Risk management in schools is an interesting and concerning problem. There’s nothing in teachers’ training which helps them to understand the role and responsibilities of running activities outside the school grounds. In years gone by, this wasn’t too much of a worry as most teachers weren’t involved with the sheer volume of additional programs, excursions, activities and overseas trips which now form part of a normal year at school.
The only education that teachers seem to have in this is that at some point, they’re involved in a trip somewhere doing something and rather than having any actual training to be able to manage and help run whatever it is in which they’ve now found themselves involved, they’re entirely reliant on learning something about what they should be doing through osmosis. The expectation that they absorb something at some point in time which then magically enables them to manage risk in a well planned and professional way is ridiculous in the extreme, yet that’s basically the industry standard.
Sadly, osmosis is a rather unreliable means through which people gain even a decent baseline level of any sort of skill, let alone risk management. It’s like letting your English teachers learn about a text for the first time as they read it with (or slightly behind) the class, or your maths teacher, teach themselves by reading a chapter ahead and asking the other teachers a few questions about ‘this whole algebra thing.’
Parents would be horrified and continually write angry emails to the school if they knew their children were being taught by teachers who literally knew nothing about their subject areas. Why is nobody upset when that same lack of skill and understanding is being applied to situations which place students at real risk or harm?
Why is risk management training such an afterthought? Why do schools rely on osmosis for one of the most critical things required to keep their students safe? Is it because they don’t care? Most likely not. Is it because it’s too expensive? Hardly, as most training days are less than $500 a day and the cost to investigate even a minor issue is viciously expensive and can easily run into the thousands of dollars. Could it be something that they think they can contract out and not worry about because it’s now someone else’s problem. Perhaps they think they can do this, yet ultimately, they simply can’t contract this out and absolve themselves of any responsibility.
If only there were an easy answer to this. There is some level of naivety in all of this and what’s commonly known as unconscious incompetence. You don’t know what you don’t know. So if you don’t know it, then how can you be expected to do something about it? Unfortunately, this is not considered a reasonable or acceptable defence when something goes wrong. It just makes you look more idiotic than before and even a mediocre barrister will maul the hell out of a teacher who tries to use this. The ‘I didn’t know’ defence has sadly been used in coronial inquests and no amount of ignorance has ever brought a deceased child back nor mended any shattered lives.
So if training isn’t too expensive and it’s not too hard to do, why is it overlooked? I’ve often had the reply from teachers ‘I’m just a classroom teacher, so I don’t need to do anything like that.’ Yet these same classroom teachers are taking students down town, interstate and overseas on study tours, sports trips and cultural immersion programs. Just because you’re not going white water canoeing in South America, doesn’t mean you, your students and the school are not exposed to a huge range of potential risks from cultural misunderstandings, to political and social risks and poor student behaviour, just to name a few. Every time teachers leave the school gates with a group, they’re responsible for the safety and well-being of that group and like the English teacher reading the text as they go, teachers regardless of subject expertise, should not be out on a trip, anywhere, doing anything and making it up as they go.
In my twenty odd years in education (some more odd than others), the overwhelming trend has however been to allow totally inexperienced and untrained teachers to take groups out and make stuff up as they go. This is wrong and at the end of the day, luck always runs out and situations like this will always end badly. Rather than rely on the magical fairy tale land of risk management through osmosis and relying on making stuff to as you go, it’s time to up the ante on teacher training and enable those keen and enthusiastic teachers who want to improve student learning through amazing real world experiences, to undertake some real risk management training and properly build their skill-set around good risk management practices so that every trip on which they go, is a memorable one for their students for all the right reasons.
When we don’t know what we’re doing and we’re expected to have answers or manage risk, this is a massive problem. How can we be expected to put systems in place and plan for contingencies if we don’t understand the situation or context of what we’re expected to be doing.
Many teachers find themselves in this exact situation and are expected to plan for something about which they know nothing. At this point, the major activity and operational risk comes from the person not knowing what they’re doing, rather than the potential inherent risks of the activity itself. Do we let inexperienced drivers get behind the wheel without any training or supervision? Thankfully not. Yet why are so many teachers allowed to run sports, excursions and activities with no idea, training nor experience in what they’re doing?
It literally makes no sense at all to allow someone to take on a role which requires them to plan for and mitigate risks, if they have no idea themselves. The increased risk here comes from the person not knowing what they’re doing at all and they’re simply making things up as they go, which is never good in terms of risk management.
A number of years ago we came across one such group on an expedition. We were in Kangaroo Valley and just starting out on an expedition when we came across a group just finishing an expedition. In talking with them, we quickly realised they had absolutely no idea what they were doing. Their whole risk management plan was apparently based upon the fact that one of the teachers went for a walk and saw a snake, therefore they went canoeing instead because the risk of the snake was too great. I really want to laugh at this point as on that exact same river, I saw a 3 metre Eastern Brown Snake in the water and then it slithered up onto the place we had just had lunch, so seeing a snake in the wild and basing your decision on risk management around a single sighting of a snake seems quite idiotic to be perfectly honest.
Essentially these guys had been out on a multi day canoe expedition with no canoe instructors, no maps, no communications devices and no backup plans. Everything has to run perfectly for them to be ok, which relying on luck for your management of risk, is never a good thing.
One wonders how this group was even allowed to go out on this trip with such a poor basis for the management of the inherent risks, let alone the operational risks which were so obvious to this trip. Unfortunately, trips like this go out every day with no idea what their real risks are and the consequences of this can be horrendous if something goes wrong.
The only way that this sort of situation can be avoided is through training and experience. If any organisation is sending staff out untrained and unprepared in terms of risk management, then they deserve everything they get if something goes wrong. Schools don’t allow untrained teachers in the classroom, so why do they allow untrained teachers in the field.
Whether the teacher is running the trip or not, they need to understand what they’re doing to ensure they’re capable and effective in managing the risks involved outside of the classroom. Therefore, they need to be trained and experienced in general risk management, as well as activity or program specific risk management, so they can minimise the risks involved. The risk of not knowing what you’re doing is far too great and negligent when there’s so many opportunities to get trained and get up to speed with factors of which you should be aware and doing the right things to ensure you’re running awesome, experiential educational programs.
If you feel like you don’t know what you’re doing and don’t understand the risks involved or just need a refresher, then get some training today so that you can confidently manage risk no matter what the situation or context. Thus, always run awesome, educational programs for all your students.
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