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What Tree-planting Taught Me

Why great teachers must first be great leaders.

I fell through 12 jobs before finally landing on teaching, but the one that prepared me most for what I now consider to be a vocation was Canadian tree-planting. Not tree-planting like “middle-aged Arbor Day ladies in sun-bonnets and flowered gloves,” but rather commercial reforestation—a tree-planting of blood, sweat, and more than a few tears. This sort of tree-planting is almost a rite of passage for Canadian college students. And as the half-Canadian relative of several cousins and a brother who paid their way through school by bending over and poking seedlings into the ground, I guess it was inevitable that I would end up doing much the same.

I was the rookiest rookie you ever did see: At 18-years-old I weighed in at a buck-twenty and thought “manual labor” was an hour spent weeding a garden. Therefore, it was quite shocking when the summer break after my freshman year I found myself in what is considered to be one of the hardest jobs in North America, a grind in which to make a decent amount of money you have to plant not hundreds but thousands of trees each day.

Studies have shown that tree-planters burn the caloric equivalent of running a half-marathon every single work day, and they do it in conditions ranging from blistering heat to hail or even snow—sometimes in the very same day. They do it on marshes and mountainsides, crawling over mounds of logging debris and through clouds of bugs. It is painful work that demands every last ounce of strength, intellect, and psychological resilience you can throw at it. Needless to say, I was ill-prepared.

Somehow, though, I managed to survive and, eventually, to prosper. After four summers spent suffering in the woods, I was what those in the industry call a “highballer,” one of the top producers and wage earners in my company. Although that was how I had planned to retire—at the top of my game—I was then offered a foreman position that I felt I could not refuse. At the age of 21, I was given the responsibility of finding, hiring, training, motivating, and mollycoddling a crew of eight college students through the hardest experience of their young lives.

I was equally unprepared to be a foreman. My only prior leadership experience was as 10th grade class president, and I had done such a rotten job engendering across-the-aisle cooperation that one of the more strong-willed girls in our class ended up usurping my power halfway through the year. Nonetheless, I was determined to succeed as a foreman. I studied every leadership book I could get my hands on and worked really, really hard. As a result, my crews dominated and I ended up writing “The Guide to Leading a Killer Crew,” which was a leadership pamphlet that was widely adopted in our four-hundred-planter company.

I am not telling you all this to toot my own horn (well, maybe I am, just a little), but rather to provide some background and credibility for myself when I say that in my six years in that position—eventually becoming supervisor of a camp of five different crews—I learned what it takes to be a great leader. Great teachers must be great leaders, so I would like to offer any aspiring teacher-leaders out there a list of some of the most important lessons I learned in the wilds of British Columbia and Alberta. Most I read in books, but not one of them became real to me until I saw how quickly things degenerated when either my fellow foremen or myself chose to ignore them.

1. Your planters/students are your greatest asset. They are intelligent, wonderful, gifted people who are desperate for someone to believe in them and treat them as human beings. Your administration and colleagues will groan and bemoan some of your troubled young charges—but don’t you believe it! If you stick with your students, you will be amazed at what they will achieve.

2. Your students will only jump as high as you set the bar. So set it higher than you believe they can jump—and watch what happens.

3. Your students will look to you for inspiration. And the only way to ignite their passion is to demonstrate your own. So learn to love your subject matter and get excited about learning! You are a leader of the youth. You no longer have the luxury of hating your job. If you hate it, either stop hating it or quit.

4. You are there for your students, not vice versa. Be a servant, but remember: service is not a grudging chore—it is an immense privilege with equally immense benefits. Take advantage.

5. “Never give in. Never give in. Never, never, never, never—in nothing, great or small, large or petty—never give in.” I know it is hard and I know there are days when you just want to kill the little weasels, but there is nothing so powerful as a determined leader who actually leads. So stop whining, start believing, and join the ranks of Churchill, Ghandi, Mother Theresa, Mandela, and Mr. Gesch—my own high school English teacher, who first taught me to love the artful arrangement of words.

Photograph used by permission of the author.

Josh Barkey is a high school art teacher in North Carolina.

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