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At-Risk, Education, Leadership, Teaching

Educational Ice Axes: The Art of Self-Arrest

cc flickr photo: by Tim Snell

Some days, this job of being an educator is difficult.  For awhile now, I have been watching a student, with whom I have invested a great deal of time, slowly slipping into the educational abyss.  Today, he took another slide in that direction.

I am not a mountain climber, but I know enough about the sport of mountaineering to understand the importance of a good ice axe.  One of the first things climbers learn is how to arrest a fall by driving their axe into the snow and ice on the mountain slope.  Wikipedia defines self arrest as follows:

Self-arrest is a mountaineering related maneuver in which a climber who has fallen and is sliding down a snow or ice slope arrests (stops) the slide by himself or herself without recourse to a rope or other belay system.

This technique not only slows their loss of forward progress, in some cases, it means the difference between life and death.  Experienced climbers would not dream of tackling a challenging summit without this essential tool.

When you think about your school, or your classroom, do you provide your students with a proverbial ice axe – a way to arrest their fall?  Most of us would agree that failure is a given, even essential, part of life.  Under the right circumstances, making mistakes can be a valuable learning experience, but only if students are given the opportunity to stop their slide, re-establish traction and experience the feeling of success.  Giving students the tools and skills they need to maneuver through the challenges they face involves fostering hope, self-confidence, desire and resilience.  Here are three tools that educators can provide students to help prepare them to “self arrest” in the event of an academic or social slip.

  1. Personal Relationships: meaningful relationships with adults on campus is the most powerful tool we can offer our students who are coping with challenges.  Every student should have at least one adult they trust to confide in when times get tough.  This person should be an advocate, a coach, a mentor and a cheerleader.
  2. Connectedness: students should have a variety of opportunities to “fit-in” and play a meaningful role in the fabric of their school.  Whether it is through clubs, peer groups, athletics, or leadership opportunities, every student needs to feel like they have a place and that they are a welcomed part of the school community.
  3. Educational Autonomy: we should not underestimate the power that instructional freedom has on our students.  Giving students opportunities to direct their own learning, exercise creativity, problem solve and address issues of personal interest serves to engage and motivate.  Getting students to realize that education is about meeting their personal needs, not those of the adults in school, is a huge step toward fostering resilience and determination.

These are just a few of many “life-lines” that educators can use to help students deal with challenges and failures in their academic careers.  Even these don’t guarantee success, but the more tools and resources we provide our students, the better their odds.

What “ice axes” do you provide students at your school?

cc Flickr photo by Tim Snell

This article is cross-posted on the Connected Principals blog.


About azjd

Junior high principal by day, aspiring difference maker, and Jedi in my own mind. Act justly. Love mercy. Walk humbly.


57 thoughts on “Educational Ice Axes: The Art of Self-Arrest

  1. What a wonderful post!

    I have used a service learning project in my college writing class to create a sense of community. As a group–me included–we help build a house with Habitat for Humantiy. Each student gives 8 hours and then writes an essay about the experience. This work bonds us as a class and provides students the relational safety net they need.

    Congrats on FP-ed! Hang on for the ride!


    Posted by Kathryn McCullough | April 15, 2011, 9:38 am
    • Appreciate your comment Kathy. I have found that community service projects not only provide students with a healthy perspective on life, they also allow them to develop a sense of ownership–the understanding that they can make a difference. Thanks for sharing.

      Posted by azjd | April 15, 2011, 7:41 pm
  2. Great analogy! My wife is a teacher, and I am a mountain hunter. This is perfect! Really struck home for me. Can’t wait to share with her.

    Posted by Jason Peak | April 15, 2011, 9:47 am
  3. wow you had me going…I thought “self arrest” was giving yourself CPR….

    spread the humor.

    Posted by charlywalker | April 15, 2011, 11:26 am
  4. Those are 3 tools that I think are definitely essential for any student to have. It’s good to know there’s teachers out there that care about these kinds of things. Congrats on being FP’ed!

