Why are schools so challenged by risk management? This is something I’ve been noticing a lot lately and whilst risk management in schools has never been strong, because it doesn’t form part of a teacher’s training, the fact that it’s so important baffles me as to the lack of attention given to it.
Whilst many a school will scream and curse at this suggestion, claiming that they have a great paperwork system, there lies the problem. A paperwork system based purely on checking boxes and approvals masks the fact that there’s a lack of real risk management understanding and implementation. Paperwork without training and experience is just that, paperwork. It can be dragged out to accuse staff of this or that in an attempt to deflect blame, rather than being a support mechanism for decision making and good operational practices.
One place I worked was obsessed by paperwork. One activity was determined unsafe because the paperwork wasn’t good enough. This was yet another ill-informed and idiotic comment from someone who knew nothing about risk management. The boss also insisted everyone sign every document, before going out on an activity, but when something within that document was materially affecting the safety of the program, nothing was done about it. Now, I admit this was an extreme case, but we learn a lot from these things and the reality is that if a teacher has not had any formal Risk Management training, the teacher shouldn’t be planning or running any sort of activity at all.
Anything from a practical lesson, to a quick trip down the road to a local park, gallery, courthouse or museum, right up to sports, camps and overseas trips, requires a risk management assessment. Teachers must take the time, not just to learn how to ‘do’ paperwork, which I could probably train a team of monkeys on typewriters to do quite a lot better than some of the risk assessments I’ve read over the years, but instead, the most important thing is that they need to train for situational awareness, contingency planning and how to be adaptable and flexible to ensure whatever the activity is, it’s run well.
The number of teachers who are taking groups of students out on activities who are untrained, unskilled and unprepared is worrying. You cannot contract out your duty of care nor your liability to a third party, so if you’re taking a group overseas, then you are responsible for everything that happens regardless of contract providers. These are some of the most dangerous trips to run, as far too many people see this as a holiday, rather than the significantly higher duty of care and potentially reduced resources, yet countless trips head out with a bit of paperwork and teachers who have no ideas what’s in that, nor how to really implement any of it.
This disconnect widens, the more schools employ people to ‘do’ their risk assessments for them. I’ve seen an increasing number of schools put this responsibility on one person and not the people running the trips. At the end of the day, if you aren’t trained and experienced in the management of risk, then you shouldn’t be planning and running a trip at all. This isn’t to say stop doing trips, because that would be stupid and pointless. Instead, get some training so that you can be confident in what you’re doing and start to build a culture within your organisation which understands and has great risk management systems so every trip goes out with confident pro-active teachers who are prepared and situationally aware so that you are always running great experiential education programs for everyone.
Before your next excursion, do a risk management training course and build your skills-set and start to address this disconnect between documentation, implementation and culture. The only way to truly run great programs, is to have that culture of risk management right throughout your organisation.
COVID-19 is a significant global pandemic issue and has been running since the end of 2019, when it was first discovered in Wuhan, in China. Now, this has ravaged the world and there are some serious considerations to be made when planning any sort of school excursion or activity around the impact that this may have on one of your programs.
The way in which you should be treating COVID-19 is the same way that you should be treating any other highly infectious disease for either your campus or school activity. So it shouldn't be done in isolation as a separate issue. It should be done in conjunction with your other risk management considerations and concerns. What's really important, though, is that the focus on COVID-19 shouldn't detract from the other risk management principles and practices you have in place to manage risk for whatever the excursion or activity is. If the management of COVID-19 were to compromise the management of risk in another area, then it's critically important that you review the appropriateness of doing that activity at this point in time.
The safety of one activity shouldn't be compromised by the implications of another. And for an example of this, I can imagine doing a belayed climb. You may have an instructor who is up close to one of the students or several students where they have to check harnesses, and then you're belaying on a rope. Now, this can be done safely and you can apply control measures such as face masks and also social distancing. However, where that social distancing is not possible, then maybe it's worth reconsidering the activity itself until later down the track. But critically important, just as a reminder, don't compromise any of the other safety of your activities for the management of COVID-19. Now that's not to say don't manage COVID-19. I think I really need to make a clear distinction there. But if the risks are too great for that activity, as a result of having to manage another contingency and another hazard, then discontinue that activity at this point in time.
