Climbing at altitude with thirteen year olds and a teacher with altitude sickness….well sort of

It is nice to get out of the classroom with the pupils, the dynamics change, but whether I am always comfortable with it, that is a very different question.

Each year near the start of the first term we have a day without lessons and there are any number of activities to develop the relationships within the class in new ways and for teachers to a build different sort of contact with their groups.  All sorts of things are done, swimming, canoeing, bowling, team-building games and so on.  I joined a class of second years (13 year olds) that I teach art to. Our outing was to head into the local town to climb (with a guide) the 55 metre tall church tower. (Using the steps on the inside, unlike the picture below!)  Along the way we would hear a bit of the history of the building.

047 16th Dec 2014_Salisbury Cathedral Spire Climb

Maybe I’m overly cautious about safety matters, but as we started our accent on a fairly well-worn wooden staircase (that looked to have been constructed rather a long while) my eye catches the sign that says, ‘climbing the tower is done so at your own risk’.  What must I do with such a notice?  We’re already there, the kids are already climbing the steps ahead of me.  Should I be worried?  Is there something I should know?  Yes, we’re climbing a fifty-five metre tower with a group of maybe overly excited 13 year olds.  I know enough about their classroom behaviour to know that they can sometimes simply do unpredictable and unexpected things. You project that sort of behaviour onto the current situation, climbing narrow, winding, wooden staircases round the edges of a series of nine metre high spaces.  At the back of my mind are also those occasions when  I have biked with a comparable class observing the way that they themselves seem oblivious to risk or danger!

We climb higher, the kids do seem to be enjoying it, chattering and shouting to each other.  Just about calming down enough to hear the historical nuggets of information that our guide provides.  We pause 18 metres up, in a large room.  A couple of the pupils don’t want to go higher, the height issue being a bit too much for them.  I feel a bit like a Sherpa, leaving a couple of climbers at base camp two.

We take a side door and suddenly we’re walking in the space between the roof of the church and the ceiling of the main body of the building.  For this part we are on a narrow wooden walkway, at times with no barrier to the side.  A mountain ridge springs to mind as the pupils must swing themselves round beams that are awkwardly placed for the walkway.

Then we are climbing again, past the bells and onward and upwards.  The last staircase is little more than a ladder.  And finally, we’re out on the fifty-five metre high roof.  It is a big view, I glance briefly at it, take a photo, but as so often with pupils outside of the school I find myself focussing on my charges excitedly shouting and jumping.

There is no doubt, the children have enjoyed this, it is good to see.  The question is, have I also enjoyed it? Well, yes, a bit.  But I find myself thinking about my brother who teaches in the British educational system.  Before he does anything outside of school he has to fill in a risk assessment form.  I’ve never seen such a form in the Dutch system.  Generally, the Dutch approach is much more open and free-wheeling.  Too open for me?  Well at times, maybe.  But then again, perhaps this approach by educationalists (and parents too) also has a part to play in the success in ‘happiness’ surveys that Dutch children seem to score so well in.  The have an independence and openness that stands them in good stead for their future.

For today though, we’ve reached a conclusion, we reached the summit, enjoyed the view and descended safely. The children are on their way home for the weekend.  For some that means a 16 km (ten mile) bike ride through towns, villages and countryside which they may well do completely alone.  This may well in itself say something about the Dutch approach to risk.

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