    Posted by All County Insurance - Brea, California | April 15, 2011, 12:03 pm
  5. It seems to me, the best Ice Axe you can offer is to teach them something. Raising someone’s sense of self-worth by providing affection or feelings of being liked may benefit the student in some ways. But nothing gives one confidence like actually being capable. It’s like the person who gets up in the morning, says ,”you’re awesome” ten times between breakfast and work, gets to work and proves an incapable wreck. As I teacher, I found that I couldn’t overcome the student’s past. The only thing I could do was demand that they meet my standard, or fail. The one’s who failed just went away thinking I was a dick – maybe their were some hurt feelings, but if you can’t comprehend the material you are not learning the subject. My student’s who stuck with it, worked hard, and learned the subject, were pleased with what they found themselves capable of doing. We must, I think, work under the premise that to think well of yourself, to have a good “self-esteem,” you must have something to esteem in the first place.

    Posted by Cole | April 15, 2011, 12:14 pm
    • Well, I left enough errors in that post, didn’t I? If anyone disagrees with my point, they can attack my lack of editing.

      I call this the preemptive strike against oneself. If only Bush would’ve adopted such a policy, who knows what people would’ve thought of him?

      Posted by Cole | April 15, 2011, 12:23 pm
    • Cole, thanks for taking the time to post a comment. I would certainly agree that the strategies I outlined must be accompanied by academic expectations–encouragement is not enough. It is also true that academic success can build student “self-esteem.”

      In most cases, we don’t choose our students, or the knowledge and baggage they bring to our classrooms. Even though educators may not always be able to overcome a student’s past, I don’t believe that excuses us from making an effort to do so. I have seen students make the turn around, but it is much more difficult if there is not an adequate support system in place.

      Certainly, students must assume responsibility in their own educational experience, but our job as educators is to take all necessary steps to ensure ample opportunity for students to not only comprehend the material we teach, but to be able to use and apply knowledge in the real world. If we don’t do this we fail as educators (and I have had my fair share of failures).

      Posted by azjd | April 15, 2011, 8:08 pm
      • Absolutely, spot on! I homeschool (please, don’t hate me) my kids, because, in part, I wanted to provide for them these same “life-lines” you so aptly speak. I do, also, work with kids with learning difficulties, etc. providing them speech-language-cognitive therapy, and it’s so true about how important it is to be a strong support for them, often when they don’t have much offered in their home environment. Also, it’s so easy to make excuses about a student’s lack of motivation, etc. when really what they lack is a knowledge and willingness on the part of the provider (teacher, therapist, parent, etc.)to dig deeper in that student’s history and find a way to, as you say, “connect” and afford them a way to circumvent standard educational pedagogy and take advantage of their strengths. Because, everyone has them.

        I really like what you have to say, and will look to more.

        Kaukab’s daughter

        Posted by mymotherstable | April 16, 2011, 11:07 am
    • I wonder how differently your school system is set up from the one the author of this blog has?

      I wonder where you teach and where he is the principal? There may be such a huge world of difference between what you are dealing with each day and what he has.

      What subject(s) do you teach? What grade? How many kids per class? Are you allowed autonomy in your lessons or are they a canned curriculum.

      Are you given the opportunity to form a club of your interest (to share with the kids) or is it assigned to you? Or are you even allowed to have them?

      I think many kids refuse to use the mountain axe ice pick because somewhere along the way they missed out on the directions of HOW to use it, and they’d rather keep sliding than look foolish trying to flail about with something they can’t handle. Or maybe their entire peer group and extended family is also at the bottom of the mountain and therefore they have no motivation to stop the fall.

      I don’t know a single teacher who doesn’t WANT to help kids. You and I included. I think we have our hands full of the guide ropes attached to so many of those precious lives.

      I think we WANT to help the kids who are sliding, but instead of using the ice axe to save themselves, some kids are throwing the axe at the teachers (the system).

      Posted by 80price | April 16, 2011, 3:19 am
  6. Students who are slipping in this way need a reason to become engaged with school again. Often the consequences for “falling” are negative and accelerate the drop and amplify the hit at the bottom. For example, a student losing the ability to organize their life may not hand assignments in. Rather than a wrap around approach they are further penalized in their grades. What is really needed is an intervention for these students that improves their feeling of connectedness and motivation in hopes of solving the problem. Traditionally, we don’t operate this way – but many are moving in the right direction.

