If you haven’t seen it yet, you’re sure to have heard about Free Solo, the Academy Award-winning documentary about Alex Honnold’s quest to climb the daunting, 3,200-foot cliff in Yosemite National Park, El Capitan, without ropes and harnesses and by himself. It’s a breathtaking, terrifying, and anxiety-provoking ride that shines a light on the inner workings and sheer physical strength necessary for a climber taking on such an incomprehensible challenge.
Merely watching the drama unfold through a methodical narrative, culminating with the final climb, left my palms sweaty and heart racing. My wife, Kara, had to stand up to cope. It is not for the faint of heart.
While physically safer, teaching isn’t for the faint of heart either. Like Honnold, teachers operate mostly on their own in occasionally scary spaces, but teachers do so in front of groups of children watching, listening, and even challenging their moves. No 90-degree granite wall to conquer, but trying to impart knowledge, skills, and strategies onto their students in hopes of providing a path for growth presents its own challenges and delights.
While Honnold climbed thousands of feet up, he was reduced to a speck in the frame, disappearing within the crags and cracks; the enormity of the task was heightened through scale. His wiry body moved with speed and skill, but he’s human and had to deal with his fear as much as thinking where he’d have to place his next foothold.
Fear can cripple climbers and educators alike. Honnold’s thoughts on fear can help better equip us in the classroom. “When people talk about trying to suppress your fear … I mean, I look at it differently. I try to expand my comfort zone by practicing the moves over and over again. I work through the fear until it’s not scary anymore.”
This can be evidenced throughout the documentary with Honnold using the safety of his harness to study and scale tricky parts of the climb with friends and then reclimbing them again and again until the safest route can be found, documented in a journal, and replayed over and over in his mind. If constant practice over a course of years is necessary to climb a rock, the same can be said of teaching and leading in schools.