TOAD Talk: Teaching Lessons

Tyler Ortiz
By Mr. Tyler Ortiz

Teachers get into teaching for a number of different reasons. It could be a passion for the subject that we teach, a desire to have summers off - an incredible benefit that you should all consider when looking at what to do when you “grow up” - or simply the chance to work with and influence the next generation. There is a long list I could share with you about why I believe that teaching, and coaching, make for a fantastic profession. Today, however, I want to focus specifically on one of the benefits of this job that I believe is often overlooked.

Teachers teach. It’s what we do. We study our subject, we create lesson plans, and we try to share our knowledge with you, the students. Our hope is that some of these lessons stick, and that when you leave here you think more critically and are better prepared to navigate life and make a positive impact on the world. 

That said, one of my favorite parts of this job… 

It’s the learning I get to experience every day. I get a front row seat to some of the best teachers I can imagine, and the lessons just happen to come from you. 

I want to share a story:

Let’s time travel back just over one month. We are on the High Sierra Trail, 16 miles from our car. We’ve been hiking all day, and just finished a nice break on top of a beautiful waterfall. Our next campsite is just up over that mountain (pointing). It’s a really hot day, but team morale is high and the idea of a high mountain lake is giving our legs newfound strength. As the group heads up over the ridge, I stay behind with the last few students. There is a slippery stretch of angled rockface, that just happens to be covered in water, that we have to traverse before getting onto the rocky switchback. 

This rock, and the unsure footing it provided, served as the catalyst for the most impactful series of lessons I’ve witnessed in a long, long time. 

As Elina made her way across the rock, she slipped, twisted her ankle, and fell. She fell, and my brain raced to “what am I supposed to do” mode. We’re 16 miles from the car. There are no emergency exits on this trail. It’s an out and back. We are literally on top of a mountain. I have a satellite phone. I wonder if a helicopter can land on this waterfall. Maybe she just needs rest. Maybe she’ll be alright. But what if she isn’t? I’ve been a coach for 9 years, and I have seen many sprained ankles, but I’ve never been the person to diagnose an injury or even so much as wrap an ankle. 

I sit down next to Elina on the rock, as do Danica and Elle. We ask to see how she’s doing, but it is clear that she is in pain. While we try to comfort her, my brain continues to cycle through possible next steps for her, and for our group. Do we need to carry her out? Is there any way to camp on this waterfall? Maybe she can walk if we tape her ankle? How much does a helicopter evacuation cost?

Cody comes back to join the group on the waterfall, and his wilderness EMT training kicks in. He expertly and carefully checks on and wraps Elina’s ankle. When it becomes clear that Elina won’t be able to get her shoe on over the ankle wrap, Elle offers to give her her shoes. In Elle’s words, she would just “send it” and go up the mountain barefoot. Let me just say that Elle was dealing with her own sore ankle, and had some of gnarliest blisters in our entire group. But she offered her shoes to her fellow camper to try to make her more comfortable. 

After a few steps it was clear that Elina wouldn’t be able to walk on her own, and this is when Elle transformed into a legitimate superhero. With little hesitation, she offered to CARRY ELINA UP THE MOUNTAIN. On her back. 

I’ve seen some amazing EDT photos. The group jumping picture, you know the one, is a definite classic. But the image of Elle O Hill carrying a fellow camper up a mountain on her back is the most incredible picture of strength, selflessness, and compassion that I’ve ever seen a student exhibit in 10 years. After a stretch, Cody takes his turn carrying Elina. Then Nico joins the group and takes his turn. To see these three seniors put a fellow student on their back and help her up a mountain was incredible. 

This rolled ankle could have completely derailed the trip for not only Elina, but for the entire group. However, thanks largely to the incredible leadership modeled by Elle and Cody, the group rallied together and overcame this adversity as a group. They explained to the rest of the group what our new plan looked like; we would push as far as we could on Friday and make our way back to the cars as expeditiously as we could. Whether that took 2 or 3 days, or required some on the fly adjustments was to-be-determined. Our carefully planned trip was going to be adjusted on the fly. Bags would become heavier, and the days would become longer. 

The first mile of our exit took nearly 2 hours to complete. Elle physically supported Elina over uneven rocks, and there were many during the first few miles of that day. But at every rest stop, the students bringing up the rear were welcomed with raucous cheers when their peers saw them approaching. 

Miles carried a second bear bin. Students pushed ahead to fill water bottles. Carlos literally sprinted ahead to secure a campsite. Each member of the group did something, multiple somethings, to make our progress possible. Danica Kaili Caiden Jack Cole Claire & Brecon all did more than they initially anticipated. Meanwhile, Cody and Elle never left Elina’s side over 2 days and 17 miles. This specific experience was unique, but part of what makes a school like Thacher so special is the opportunities that we have, teachers and students alike, to learn from each other both inside and outside the classroom. 

Now, not all lessons are created equal. 

Not every lesson I learned from my camping group was as profound and worthy of Toad Talk Time as what I just talked about. Learning the proper way to order a Whopper Jr. with onion rings, or the difference between spoken and unspoken rizz, while entertaining, doesn’t carry the same weight. 

A career in education provides an opportunity for lifelong learning. Sometimes these lessons come from intentional planning. And sometimes, we learn simply by surrounding ourselves with a diverse group of people and asking them to step out of their comfort zones. 

I will never forget the lessons in leadership, patience, and compassion modeled by the students on my trip. I feel incredibly lucky that I was able to share the trail with this group, and I wanted to take this time to publicly say - thank you.

Tyler Ortiz is a mathematics teacher at The Thacher School. To read about more of Thacher’s incredible educators, visit the Faculty Unscripted page here.

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