    Posted by Steve Wyer | April 15, 2011, 12:50 pm
    • Excellent points Steve. I see that frequently…a students precarious situation “snowballing”–leading to bigger and bigger problems. Ultimately this leads to a loss of hope and the students slides into what I call, the educational abyss. However, I agree with you that many schools are moving in the right direction with regard to addressing these issues effectively.

      Thanks for your comment!

      Posted by azjd | April 15, 2011, 8:12 pm
  7. Funny that I stumbled on this post through WordPress, today of all days. You may not have been gearing your post towards small children (or maybe you were?) but I’m totally relating to your words right now. My son is in first grade and academically very mature. We’re finding out he’s not so great at self control, however, and is constantly making bad choices regarding his use of language, how he will execute directions from his teacher and how he behaves towards his friends. He’s young for first grade, having just turned 6 in January. So we’re trying to redirect the bad behavior while still keeping him happy and engaged at school. Can’t say we’re winning yet. He feels like he’s a “bad” kid, which he is not. Anyway, as I just came from the school, this is all fresh in my mind. Your entry resonated with me. And btw, right now he’s reading “I want to be Jedi” LOL. 🙂

    Posted by Debi | April 15, 2011, 12:52 pm
    • Thanks Debi. I work with junior high age students, but I believe this is applicable to all student levels. We obviously want to hold kids accountable for their actions, but as parents and educators we also need to help them learn from their mistakes and make sure that they understand that they can recover–making good decisions.

      I’m sure that there are many people who would argue with me (including educators), but I can honestly say that in all my years as an educator, I would hesitate to label any of my students as “bad” kids. Sometimes misguided, sometimes poor at making choices…but still kids who are learning.

      Hang in there and know that what you are describing with your son is a common struggle for parents…even at the secondary level. Tell your son good luck with his Jedi training 🙂

      Posted by azjd | April 15, 2011, 8:21 pm
  8. Wonderful analogy!

    Congratualtions on being Freshly Pressed!

    Posted by sixthirtythree | April 15, 2011, 12:53 pm
  9. Interesting. I call self-arrest opportunities “ledges.” Whenever I attempt anything at all — even the most trivial project — I love to build ledges into them, points which once passed, are impossible to backslide beyond.

    In other words, if you lose your grip, you’ll only fall so far.

    Everything from planning for a trip, to putting together a project for work, to knitting a sweater can benefit from a few ledges.

    Posted by fireandair | April 15, 2011, 1:52 pm
  10. About connectedness -I agree it is important for students to ‘fit in’ and be part tof the school community -but are clubs etc enough? What about giving real power? In Colombia Escuela Nueva schools have student governments where students have a real say in their school. Teachers and head teachers may have to find innovative ways to give up some of their power and begin sharing their power.

    Posted by Ray Harris | April 15, 2011, 2:18 pm
    • I couldn’t agree with you more Ray. Students need to have ownership in their school and their education. Clubs are not enough (just an example). Students who feel they have a vested stake in their own education will have a sense of empowerment and will be more likely to be engaged in school. Student governments, advisory committees, etc. should be employed to give students a true voice in the decision making process.

      Thanks for your comment!

      Posted by azjd | April 15, 2011, 8:26 pm
  11. I have never done the self-arrest, but as I have been a newbie on several occasions, I have always found helpful, for my educator was knowledgeable, and exemplified himself. It gives a sense of pride and safety.

    Posted by ALIVEalways | April 15, 2011, 3:37 pm
  12. The biggest axe is God’s presence in a students life and a healthy respectful awe of God.

    Such students will slide too, to be sure … but they wise up really quickly when things begin to go south.

    The next big axe is ‘diligent dads’:
    see http://www.answersingenesis.org/articles/rgc/diligent-dads

    But to the poor state of social fabric today, this isn’t provided for many students.

