Earnest Shackleton: A Lesson in Endurance

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“A man must shape himself to a new mark directly the old one goes to ground.”

I like what these words say.  Don't you?  If something goes south with our plans, it can be good to change course, so to speak, and try a new plan.  But just wait until you hear about the person who said these words.  They will mean more to you when you finish reading about Ernest Shackleton.  When you are finished, don't miss the incredible lesson plans that enrich this story even more.  Mathematics, geography, history, and science are all utilized in order to bring this phenomenal story to life for your students.  

Shackleton was an Antarctic Explorer who sent out a notice in order to recruit 27 men to join him on a dangerous mission to become the first fleet to cross Antarctica. 

“Men wanted for hazardous journey.
Small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness,
constant danger. Safe return doubtful.
Honor and recognition in case of success.”
(signed) Shackleton
 

Thousands applied.  Thousands!  But Shackleton chose 27 and they boarded his ship, The Endurance, named after his family motto:  "By Endurance We Conquer."

They set out on their mission and, The Antarctica within their sights and grasp, unfortunately became trapped by pack ice of The Weddell Sea.  After realizing they were not going anywhere until Spring, Shackleton made the decision to allow the ship to veer off course, and so they could land at a winter station. For 10 long months, the Endurance slowly drifted and finally crushed by the ice. Water came pouring in. They then abandoned ship and became stranded on ice floes for 5 long months, their meager food and clothing supply dwindling, until they finally drifted to the northern edge.  Once there, the open lanes of water allowed them to take 3 life boats and sail for land.  When they landed on Elephant Island, it was the first time in almost 500 days that they had been on land.  This was not a cause for celebration, however, as the land was uninhabited and off the path of the shipping lanes.  This meant there was no hope for discovery or rescue.

Based on the physical and mental deterioration of his men, Shackleton immediately decided to take 5 of his men and set sail on one of their lifeboats--a meager 22-foot vessel--and traverse 800 miles through the worst seas to South Georgia Island.  This would have been deemed "impossible", but Shackleton did successfully landed on another island 17 days later.  They discovered they had landed on an uninhabited side of land and still needed to cross 26 miles of treacherous mountains and glaciers.  Only a miracle brought the 6 men to that whaling station, frostbitten and without food.  And then in August 1916, 22 months after their initial departure on The Endurance, Shackleton himself arrived on Elephant Island to bring his men to safety.  NOT ONE of the 28-member-crew perished in the incredible journey.   Why is that?  Is it because they knew what they signed up for?  Is it because they were named, "The Endurance?"  This historical event is a true testament of the will to survive. 

The New York Times came out with an excellent article exploring the leadership lessons from Shackleton's journey.   Author Nancy Koehn focuses on the decisions Shackleton made during the journey, when disaster struck again and again, to change his goals midstream.  When it was clear The Endurance was not going to lead the men to land in order to be the first to cross Antarctica, Shackleton's goals immediately changed.  His mission goal was no longer to be the first to cross Antarctica.  It was now to save the lives of his crew members and get them ashore. 

Interesting, Shackleton also ordered his men to keep their established routines through work, meal times, and social interaction, as a protection for moral decline.  He knew his physical and mental stability, authority, calmness, and presence were crucial to the lives of these men. 

Shackleton braved the harshest of elements to traverse a variety of landscapes to get his men home and he did so with commitment to goals, flexibility of plans, and creativity with resources and abilities. 

How can I take the lessons learned from Shackleton to be a leader in teaching?  Will I just "power through" when my initial lesson or my whole approach is going array?  Will I keep a daily routine for my students and use their gifts and talents to make our "team" or classroom more efficient and for the common good?  How will I react when behavioral hiccups have disrupted our learning environment for the umpteenth time?    And will I see each teaching day as a new one?  Will the high and mighty waters drown me, or will I traverse through--confidently, creatively, and wisely? 

And finally, how can I be an unshakeable leader? This is a worthy question; especially as you start a new school year, or a new calendar year.  We can all learn how to be a better leader in certain areas of our life.  

This free incredible collection of 6 lesson plans, offered by WGBH Educational Foundation, are designed to go along with the full-length film: Shackelton's Antarctic Adventure.  Teaching children about mathematical scale, latitude and longitude, nutrition, and more, these lessons are a gold mine for the teacher!  

To further investigate Ernest Shackleton and the many different lessons we can learn from him, check out this Science  lesson for grades 6-8, centered around Shackleton's journey, what motivates someone to contribute to the common good of man.  Students will also be able to locate Antarctica and explore the physical changes of freezing water. 

NOVA has created a Shackleton's Voyage of Endurance Program for kids, and offers these lesson plans as accompaniment.