38-year-old Jared Spaulding has spent 350 weeks in the field as a National Outdoor Leadership School instructor. He’s taught 90-odd courses for NOLS, but that’s not counting the work he’s done for other outdoor education and outdoor therapy organizations including Aspen Achievement Academy and Trails Wilderness School. He’s worked courses in Wyoming, Utah, Alaska, the Pacific Northwest, Mexico, New Zealand, India, and Patagonia. He’s paid rent for just 20 months of his adult life, preferring to spend his time off on climbing trips throughout the American West and Patagonia.
He now holds a position in the NOLS office in Lander, Wyoming, that has him desk-bound for 130 days a year and in the field for 13 weeks. The transition was a tough decision to make, but Spaulding’s new job gives him the opportunity to lend his hard-earned experience to more instructors, courses, and students. We asked Spaulding, who is currently on a climbing trip in Patagonia, to lend that experience to AJ as well, to help us learn what it takes to become–and means to be–a NOLS instructor.
What does the process of becoming a NOLS instructor look like?
1. Build an experience base of personal expeditions and experiential teaching/outdoor based education. For working for NOLS Wilderness Medicine, a teaching background combined with medical or emergency medicine professional experience is important, though I know even less about this.
2. Apply for an instructor course. There are many of these. There are river, sea kayaking, sailing (occasionally), mountaineering, hiking/climbing, New Zealand based ICs, short ICs for applicants with significant professional experience (river and hike/climb), Canadian-based ICs ( I think), Wilderness Medicine ICs (these are called Instructor Training Courses – ITCs, and there is one for teaching WFAs and one for teaching WFR/WEMTs) and there are various Instructor In Training (IIT) programs to help international folks join the instructor ranks as well as a domestic IIT program to help increase instructors from backgrounds that are underrepresented at NOLS.
3. Take said IC or ITC and pass.
4. With appropriate timing, good performance, and luck, work a course. Bam. Done. NOLS Instructor.
Once one has become a NOLS instructor in a discipline (let’s say hiking), that instructor can then take various seminars to demonstrate competency in a new skill set. There are seminars for all skill sets at the school: winter instructor seminar, horse-packing seminar, hiking seminar, and packrafting seminar, just to name a few. There are also seminars to help instructors develop non-technical skills, such as various environmental studies-focused seminars, cultural competency seminars, diversity and inclusion seminars, etc. In this way instructors are able and often encouraged to grow and branch out in their skill sets. Or if someone has to chose which competency they want to enter the school through, they can easily move and become more of an asset.
What character traits would make someone naturally cut out for this kind of work–what personalities does it attract? What personalities does it challenge?
I think people need a high level for tolerance for adversity uncertainty. NOLS courses inherently have a lot of those things and demand a tolerance for them from those who work them. Communication skills and an ability to be nice to one another and work hard. Here we call it E.B. or expedition behavior. Hard work might be a catchall. Work hard 24-7 for 30 days. Work hard on improving yourself, work hard on completing group tasks, work hard to get from camp to camp, work hard to take care of each other, work hard to make things happen. Even the easiest of courses require hard work. Fellow NOLS instructor Liz Tuohy once told me: “The harder you work the luckier you get.” I’ve gotten lucky with some darn good courses. I think it mostly attracts people who like people, though I don’t always fall into that category. I think it could be challenging for people who need a lot of space or alone time. I am “on” all the time when I am working. Trying to get large amounts of “me” time or personal space can be challenging on courses; not all of them but frequently.
How does the decision process go on the inside? Who is NOLS looking for? How do they judge a potential instructor?
My understanding of the process is that a handful of people, all with significant experience in the area of instructor development, bear down each December/January and read all the applications for the upcoming spring/summer I.Cs. They then rank the applicants on a scale and create lists and tiers for the varying courses. It is hard to say exactly what one looks for in that process, but having worked a handful of instructor courses, I do know that those with the strongest technical skills are not always the highest performers. An ability to have fun, be serious, be nice, be competent, and be a good NOLS instructor can be hard things to judge from an application, particularly when the job is as unique and demanding as it is. But the selection committee, in my experiences, rarely gets it wrong. They do a good job.
That’s why the length and duration of the IC (often about 30 days) is essential. It allows instructors to see their students in real situations and how they react. One acts differently if they have a week remaining versus two or three weeks. Anyone can clam up and deal for two weeks, much harder to do if you are out there for a month; things start getting real and we must interact with our co-workers/peers in professional and appropriate manners despite the conditions or how long we have been out there.