    That’s where educators like you step into the breach. Of the three ice axes you mentioned, the first – “Personal Relationships” – has the possibility of stepping into the breach here.

    But it also the most risky to both student and teacher. I’m not just talking about the risk inappropriate behavior, but more commonly the emotional ups and downs that come with it, and conflicts with the rather tight boundaries typical American family units have.

    Anyway, this is just me ranting. You’re the person on the ground. Regardless if you’re Christian or Jedi :), God will repay you richly for all that you’re doing for your students.

    Posted by wikram | April 15, 2011, 4:41 pm
    • Relationships are certainly a key. Sometimes simply showing an interest in a kid is enough to encourage greater effort, leading to success in the classroom, leading to greater self esteem–a positive cycle.

      Thanks for the comment.

      Posted by azjd | April 15, 2011, 8:45 pm
  13. Sounds like your classroom is centered around community and letting the students create it. How lovely! 🙂

    Posted by alexdiaz969 | April 15, 2011, 6:49 pm
  14. Interesting read. I will have to chew on this a bit. I will explore prior posts for a bigger picture of where these “self-arrests” fit into the overall educational experience.

    Posted by blogsensebybarb | April 15, 2011, 7:02 pm
  15. Great analogy!!!Learn a lot from your post!Thank you for your sharing!

    Posted by fox loves angel | April 15, 2011, 8:53 pm
  16. Once upon a time, I would have flown off of a cliff had two people not been standing somewhat close to the edge. The ended a 500 foot vertical drop down a steep icy slope! Education wise, I have only gone up the slope…

    Posted by saltybi11 | April 16, 2011, 12:44 am
  17. I wish we had the opportunity to revise our school calendar. As a nation we are set up on an agrarian calendar. The “ledges” mentioned in the post by FireandAir above come very late in our academic calendar. Sometimes years late. I have seen it take a student falling 2 full years behind before they qualified for services needed to keep them on-level. At that point they are no longer on-level. That child is 2+ years behind.
    At the very least we let students have the entire school year to fail before intervention occurs (AKA Summer School).

    I would love to see us create those ledges at 10 week intervals. Changing our calendar from a typical 180-day 2-semester you-fail-for-the-year idea to a 10 week goal specific, you-didn’t-get-this-session’s-topics calendar. Then they repeat just the 10 weeks. Possibly only in a tutoring session for the very specific subject area in which they are behind.

    10 week chunks are manageable. The proof is summer school. Look what we can cram into a brief session. We cram the whole year.

    At a 10-week mark the child is not so far behind that we can’t get him or her caught up with the peer group, unless there is a learning disability preventing it.

    A 10-week quarter system provides the students with an opportunity to catch their breath, and then dig that ice pick in. They are not so far behind that they feel beyond salvation. But how do we go about changing the schedule?

    Posted by 80price | April 16, 2011, 3:30 am
    • There are a lot of things in education we need to consider doing differently–things we do, just because that is how they have always been done. The calendar is certainly one of them.

      Our school operates on a “modified year round” schedule. We still have semester grading, but I do think it is better than the traditional school schedule (for both staff and students).

      Posted by azjd | April 16, 2011, 3:38 pm
  18. Really nifty analogy there and it’s good to see a concrete strategy applied to a phenomenon that can seem phantom-like. I work in education too and I often see academic and social slippages. I wonder just how far a classroom teacher can really address and ultimately arrest something that usually seems to start in the home though. Food for thought.

    Posted by Chariot on Fire | April 16, 2011, 4:24 am
    • I think that depends. Teacher intervention alone may not be enough to academically, or socially, “save” a student, but I don’t think that is something we can predict. That is why it is important for educators to make those efforts. They may not have an immediate, or visible, impact, but it may be a difference maker in the future.

      Posted by azjd | April 16, 2011, 3:42 pm
  19. whoa, nice share.
    i always wanna climb ice mountain too,
    but the mountains in my country never get some ice because never winter here 😀

    Posted by jundybaka | April 16, 2011, 5:36 am
  20. Great post. Lots to think about.

