I grew up in Tennessee near the Great Smoky Mountains. Year round, the weekends would draw my family and my friends to over 800 miles of hiking trails. I remember one Christmas break, about eight of us took the Appalachian Trail for a multi-day trip from Newfound Gap to Cosby Knob, a 23-mile jaunt with beautiful vistas such as Charlies Bunion, Mt. Sequoyah and Mount Chapman. The fond memories are still quite vivid of warding off rats from stealing our dehydrated food to warming rocks near the fire and placing them in our sleeping bags to stay warm on a frigid night with six to eight inches of snow.
We enjoyed the day hikes as well. The Chimney Tops trail was one of our favorites; it was not for the faint of heart as it was a two-mile trek with 1400 feet of elevation change with portions of the trail being quite steep. Once you reached the destination, the view was awesome and well worth the strenuous climb.
Something everyone takes for granted while hiking in the Great Smoky Mountains is that there are well-established and maintained trails that can be easily followed. On one occasion, while we were atop the Chimneys, we thought about the return 2-mile walk along the trail to the parking lot and with some ingenuity and some immaturity, we estimated that if we went straight down the mountain we could easily trim off 1.5 miles off our return trip. Five of us set off down the mountain. I remember fighting the branches and brambles, the thorns and thistles, the crevices and the creeks, and experiencing what gravity can do to a young man on a 30-degree steep slope. Though we all lived through this experience with only scrapes and bruises, I got a small taste of what it would be like to be a trailblazer.
The first thing I learned is that it is hard work to be a trailblazer. First, you have to know your point of origin and your destination point, plot your path, explore and test your path making modifications as needed, then prepare the path for others to make the journey.
As I reflect on my school experience, I realize that teaching is about preparing students to become trailblazers. The job of teachers is to assess students’ past experiences to understand their point of origin and to then help direct them along paths to progress and eventually to pursue a profession of their choice. Teachers do this by providing students with a list of courses that must be taken to reach their destination. They provide tools to help students navigate the trails and help condition them for the journey; but an essential realization for each teacher is that each student must be their own trailblazer.
Each student is an individual, constructing their own knowledge, making sense of what they are learning based on their unique experiences. Each student will tackle problems differently and will learn at their own pace. As we begin a new and unique school year, we pray that all teachers across Johnson County will enable their students to be trailblazers, empathizing with them when they experience the branches and brambles and celebrating with them from atop the mountains as they reflect on their successful journey. At Southwestern Adventist University, our mission is to inspire knowledge, faith and service in each student through Christ-centered education. We look forward to seeing how each student will express knowledge, faith and service - right here and right now - in their own individual ways.