I think that's really the most important outtake from this. It is really important to expect that all of your instructors are up to speed with what the virus is, how it is transmitted, and control measures. It's really important to provide this information to the school administrators, the teachers involved, the parents, and the students. And clear communication is critically important. Just because it's been on the news every single day for the last 8 months or 12 months, or however long it's been, it's really important that you still go through the causation and the control measures, and be very clear with staff about this. It's really important that prevention is absolutely critical to the safe running of your programs.
As an indication of some of the different levels of risks you may encounter and how to manage them, we'll just run through some of the high and medium level risks where you may need to look at other personal protective equipment and other controls to be in place for this kind of activity. For example, an instructor providing first aid to a student, generally, you would have your standard and absolutely, you would have your standard of gloves on to handle any patients. But in addition to that, you should also look at having face masks on both parties and ensuring that if you can't maintain that social distancing of around six feet, then you must have those personal protective equipment and devices in place to prevent that or reduce the risk of that transmission. So that's one of the high-risk activities is applying first aid. Also, if you have teachers or teaching assistant who are working with higher-need students. Say if you have students with disabilities or any other provisions where they need a carer and the carer may be in close contact, again, this is where that personal protective equipment is critically important as these would be considered a high-risk activity in the scheme of things in the current environment.
In terms of some of your medium risk activities, all of those instructors and students and staff on any of the trips should be considered a medium risk. So as this medium risk may involve handling cutlery, handling dishes, also being on vehicles or in vehicles together, then you really need to consider the cleaning regimes and the monitoring of this as a critically important part. What we've done is we've put together a document which steps you through these different contingency plans to help guide your approach, to getting school excursions back out and running again.
This online guide is to be used in conjunction with the latest recommendations from the CDC, as well as the recommendations from your school administration, their legal counsel, and their insurers. So please ensure that you cover all of these different bases because the most important thing is to safely get our students back out and doing the sorts of school excursions and activities and camps, which they love, and they learn so much from. So it's really important as an additional consideration to your risk assessments at this point in time, and certainly for the foreseeable future, to be really focusing on how you are going to effectively prevent the virus coming onto your program. And if so, if a case does occur on the program or a suspected case, how are you going to quickly isolate that student or that staff member or that instructor, and then make contact with authorities to let them know so that contact tracing can start to prevent the wider spread of the disease.
Recently, I visited the USS Midway, a long-serving American aircraft carrier, now museum which sits in San Diego Bay. Built in 1943 at a cost of $90 Million, this ship with its crew of 4,500 was in active duty until 1992, with its last engagement being the main carrier for the battle group in the first Gulf War. This a truly remarkable museum and for a school group, is the best way to explore modern naval history. From WWII to Vietnam and the Gulf, the Midway played a pivotal role in gaining air and sea superiority for the allied forces.
Approaching the Midway, I stood in awe of its enormity! It looks big from a distance, but close up, you really appreciate the sheer size and dominating presence of this amazing vessel. With a Tom Cruise look-alike at the entrance playing the soundtrack to Top Gun, that's about the only awful and touristy thing about the place. The rest is an amazing historic journey back to the last century and a glimpse into what life was and is like serving in the Navy.
The tour of the ship is divided up into three sections. The first is the hanger deck where they used to store the planes, but now has a number of historic aircraft and flight simulators. Unfortunately, I didn't get to try them out, but well worth budgeting for your trip as the kids will nag you for it when you get there. Better to pre-empt this and be the most amazing teacher for organising it for them!
Below this deck is the main galley, sailors mess and medical areas, which give you an idea of the sheer size of the task of keeping everyone fed and healthy. There's a post office, laundry, general store, chemist, surgery and dental clinic, as well! Everything you need for extended deployments at sea. The most interesting part of this was the Marine’s guard station which led to the nuclear missiles’ storage below. An unambiguous warning sign outside, informed that the marines were authorised to use deadly force if any sailor attempted to gain access.
The runway deck, however, is the highlight of the tour. The deck is enormous, as you would expect when planes have to take off and land on it. There are all sorts of different aircraft up on deck from training and surveillance planes to the very impressive war planes such as the FA18, the Tom Cat and many others. There are a number of helicopters too, including the Huey that was extensively used in the Vietnam war and immortalised in the movie Apocalypse Now. Each of the aircraft is well-kept and has dummy armaments on each to gain a full picture of what these planes were capable.