    Hope, confidence, desire and resilience — I wonder how many educators (or students, or their parents) are as clear in their thinking about what a student needs (most.)

    There are many kinds of confidence, though, and the challenge is to balance the rough spots with a palette of other skills…I was bullied very badly in my Toronto high school for three long years verbally by a small group of boys. The only thing that kept me going was knowing, no matter how socially rejected they made me feel, I was still smart as hell and they…clearly…had few other tools to express their power. I was extremely unconfident about my looks (bad acne) but still appeared on a TV quiz show and did really well on our school’s team, which helped me feel good about myself in other way.

    My ‘hope’ and resilience were sorely tested, but I did have a few very good friends, without which I might not have survived that abuse.

    Posted by broadsideblog | April 16, 2011, 7:17 am
    • Thank you for sharing. Unfortunately, many students have to “endure” school as you did–this should not happen! It sounds like you were fortunate to have good friends and be able to reason yourself through situations where others were treating you unfairly. Your experience also demonstrates the devastating impact that bullying and demeaning words can have on students.

      Thanks again for sharing from a personal perspective. Appreciated.

      Posted by azjd | April 16, 2011, 3:46 pm
  21. great 🙂

    Posted by Miki | April 16, 2011, 8:04 am
  22. Very nice post. I’m a beginning mountaineer so I already know all about slef-arrest, but this was a very informative post for someone who wouldn’t. Thanks for sharing,


    Posted by Nate | April 16, 2011, 8:04 am
  23. As banal as it may sound, letting the students see that you are a human being and seeing them as human beings helps.

    Sometimes bending the rules because you think this is the best way for them to learn is something I do.Allowing a re-write for a better grade even if it is more work for you. (You have to let everybody do that!)is one example.

    Posted by fornormalstepfathers | April 16, 2011, 11:18 am
  24. Slippery slope indeed! Ice axes and self-arrest, what a great analogy to experience many students have of getting lost in the crowd or left behind the group as they navigate semesters and their education. Well written and great food for thought.

    Posted by Maria | April 16, 2011, 2:05 pm
  25. Such great points you make. I work in a school and all the points ring true…

    Posted by I Made You A Mixtape | April 16, 2011, 2:27 pm
  26. “Ice-axes” is a cool metaphor for what we do. Thanks for the post.

    As for what I do? I teach student leadership and offer students the opportunity to plan and execute events – I merely coach and they do the work. I’m also starting a “Global Initiatives” class next year that will be directed entirely by the interests of the students. It’s incredibly important to give students the opportunity to express themselves, work with other students and adults and give back to local and global communities.

    Thanks for your insightful post.

    Posted by darthbergen | April 16, 2011, 2:54 pm
  27. Hello Jeff,
    Nice to know an educator of your calibre… you have the potential to influence many lives on the path to greatness. I googled the word jedi when I found you used it to describe yourself and what I found satisified me to my very soul. The meanings were God Knows, God protects and beloved by God.Powerful words indeed and ones I would use for myself too. My friend do please buy my book MasterMind and use it well to influence the lives of your young pupils. My book falls in the YA category and may well be used to influence young minds on God’s ways. I do not need to spk individually one on one to sell my book but its a task I have given myself to help change many many lives for I do care.

    Posted by Roda | April 17, 2011, 12:36 am
  28. Great post on education! Life-skills is what the education of today needs to inculcate. I feel that we have to unlearn the boring bookish knowledge and give our children a fresh view on education. I have written a similar piece on education and flying a kite some time ago in my blog. Wonderful lessons to draw from your experience in mountaineering.

    Posted by sajeev kumar menon | April 17, 2011, 1:42 am
  29. Thanks for the post – love the metaphor and a good one for life in general. Thanks for sharing!

    Posted by thepoetryoflife | April 17, 2011, 1:55 am
  30. I really love the symbolic meaning in your post. The ice axe and the self-arrest have made me think a lot. “Sometimes” we could all use an ice axe I guess.


