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Report to the Board of Trustees, October 2019

Monday, September 16, 2019 6:29 AM | Dave Durant (Administrator)

NIA Report

 David Durant

President, NOLS Instructor Association

October 2019

NIA Mission

To communicate and advocate instructor views, and to work within the NOLS community to promote the school’s mission and values.


On behalf of the NIA and all NOLS instructors, and from one President to another, I’d like to warmly welcome Terri to her new role.  I’ll stop short of saying “welcome back,” because, of course, Terri never left.  She’s been teaching Wilderness Medicine courses each year since 1999, which is long before she worked her last Expedition in 2008, and even before NOLS purchased what was then known as the Wilderness Medicine Institute.

At Terri’s welcome party in Lander we learned from Greg Avis that more than 400 potential candidates were contacted in the search process.  No doubt this number included many appealing potential presidents without NOLS experience.  We at the NIA applaud the Board of Trustees’ hiring of Terri.  We take it to be self evident that the students arethe mission, and that the instructors are the keepers of the student experience, and therefore what serves instructors well ultimately serves our students well.  We believe that with her background as an Expedition instructor, Wilderness Medicine instructor, Program Supervisor, and Branch Director, not to mention her recent role as the CEO of a nonprofit unrelated to NOLS,  Terri is exceptionally well positioned to approach the real problems confronting our instructor corps with empathy. 

The Directors of the NIA and I all look forward to Terri’s official start date in 2020, and sincerely hope that this will usher in an era of increased cooperation between NOLS instructors and NOLS management.  In fact, for the good of the school, it hardly seems like it could be otherwise.  I don’t need to enumerate for you the challenges that face the school today.  Against this backdrop, I find it helpful to remember that we’re all on the same team, and that instructors and administrators alike share the same basic goals of excellent student experiences and being part of an organization that can credibly claim to be “The Leader in Outdoor Education.” 


The fact that the October Board Meeting is held in Lander each year provides our Trustees with a unique opportunity to experience some aspects of the field instructor lifestyle.  I’d encourage each of you to come a day early or stay a day late in order to better do so.  Take a hike around Sinks Canyon after work and chat with NOLS folks in pairs who’ve headed up to climb a few pitches before dark.  Rent a mountain bike at Gannet Peak Sports, and head out to Johnny Behind The Rocks to participate in another favorite time off activity.  Stop by the Lander Bar for Happy Hour on Friday, and have a beverage with the motley assortment of program staff, instructors, HQ employees, interns and fellows that congregate there for an hour or two at the end of each work week.

Take some time to really explore the Noble Hotel.  Here, you’ll see numerous services that NOLS provides for instructors that are often under-appreciated. These include a well appointed workout facility, a laundry room, bike hangers, boat storage, long term lockers, a faculty-only space on the third floor, and a dedicated faculty WiFi lane that is fast enough to perform “life maintenance” tasks in between contracts.  

But look closely in the Noble, and you’ll notice some other things, too.  In the third floor kitchen, the air compressor on the fridge cycles between brief moments of silence and long minutes of noise that make it hard to carry on a conversation.  The windows next to the dining table have been broken for months or years in a manner them makes them impossible to open.  Without air conditioning on the third floor, this means that from June to August the temperature in the kitchen can approach 100 degrees.  In these conditions the air compressor won’t cycle, but runs constantly, day and night, at maximum volume.  Instructors struggling to be heard over the ambient noise keep instructors who are headed out to the field early the next morning up late.

You’ll notice something else as you patronize local non-NOLS establishments as well.  Before Old Town Coffee became Crux Coffee, the barista was often an HQ worker picking up extra shifts in order to make ends meet.  The Crux, owned by the Catholic College, seems to hire entirely from within their own community, so these days NOLS employees who need to supplement their income can often be seen running food from the kitchen in the Gannet Grill.  Walk to the back of Gannet Peak Sports, and you might see an AFP Instructor picking up a shift doing bike maintenance.  (Fewer than than 2% of NOLs Faculty work under the auspices of the “Annual Faculty Plan,” which makes them “full time” with a guarantee of 25 weeks of work per year.)

In October I suspect that City Park, where anyone can camp for free for up to three nights, will be pretty quiet.  But visit in mid-summer and you might see a small impromptu community of NOLS instructors and interns.  During this season an instructor whose contracts aren’t perfectly back-to-back will find that there isn’t space for them to spend an extra night in the Noble, and therefore won’t have any indoor housing option.  Likewise, our interns, who receive stipends that are modest by any standards, often get by in Lander by staying in the Hotel.  In the summer this option typically isn’t available.

People should draw their own conclusions from an in-depth tour of Lander, an no doubt you will, even if the only tour you have time to take is the virtual one provided here.  I would like to submit one thing for your consideration, however.  It occurs to me as I write this, and not for the first time, that an organization laying claim to the title “The Leader in Outdoor Education,” should challenge itself to do better by its faculty and staff.  As one of those faculty, I know I’m here to serve our students.  But I serve them best when I’m not worried about where I’ll sleep between contracts, when I’m not using any of my mental bandwidth to figure whether or not I need a second job to meet my annual expenses (even as an AFP instructor), and when, during my briefing, I can enjoy all the spaces NOLS kindly provides for me, not just the ones with functional windows.


Finally, I’d like to express my regrets that I wasn’t in Gabriels to greet you in June.  I had recently left that campus to teach a two-week Adventure course in our beautiful Adirondack classroom.  Likewise, I won’t be in Lander in October to greet you as I was planning to do.  I’ll be in Salt Lake City, where I picked up some last minute work teaching a Wilderness First Responder course.  Such is the reality for NOLS instructors.  Barring some non-job source of income (which 56.7% of expedition instructors report having), we need to take what’s offered, when it’s offered.  

I very much looking forward to reconnecting with all of you in San Diego, February 7th & 8th, 2020.

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