Backcountry Babes instructor Eryka Thorley recently met up with fellow instructor and guide Casey Graham to talk about gender dynamics in the classroom and what this means for him as an instructor for both co-ed and all women’s courses for Backcountry Babes.
ET: How long have you worked for Backcountry Babes?
CG: This is my third season working with Backcountry Babes. I work full time with the Air Force Academy as their Director of Adventure programs in Colorado Springs. I work with military cadets there and in my days off also work with Pikes Peak Alpine School and Irwin Guides in Crested Butte. I work for other organizations during my time off to find diversity from my everyday job with with the Air Force.
ET: Can you share with us a bit about your background as an outdoor instructor…
CG: In general avalanche students or any student want to know that their instructor has experience in that specific field. I’ve been involved with the outdoor education realm for over 12 years working as an educator, guide, administrator. I’ve taught in each point of the industry in one shape or form. I have a passion for teaching this stuff and because of this I teach avalanche courses on my days off from my primary job. When I’m with students I’m happy to draw on my variety of different experiences over the years.
ET: What do you enjoy most about being a Backcountry Babes Instructor?
CG: The staff that I get to work with. All of my co-instructors at Babes are exceptionally talented individuals. They all bring years of experience to the table and because of this I’m always learning from them. It’s nice to work with staff who are as passionate about the topic as I am.
ET: When you step into an all women’s course what do you feel like you bring to the table as a male instructor?
CG: When Emily approached me about teaching for Babes a few years ago it was more about being a “qualified” instructor not a “man”. Over the last 3 seasons hopefully what I bring is a positive educational experience with a non-intimidating male figure in this industry. I think one of the barriers for women entering avalanche education is the aggro machismo guys out there which sucks for everybody, not just women. Most all of our students are going to tour with guys in the future and I think its important to create a culture of respect where everyone feels heard and safe. Respect and a huge emphasis on communication is really important when stepping out into the backcountry. As a male instructor I’m hopefully able to bring a comfortable example of gender dynamics in the backcountry and in an environment where we can all feel heard and respected. Having a male on these courses ideally helps everyone learn to communicate that much better. Backcountry Babes as an organization geared towards women seems to automatically bring a more relaxed vibe into the classroom. Having a male course instructor on the course then sends students home with a great example of how communication with a male in the back-country can carry that same respectful vibe.
ET: Is a Backcountry Babes course different from other courses that you teach? If so, how?
CG: I feel like there is an emphasis on every course I teach to provide a safe space for learning. I feel that this culture is more implicit with Backcountry Babes courses that I teach. Students typically show up with their friends that they are going into the backcountry with but at the end of every Babes course I’ve seen without fail students exchanging contact information for future backcountry tours and other adventures. This sense of camaraderie creates more of a community experience versus solely an education gaining experience. There is also tremendous emphasis placed on good decision making on any avalanche course but you can see this more clearly on a Backcountry Babes course. I’ve only done a few co-ed courses but you can see this in these courses as well. The co-ed courses that I’ve tough have been mostly couples but I’ve seen couples doing the same thing, making plans for hut trips or future excursions together. It doesn’t seem to be a gender specific phenomenon but an overall cultural difference based on what we are tying to foster during a Backcountry Babes course.
ET: Have you found that teaching for Backcountry Babes has changed your teaching style?
CG: It’s hard to say if teaching specifically with Backcountry Babes has changed my style. I think my style changes with every course that I teach no matter the company or venue. Cumulatively my style changes with each of the places that I teach but as far as working for Backcountry Babes my teaching style is typically more relaxed. The culture of a Babes course feels to be a bit more relaxing. The relationship between teacher student and the classroom is more approachable and comfortable than other places I’ve worked. Working with Babes has made me feel more comfortable with the delivery of the material and more relaxed overall. Babes courses provide an easy classroom dynamic that feels open to discussions and always lots of great questions. As an instructor in a Babes course I’m not as concerned about someone doing something impulsive in the field which makes it an easier dynamic to manage from that perspective as well .
ET: Have you received any feedback from students regarding a male teacher in the classroom and what that meant for their avalanche education experience or backcountry skiing course?
CG: Not necessarily. Mostly at the end of a Backcountry Babes course the instructor team as a whole is overly positive. I have this gender ambiguous name, Casey. If students don’t read my bio I think some assume that I’m a girl and are surprised when they show up for the course and there is a male instructor. By the end of the course however, I think I am able to connect with them and again start that relationship of mutual respect that is so important. I think that’s maybe a statement of how the course feels in general. Should it really matter if there is a male instructor or female instructor in a course if we are all prescribing to respect in general? I don’t think so.