There's a number of education sessions very worthwhile to take the kids. Under the shade of a small marquee, former naval officers explain the take-off and landing experiences they and others had whilst serving on the ship, as well as other aspects of life and work on board the Midway. These are great informative sessions and well worth going beforehand to listen, if you want to develop a worksheet. Having said that, the officers were so interesting, the natural curiosity of the kids might be enough to get them engaged.
Just below the flight deck, you descend to the pilots ready rooms, where mission briefings are held. What struck me, was the number of different rooms there were down there, all adorned with emblems of the various squads that had served aboard the ship. The final part of the carrier is the operations tower. This is where the flight control room is, as well as the bridge. This is a guided tour and limited to groups of 20 at a time, so be sure to divide your class and staff up accordingly. This was a very good tour, again conducted by former sailors and officers who had served on board.
This is an amazing day out for a school group. The variety of things to see, the history and the firsthand accounts of life on board the ship is sensational! Although a big trek to do this from Australia, for any US school groups heading to the area, this is an absolute must!
Sydney Aquarium is amazing! I just want to throw that out there right from the start. Being a diver, I love to explore the hidden beauty beneath the desolate surface, but a visit to the aquarium means you can have such a wonderful educational experience and not get your feet wet! The floor to ceiling glass tanks give you the feeling of total immersion in an underwater world, which is way better than Kevin Costner's Waterworld. I mean seriously what was he thinking?
Without getting too distracted with bad movies, and back to the aquarium, it is an awesome progressive journey through the deep. Perfect for any school group and will map straight into a range of the syllabuses for both primary and secondary students.
Being able to see first hand rare and exotic marine creatures up close with detailed descriptions is fantastic. The sharks were of course a favourite of mine. Having thankfully only seen a reef shark and a grey nurse, whilst diving, I was thrilled to see so many other varieties from the safety of the underwater walkway! The kids will absolutely love this. It was mesmerising standing watching them duck, weave and glide through the water! Make sure you go without the kids before hand, so you can enjoy it all, distraction free!
There's also a hands on section where the kids can touch many of the marine creatures. This is a bit slimy for me, but again it's something that your students will really enjoy. The day I was there, it was being run by an exceptionally helpful guide. His explanations of the various creatures was thorough and I left feeling as if I'd really learnt something from him.
At 11am, it's feeding time! If you can time it so that you're at the end of the tour at 11, this’ll be perfect. As the fish are fed, a presentation is given by one of the staff, which was both informative and helpful. I now know that a swordfish is in fact a mainly nocturnal fish!
There's also a shark talk in the same location at 3:30 and 5:30pm, which would still work if you're in Sydney running an overnight program for the kids.
The Sydney Aquarium really brings to life the whole marine environment and well worth taking a group of kids to see and experience it. Living by the sea, it's easy to take these sorts of things for granted, but as America tells us, 'The ocean is a desert with it's life underground, And a perfect disguise above,' the aquarium lets everyone explore and experience what is truly a complex and fascinating world below, something of which we are rarely able to catch a glimpse.
For any teacher, it's a must to go through beforehand and check it out. Use this opportunity to plan out some stops where you can focus on particular areas from what you've been studying back in class. Btw, present your teacher ID and you can get in for free! It's well worth going ahead of time, map out your lesson and prepare any materials in advance to make the most of the school trip.
Important Fast Facts:
Location: Eastern Side of Darling Harbour Sydney NSW, Australia
Open Daily: 9:30am – 7pm
Entrance & Parking: – See Aquarium Website for Details
P: 1800 199 657
School Education Entry:
$15 to $33 – check options here
Closest Decent Coffee:
Lime Cafe - Market St
Ok so it's not the closest, but very good coffee and I only recommend somewhere I've had a couple of coffees from and it's been good. Beware the old lady who sweeps around your feet in the afternoon, but otherwise very nice and worth the walk!
Australia is big, really, really big and most of our population lives on the eastern seaboard. Consequently, many of us never get to see our own unique wonders that form critical parts of our nation’s history. In all the years about education and hiking around the countryside, other than being stuck in Darwin airport due to a broken plane, I’ve never actually gone into the city. Other than the extreme heat, I really didn’t know what to expect.