    Posted by Lenny | April 17, 2011, 8:32 am
  31. I really enjoyed this post. I’m a high school math teacher and the student you describe sounds like a few I’ve been working with this past year. We invest our sweat, tears, and so much hard work so a single student can feel confident and grow in their abilities. It can be a draining routine, especially when they have moments where they seem to be going in the opposite direction.

    I’ve learned that the relationships and connections we make with students is one that has proven to make the biggest difference. The hard part is having patience because those big changes are not immediate. In my experience it’s not until a year or even two later I’ve had a student come back and tell me how much it meant to them that I kept my expectations high and never let them get away with being mediocre.

    Posted by Joanna | April 17, 2011, 12:12 pm
  32. What a great post! I couldn’t stop reading. Very thoughtful and inspiering writing.

    Posted by Ida Berg | April 18, 2011, 12:22 am
  33. Wonderful!
    Your post reminded me of the 40 Developmental Assets for Adolescents that I worked with as a teacher a few years back… thought I’d share the link with you: http://www.search-institute.org/content/40-developmental-assets-adolescents-ages-12-18
    This wasn’t the list I specifically worked with, but that was long before social bookmarking.
    Again, a lovely post ~ Thanks!

    Posted by David Truss | April 18, 2011, 8:42 am
  34. I teach at a community college level, and I have to say I believe I do I pretty good job at creating an atmosphere of educational autonomy and, within my own classroom, students have a sense of connectedness. That said, I am not sure that community college students – many of whom live off campus, or are non traditional students (some with families or full-time jobs, etc.) – feel a real sense of connection or have a way to nurture many (or any) personal relationships.

    Over the years, I have had dozens of students report that mine is the only class where the instructor knows their name. Others tell me that walking the halls is like walking a gauntlet where they feel daily harassed for whatever reason.

    I’ve been feeling a little defeated lately. So much is wrong with education, so much is broken, I am not sure I can even get behind the idea that higher education is a way out of poverty any more.

    All I know is that – as a country – we have to do better by our students. We are failing them.

    Posted by Renée A. Schuls-Jacobson | April 21, 2011, 4:15 pm
  35. Relationships are certainly a key. Sometimes simply showing an interest in a kid is enough to encourage greater effort, leading to success in the classroom, leading to greater self esteem–a positive cycle.

    Thanks for the comment.

    Posted by casual shoes manufacturer, sandals manufacturer, safety shoes manufacturer | April 22, 2011, 1:47 am
  36. Great Post!

    I teach in the London, UK in a Primary school and can relate well to your notion of self-arrest.

    For me the key ingredient here is teaching the child not only how to deal with failure ( it’s a learning experience) and can build the skill of perseverance but connecting with the child in terms of the learning.

    Let me explain…

    Children not only need to feel they have been successful in lessons which builds their self-esteem but also need to be involved in deciding on the next steps. I always ask my class, at the end of lessons, how they feel about the learning- do they want more practise, move on…some homeowrk on this. This gives them some independence in their learning paths and I use their thoughts to build my next lesson for them.

    This can also help with self-arrest as children can indicate what they are failing at.

    I use my school’s MLE ( managed learning environment: virtual school) to add links, activities to support individual children with parts of learning they find difficult. They can look at these at home or at school to aid their progress.

    Empowering children to be in charge
    ( in part) with their own learning is very rewarding for them.

    High expectations are important- we want our children to reach for the sky, but we also need to appreciate not all childen will get there and help them all reach their potential.


    Posted by topteacherast | April 22, 2011, 7:54 am
  37. I’m a warm climate gal so don’t quite get the metaphor, but I appreciate your concerns for students. I just try to teach them to think, that’s all. And yeah, failure is part of life. It feels like crap, but it makes us not want to feel it again.

    Posted by theteachingwhore | April 24, 2011, 7:18 am


  1. Pingback: Icepicks and education | Education Adventures - April 18, 2011

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  3. Pingback: Educational Ice Axes: The Art of Self-Arrest (via Molehills out of Mountains) | eloisie - April 20, 2011

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Jeff Delp

Junior high principal by day, sports enthusiast, technology fanatic and jedi in my own mind. Striving to be a difference maker!
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