As for the specific criteria, that depends. Outdoor experience, teaching experience, expeditionary experience, technical skills and professional experience mixing all of those, they are all valued. NOLS experience is useful, though not essential-having completed a NOLS course in good stead demonstrates a knowledge of the school, what it is like out there, and proven (or at least demonstrated) performance in an expeditionary learning model.
There are unique life experiences and backgrounds that also make people appealing. There are very successful candidates that fall outside the norm. While there are many mid-20-aged folks applying, there are definitely regularly people taking ICs that are well above that age range. Often those candidates can be attractive due to previous life experiences (veterans, business people, teachers, etc.)
How competitive is it to get a position as an instructor?
I cannot give you exact numbers on this, but there is definitely a large number of applicants each year, and they are vying for a small number of spots.
I think more important is the mindset with which new instructors start. It took me seven years before I became a full time NOLS instructor. In that time I worked other outdoor ed jobs, mostly wilderness therapy in southern Utah, but also with other expedition-based wilderness schools. I think coming off your instructor course and working your first course is a good step. But it is likely that a new instructor might not get work for another year. It is a process.
Go to grad school that fall, or go back to a regular teaching or nine to five job, or ski patrolling, but work a course in the summer for a year or two, then with a more proven track record, off-season work might start coming and could become more regular.
Do not expect to work full time right away. Be prepared to live the outdoor education field instructor lifestyle: piece together work from various organizations, travel, etc. Other folks take in town jobs in ration departments or issue rooms, or logistics as a means to keep them around NOLS. A lot of people come to NOLS with some sort of financial safety net, so doing these things can be easier for them. Without that safety net, this type of lifestyle can be much more stressful or less practical. If you need to pay more bills, then it can be hard to have sporadic work. It can be hard to live with a family in a station wagon, voluntarily or not, for months on end.
What was a typical year in the life when you were in the midst of it? How often were you in the field, and what was your life like off-the-job?
The typical year in the life, when I was in the middle of it, was only less than a year ago. I was a full-time NOLS field instructor, which meant I was working in the field at least 25 weeks a year, which meant I had at most 27 weeks a year off. I mean, that is pretty awesome.
In Lander I would often, particularly in the non-summer months, spend time at the Noble Hotel [NOLS’ hostel-like in-town hotel], which was a good life balance for me. The pay-per-day structure worked well for me and allowed flexibility. My truck was called home for many years, though I would routinely put only about 7,000 miles on it in a year. Early in my NOLS career I paid a little rent at a wonderful place in Torrey, Utah, in Wayne County.
That is one of the beauties of being a NOLS instructor: if you don’t mind an occasional commute, you can call anywhere home. Many live in more urban areas or at least distant from NOLS campuses. Many instructors desire a non-NOLS life, one where they can separate from the talk and thoughts of work. Lander can seem a bit constraining if you are used to more urban, diverse, or amenity-rich areas. But NOLS has campuses all over, with some being quite proximal to larger urban areas, Tucson or Seattle for example.
If you look at it in a big picture, there can be great balance being a full-time field instructor. If you work 25 weeks and have 27 weeks off, I mean, that is balance, almost. It is just a matter of perspective. And it works well for me. It is the life I have known and lived for the past 16 years or more.
Are there sacrifices you felt you had to make, or a person coming into this from a more traditional lifestyle (nine-to-five, student, etc.) might struggle with? What do those look like?
For me it never felt like I was making sacrifices. It was always just what I did. I didn’t feel like I was missing out on anything, it was just the way that my life was supposed to be lived. Looking back now on 16 years of work in outdoor education, all being field work, I see that I have made sacrifices. I am nearly 40, I am single, I do not own a house or have a pet, or even a plant. My stuff lives in a few storage units in the Noble Hotel and the back of my truck. And, with my new job, I need to change some of it, which will be a challenge, altering 16 years of lifestyle. And that is okay.
Now, if I was coming in from a more traditional nine to five lifestyle, I could see where there would be a lot of adjustment. Being in a relationship, having lots of close family commitments, having another job, all of these do not easily blend with transition into full time field work.
All told, what’s the hardest part about being a NOLS instructor?
Giving it up. Growing up. Finding a place to leave my truck for three months or five while I travel the world. Honestly, I, as a full-time field instructor, had it pretty lucky. I had guaranteed work. If I did a good job and was professional, I had little to worry about. It was a dream. Some people have said I have now moved on to one of the best jobs at NOLS. So we will see.
What’s the most rewarding part? What kept you in it for so long?
The view from the office. Introducing people to rock climbing, mountaineering, wilderness. Freedom and independence both when working and when not working. And finally, the people and the community. I get to work with fun, smart people who share a lot of what I value. It is a super easy place to go to work. From what I hear, most workplaces could use a NOLS course. We practice what we teach, and that to me is important.