Setting out with a friend in April, we flew to Darwin and the moment we stepped off the plane, we were hit by the unbelievable humidity of our nation’s frontier to Southeast Asia. Darwin itself, is more like a big country town than a city. It has a bizarre charm to it. Stinking hot, very red and surrounded by waters in which you can’t swim for fear of being stung by deadly box jellyfish, or eaten by crocodiles. If this is your first port of call in our country, “Welcome to Australia!”
Other than avoiding the water, there are some interesting things to do around town. We started out at one of the old World War II sites, which were massive fuel tunnels, built underneath the city. During WWII, Darwin was bombed 64 times by the Japanese. The first attack happened on 19th Feb 1942. 188 Japanese planes struck Darwin, an important Allied naval port. Darwin harbour was full of Allied ships and this was the biggest Japanese attack since Pearl Harbour.
The fuel tunnels were built to protect the Allied fuel sources as all of the tanks which were above ground had been repeatedly bombed and destroyed by the Japanese. Walking through these massive concrete chasms built deep into the ground, you get a sense of how critical thinking changes during times of war.
The second historic site we went to later that day was the Darwin Military Museum, which is on the original site of the old army outpost. Here there’s a fascinating, interactive display which runs you through the bombing of Darwin and the experience of those stationed there to defend our shores. There are films, personal accounts, maps, photos, artefacts and lots of military equipment, all of which present a very different picture of the Australian experience of War during WWII.
An amazing piece of military engineering you can see is one of the original massive 9.2" guns. This was an anti-ship gun which they built to protect the harbour against naval vessels. However, by the time they built it, they only fired it to test it out and the war was over. Walking inside the bunker and around the gun, then seeing the projective it fired, you can imagine how loud it would have been when fired.
Most of the focus of our studies of WWII tends to be on Australians in Europe or in PNG. However, this was happening on our own shores. You don’t realise how close we came to being over-run in recent history. Unfortunately, the experience of Darwin and its efforts to fight off the Japanese often only rates a couple of lines in a text book and this is something we need to seriously address.
Taking a school group here is a valuable and eye-opening experience to the fact that War was on our door-step, not in some far off land in Europe or the Middle East, it was here and it was real! There’s so much more to the history of Darwin than we often think and visiting these sites on our Northern frontier, is a great way to give your students a real understanding of just how critical this city was to protecting our nation from invasion.
For more on the history of the bombing of Darwin & the WWII experience:
Darwin Military Museum
Darwin Fuel Tunnels
This week I'm going to kick off the first of the 'Places to Go! Things to See!' feature where I'll detail and review somewhere that's fun, interesting and has great educational value for students. This feature looks at galleries, museums, historic sites and cultural activities that you can do around Australia. Each feature is based upon my own experience and won't be some crappy rehash of someone else's website or tourist information blurb.
The first port of call (so to speak), is the Jervis Bay Maritime Museum. Tucked away on the South Coast near Huskisson, the museum is a great historic collection that details the settlement history of the local area. From aboriginal heritage, to Governor Macquarie's explorers, to the famous Lady Denman Ferry lovingly restored by locals, the museum is a fantastic opportunity for students to explore the development of a regional community.
There are four main gallery areas in the museum:
1. The Lady Denman Ferry
2. Settlement & Development of Jervis Bay
3. Science & The Sea (a great private collection of rare naval artefacts)
4. Visiting exhibits
The Lady Denman Ferry is a commuter ferry, built in Huskisson, that was in service in Sydney from 1911 to 1979! The ferry transported passengers from Circular Quay to smaller inner harbour wharves such as Cremorne and Mosman. It has a fascinating and controversial story to its return to Huskisson, which basically involved commandeering the boat in the dead of night and sneaking it out of Sydney Harbour, then needing a naval escort when entering Jervis Bay to protect it from the raging seas that were mercilessly pounding the vessel under tow. The fact that it made it back home to Huskisson at all, was a remarkable feat in itself. Not to mention the huge community effort it took to restore this ferry to its former glory.
Other random notable facts I found out here include that most of the area around Jervis Bay is named after naval officers involved in the famous Battle of Cape St. Vincent, with the exception of Huskisson, which is named after an English politician whose main claim to fame is being the first person ever to be killed by a steam train. Not the greatest thing to be remembered for, but hey it just goes to show politicians will do anything for attention.
One of the other galleries has a fantastic collection of naval swords, flintlock firearms, sextants, and artworks depicting the early arrival of ships and explorers to Jervis Bay and the Shoalhaven region.
