No one’s ever used the expression ‘backseat driver’ and meant it as a compliment.

Some readers may recall Harry Enfield’s ‘Only me’ character from the 90s – an irritating, flatcapped know-it-all forever telling people in the middle of painting a wall or buying tea bags, ‘Now, you don’t want to do it like that, do you?...

If we can recognise and even laugh at such behaviour, why do we find it so hard to avoid emulating it? What’s stopping us from stepping back when we’re with external specialists and outdoor instructors on school trips?

Learned behaviour

It may have something to do with our learned behaviour in the classroom. The Spanish have their own equivalent to the fabled backseat driver in the form of ‘Maestro Liendre’ – the insect-brained teacher who knows everything but understands nothing.

In the school environment, we are autonomous deliverers of learning who possess a certain degree of freedom to lead classes on our own terms, often while enjoying to some extent the privilege of being the central focus of activity within the room.

Unfortunately, it can be difficult to rapidly adapt our school behaviours to outside environments once we’ve become the sideshow, rather than the main event.

That’s how I’ve previously found myself in secluded forests, wondering why the outdoor leader isn’t standing at the crest of the mound, rather than at the lowest point in order to better get the class’ fullest attention. Or wishing that the sailing instructor would let my terrified students know that the boat isn’t going to sink in open water because the plug is out of the bottom of the tiny yacht. That would be preferable to saying, ‘Maybe…’ in response to their worried entreaties.

I’m just thankful that thus far, I’ve had enough willpower to not say ‘You don’t want to be doing that!’ and instead let outdoor teachers make the teaching points they were aiming for, without any unwanted interventions.

The need for control

We really shouldn’t feel like this. Busmen don’t actually go on coach trips by way of a holiday and then drive the bus, do they? Besides, outdoor excursions where the teaching is conducted by someone else is the surely closest thing we get to having a perk of the job – so long as we’re able to switch off our inner control freak.

We get to spend time outside the confines of our classrooms without having to prepare any lessons, or indeed anything that generates marking. Discipline largely takes care of itself, since the students are all too aware that fooling around in a canoe will, in the best case scenario, lead to a drenching. And we get to try out fun activities, such as kayaking around glorious Scottish lochs, which aren’t otherwise readily available to us, given our daily lives and budgets.

But to fully benefit from the de-stressing benefits of the great outdoors, we have to learn to let go and allow paid experts to do their job. Otherwise, our need for control can easily overshadow what ought to be time best spent appreciating what our students can achieve in a dramatically different environment.

Allowed to be nervous

A teacher’s relationship with an instructor can be complicated to navigate. At the very moment you feel able to pass on the reins of responsibility to the person who actually knows what they’re doing, they ‘volunteer’ you to try the activity first in front of the whole class, who observe this with a mix of emotions.

There are the students who can’t believe someone of your age and bulk has enough energy to walk the length of the classroom unaided. Then there are the students willing you on to refuse being the first person to abseil down that sheer cliff face, for the ammunition it will give them back in school.
And let’s not forget the students who are happy to see you as a useful crash test dummy for gauging the safety of the activity before they put their own limbs on the line.

So it is that I’ve variously edged across deceptively treacherous rocks, surrounded by deep, black pools of water during a gorge walk up a river; in full spate, tightrope-edged across a single strand wire bridge above a raging river without a harness, while the class speculated whether I’d make it; and mountain biked round a crumbling course, praying I wouldn’t make a fool of myself.

It’s a great teaching method, though – showing the young people that you’re allowed to be nervous without losing face. Best of all, if a teacher does end up falling into the water, coming off their bike or making a general hash of things, their students will see them crash and survive (while also enjoying a good laugh in the process).

No ‘get out’

That’s not the only thing we can learn from instructors. Observing different approaches to teaching is incredibly valuable. It’s possible, for example, to develop kids’ resilience by pushing them far further than they’d be pushed in the classroom before their teacher offers a get-out.

On one February gorge walk, when freezing water was coming down from the mountains, I remember expecting the instructors to abandon the session, or at least give some of the teenagers in the greatest discomfort a chance to get out of the water. Instead, the activity was structured in a way that let us all believe there was no such ‘get out’ once we were in the river.

It meant we all managed to complete the activity by walking the length of the river, and got to enjoy the glow of success that comes from conquering a real challenge. So next time you’re outdoors with your students, embrace your unfamiliar role of jacket watcher, packed lunch distributor and spare glove lender – as it’s only once we’ve learnt to let go that we’ll be able to get the most from the trip. It’s an adjustment that can take a few days, but it’s worth it.


The art of letting go

1 | Control-freak, me?

7 out of 10 people report being annoyed by actual back-seat drivers, yet only 20% of people believe they’re that type of passenger themselves. Go figure. The first step to avoiding butting in on an outdoor instructor’s work is to therefore accept that you just might be that kind of teacher yourself and amend your behaviour accordingly.

2 | Abandon your dignity

Don’t be the stand-offish teacher who refuses to get suck in to the activities that have been planned. Facing the same challenges and fears as your students can help create a connection with them.

Back in the warmth of the classroom, with those outdoor activities an increasingly distant memory, you’ll still have those ‘Remember the time that we…’ conversations – even if it’s just a short chat about how silly you looked dangling from that pulley…

3 | Be present in the sessions

It might be tempting to switch off, admire your surroundings and idly wonder whether it’s okay to check Twitter on your phone, but the instructor might suddenly need your support. It’s not a good look to be shaken out of your reverie and ask ‘Who, me?…


Gordon Cairns is an English and forest school teacher who works in a unit for secondary pupils with ASD.