• Alberta outdoor education teacher teaches leadership skills in nature

    From cross-country skiing to multi-day overnight trips, Court Rustemeyer takes his students outdoors to cultivate individual confidence, community connections and an appreciation for nature. (Photo: Court Rustemeyer)

Court Rustemeyer is an outdoor education teacher at Vincent Massey in Calgary, Alta., for Grades 7 to 9. He’s been teaching for 13 years and is also the president of the Global, Environmental and Outdoor Education Council (GEOEC) for the Alberta Teachers’ Association, where he helps lead workshops and professional development sessions. Beyond the classroom, he runs a club with students called Outdoor Leadership, which focuses on developing leadership skills and community engagement in youth.

On what he wants students to take away from his class

What I think about is just letting kids explore in a new environment and get familiar with new skills — it’s about getting comfortable with the uncomfortable. This past week for example, my older grades have been doing cross-country skiing every single day in the field and doing some avalanche training. For my Grade 7s, we’ve been working on leave-no-trace principles and our sense of place, doing snowshoeing and just trying to get outside as much as we can. A lot of kids don't have that chance to go hiking, biking, rock climbing or skiing. It's a great opportunity to show them new skills. I watch my Grade 9s and they get so humbled when they learn how to ski because it’s not an easy thing for them to learn how to do. It helps them work on their communication or teamwork skills and their individual strengths.

There’s just so many skills in life that they can learn from an outdoor-ed classroom. I want them to walk away confident with new abilities and also to have that philosophy of where they can try new things and it's okay to have a learning block and stumbling stage in different walks of life. Also, I want them to become advocates of nature and for the environment. I think that it's our job to push them and challenge them because once they're adults that can have a massive impact on the path they take in life.

On how COVID-19 has affected his classroom

My whole pedagogy as a teacher is that hands-on experiential learning piece. We do so much team building and group work, where you need to have that trust with group members, whether you’re cooking a meal together or setting up a tent. It’s hard right now or not even allowed, so not being able to do that is very frustrating. We’re not allowed any buses right now, so I can’t take my students to the mountains or even to another park in the city. I’m bound to where we can walk. It’s challenging because I can’t give kids to these big rewards of the trips. In a pursuit-based class, you do all this lead up planning for a trip to apply your skills and that application part we’re not able to do right now. Right now, I’m making lessons that the kids can do in a Google classroom with me virtually. You feel for them and you can be creative — have them listen to a podcast as they go for a walk or have them do a scavenger hunt or stuff that takes them outside — but it’s not the same at all. Our whole course is designed to be live and in-person, so it's hard to get that buy in from students.

On the land-based aspect of his teaching

In every single every class, we have a chance to talk about becoming stewards for the environment and showcase that for the students. Our class is all land-based and if we want that to continue, we need to have those conversations with them on a day-to-day basis. I bring a lot of First Nation, Inuit and Métis stories into my classroom. In a normal year, I take my students out to the coast for a big 12-day hike and we tie in the West Coast Salish culture and we do West Coast carving with Elders. If you want kids to become proactive advocates of their future and the environment, they need to believe in it, they need to be out there as much as possible, and they need they need to see it and live it.

On inspiring students to be active in their community

It’s more than just the trips, it's about volunteering and giving back. We have them do projects about plants from the area or the First Nations’ history of the area because I want them to have that knowledge piece behind things. Why should Alberta care about the old growth forest in British Columbia? When we go out there, we talk to the Elders and we tour these big massive trees that are on the coastline and there’s deforestation that is happening. What I want the kids to know is why are we going out there—we're just little fish in the big worldm, but we all can make a difference. It’s about having those real conversations with them. In Alberta, the big thing right now is that they’re wanting to bring coal mining back. When we bring the kids out to the mountains and tell them, “That area there is designated for a coal mine,” you don’t pick a side, but we just lay the facts out for them. And we have a good conversation with them about what can we do with this.

It could be as simple as volunteering somewhere locally, writing letters, or, if we go on a big trip somewhere, we'll do trail building and cleanup. We also do a skills camp and go to different schools in the feeder school area. The best way to hone a skill is to teach it and I want my students to give back and volunteer that way so they realize that it's not about them but about one big community working together. 

On the recent surge in interest for outdoor education

We host webinars all the time through GEOEC and it's been neat because this year, more than ever before, we've had so many requests for help to get kids outside. It’s been a cool silver lining this whole year, that push of getting outside. It's just wonderful to see and I hope that doesn't change. Schools need parks nearby, we need to keep funding for outdoor activities to happen. There’s still so many students, parents, and administrators that don't fully believe in outdoor-ed or they think it's just wasting time or it’s too challenging. We all know the benefits of nature. I can guarantee you that the kids that are doing awesome in your math class are sitting there because they just had a fresh air break with me skiing for an hour — they're going to be more attentive and have more desire to sit there and learn. It’s just like nutrition and wellbeing, we all need it. I understand it might be hard for teachers because you don't want to leave your curriculum, but if you just take a little bit of time to relax outside and have a lesson that involves our environment and the future, it can really shift students’ thinking and the kids might be that much more invested in your classes.