neill
Last updated:
02 Aug 2004


Teachers – and this holds especially of the stronger and better teachers – tend to rely upon their personal strong points to hold the child to his work, and thereby to substitute their personal influence for that of subject matter as a motive for study. The teacher finds by experience that his own personality is often effective where the power of the subject to command attention is almost nil; then he utilizes the former more and more, until the pupil's relation to the teacher almost takes the place of his relation to the subject. In this way, the teacher's personality may become, for the pupil, a source of personal dependence and weakness, an influence that renders the pupil indifferent to the value of the subject for its own sake.
- John Dewey, How We Think

Along with instructor enthusiasm and warmth as a desirable quality comes a potential pitfall.  Students who regard an instructor highly will tend to adopt that instructor’s attitudes, orientations, and values.  This is a seductive phenomenon because it can lead to the ego-enhancement of instructors who have not reached full psychological maturity.  This ‘ego-stroking’ can then motivate instructor behaviors which do not the personal development of participants as ther primary aim.  This pitfall is even wider and deeper than might be initially suspected because the instructor may be only vaguely aware or not aware at all that this is happening.  Unknowingly acting for the sake of ego-enrichment instead of for educational reasons, is an insidious risk, particularly amongst the young and enthusiastic who are often attracted to the apparent romance and excitement of outdoor leadership positions. 

One example of potentially unsound practice is to examine an instructor’s desire to run a particular rapid.  What is the desire based on?  That it would be part of a sensible educational sequence given consideration of potential risks and consequences?  That most other groups also run the rapid?  That the instructor personally would very much like to run the rapid him or herself?  That a few of the participants who get along well with instructor think it would a great?  Hopefully the truthful answer is the first one, but let’s face it, instructors are human and subject to many biases and deceptions, and hence the latter three reasons, plus many others like them, run around in their thoughts, and risk taking precedence.

The potential for misguidance of instructor understanding and energy is one of the major dangers to facilitating effective learning in the outdoors.  The potential of outdoor education for growth is  great, but with such high stakes, the potential for negative experience is also very real.  The general danger is further magnified by three factors:

·    The relative youth of outdoor education staff (often low to mid twenties), which has many advantages such as enthusiasm, dedication, ability to identify with participants, etc. but the disadvantage that staff are at risk of not having a consolidated ego-identity.

·    The close social relationships and group dynamics that develop during a program can lead instructors into situations with a psychological depth beyond their level of training but which they find personally intriguing and want to explore.  It takes strong concentration, willpower and understanding on the part of the instructor to stop using “I” and directing the learning, but instead to put energy into designing learning experiences for the student which are not centered on the teacher.  The conscientious adult with concern and care for his/her students often finds it difficult to stand back and let learning take place, being anxious that the best solutions may not be reached.  The challenge for the instructor is to create and allow for self-initiated learning opportunities for participants in which success can be achieved with appropriate, minimal instructor intervention.

·    The general perception of outdoor education as being demanding, adventurous, philanthropic, and respected creates an atmosphere in which participants may revere instructors as being extraordinary and deserving of awe.  Level-headed maturity is required of instructors if his/her ego is not to manipulate the ‘power’ of the instructor role for ego-gratification which is at best tangential, and at worst destructive, to the educational goals of the program:

Being a trainer is a stimulating role and function.  Being looked to for leadership and depended upon for guidance is a very heady thing.  Experienced trainers have almost always been aware, however, that the degree of influence they wield is disproportionately large. (Lakin, 1972, p.173)

A not uncommon symptom of not being able to find an appropriate boundary between personal ego-involvement and participants’ experiences are instructors who have abundant and ongoing contact with participants following and outdoor education program.  While there is nothing inherently wrong with maintaining contact and friendships, it is sometimes of concern that the educational focus in a program may have been outweighed by an instructor’s personal seeking and extending of ego-enhancing relationships.  Another symptom is the instructor who is showered with gifts and presents at the end of a program and subsequently by mail.  In such situations, it is quite likely that the warmth displayed by the instructor towards particular participants did not facilitate a student-centered confidence for self-directed learning, but rather a focus on the instructor.

Some participants in outdoor education have very profound experiences of insight, independence, feelings of self-worth, and/or a sense of belonging.  This can lead to some students having separation problems, inappropriately trying cling to the outdoor experience, with ongoing contact with the instructor or organization, applying for staff positions, and so on.  Instructors, likewise, may for the first time find themselves in the exciting position of being part of participants’ making significant steps in their personal development.  Hence instructors need to be careful that ongoing contact is not primarily feeding their own new desire to be an ongoing part of another person’s growth.  While other fields, such as social work and psychology, have strict ethical codes of conduct regarding nature of contact with clients outside their work setting, outdoor education has relied on the policies of individual organizations and the personal integrity of staff to find their own balance in this respect.  The importance of finding this balance for outdoor education instructors goes beyond ethics, however, and lies at the very heart of the philosophy of experiential education.

If the learning that takes place during an outdoor education program is to transfer to other life situations, then the participant cannot afford to have that learning centered on the instructor - they must possess it themselves.  Such a method of teaching, in which the instructor is not a deliverer of knowledge but a constructor and coordinator of experiential learning situations can initially frustrate and confuse participants who are used to being taught by more conventional means.  Such participants will often feel that planning and direction are lacking and will attempt to either coerce or seduce the instructor into at least taking a more active role or even better, taking responsibility and doing their thinking for them.  Under these circumstances and situations the instructor’s role is to act as a translator of circumstances and situations, without interposing between the learner and their situation of discomfort.  The instructor may help in ‘reframing’ the ‘language’ of the experience, however the participant must still do the ‘work’ of solving the situation. 

If the instructor is able to centre the responsibility for learning within the participant, then a whole field of educative experience opens up for the student.  This is the key educational ‘work’ of the instructor, and a mature instructor gains satisfaction from effective facilitation of such a process, rather than from the attention of participants.  This is referred to by Gage (1970) as “cognitive validity” which is “the degree to which the teacher possesses and reflects in his behavior, a valid, systematic, cognitive structure of the concepts and principles of the discipline he is trying to teach”.


Parts of this section are based on the “Staffing” section (pp. 27-36) in Richards (1977).