The other gallery is for touring exhibits, so it could be filled with anything from visiting art works, photos or other interesting artifacts. It's best to check the museum's website for upcoming exhibitions. I was fortunate one time to see an amazing collection of Arthur Boyd's works on display here!
The Jervis Bay Maritime Museum is well worth the visit! It's great for students studying local history or community development as part of the geography syllabus. For a community run museum in a small coastal town, the Jervis Bay Maritime Museum houses an amazing collection. It's been carefully and thoughtfully curated and shows how the formation of a region has played an important part in the history of our nation.
The museum is run by a wonderful group of friendly volunteers and they'll even provide a guide for your school booking.
Important Fast Facts:
Location: 11 Dent St, Huskisson NSW 2540, Australia
Open Daily: 10am - 4pm
Entrance & Parking: - Woollamia Rd, Huskisson, NSW, 2540
P: (02) 4441 5675
School Education Entry:
$5 - guided tour
$3 - self-guided tour
Closest Decent Coffee:
5 Little Pigs Huskisson
This is the pick of coffee in town, I'll rate this 7/10 beans. It's nice, but not consistent. I've had many coffees from this café. Some a really good, others a bit meh, but none really bad. The food however, is amazing!!!! Definitely worth having breakfast or lunch here whilst someone else is looking after the kids!
It's funny how easily we find ourselves sitting back and taking our working lives so contentedly. Almost every job is repetitive. Some are vastly more repetitive than others, for example working on a production line. However, sometimes even with variety at work, it can still become repetitious.
Recently, my colleagues and I spent some time developing new options for the outdoor ed program. The main aim of this was to have plans B, C, D, etc just in case weather or circumstances prevented us from going with plan A. For this, we headed Canberra to conduct some “reccies” (reconnoitres), to assess the suitability of different expeditions in areas.
Covering three different modes of transport, hiking, mountain biking and canoeing, one of the aims was to have an expedition that could link these together into a seamless journey. So off we went into the Brindabella ranges! This is a mountain range just south of Canberra through which the Murrumbidgee River flows and at points, narrows into mini gorges to create some exciting white water.
After driving around for about an hour and half in the troopie through some amazingly creepy hillbilly country trying to find public access to the river, it appeared we were out of luck. The upper section of the river where we wanted to put in, seemed to be completely hemmed in by private properties filled with wrecked cars and uninviting signs. Thankfully, we weren’t chased out by too many toothless, gun toting madman trying to protect their moonshine stills. With no way in, we decided to head back down to where we left the other vehicle and paddle from there.
Packing the canoes we put in the boats at a ford that ran a shallow and constant stream over the road, which quickly turned into some gentle rapids. Getting on the water, I was slightly nervous, as I’d never white water canoed before. Having paddled down many rivers in a kayak with a spray deck on, it's a totally different feeling being in an open canoe and only having a single blade. Sitting in the front of the boat we paddled down towards the first rapid. A nervous pain started stabbing me in the stomach. I suddenly found myself way outside my comfort zone.
As we hit the first rapid, the boat got caught on a rock. I quickly shifted my body to counterbalance the boat that was now tilted up at a high angle with the gunnel almost touching the water. It was probably the most precarious place you could imagine to have put the boat, and we’d only paddled about 50m. Seemingly, it wasn’t a good start to what was going to be a very interesting day. After being perched awkwardly on the rock for a few minutes, which felt like hours, we finally managed to shuffle our way off and back into the stream. The canoe righted itself with a bang and bumped clumsily across several other rocks as we went. I was now hoping the entire day wasn’t going to be like this.
Thankfully, the river widened and deepen a little, so became quite a pleasant paddle… well for a short period of time anyway. As my nerves eased, I tried to start reading the river ahead, anticipating any potential bumps and helping my colleague navigate and avoid them. After about half an hour, the river began to narrow once again and the land started to drop away at a much steeper rate. I became increasingly nervous, as I could see the bubbling white water in front of me getting funnelled down into an even tighter stretch of the river. Despite having a highly-experienced instructor in the back of the boat steering, I was a bundle of nerves as I clung on to my wooden paddle for dear life.
We sat midstream back-paddling and maintaining our position, as we discussed tactics of how we were going to approach and attack the next set of rapids. With a plan clearly in our minds, we paddled hard towards the first rapid and as we hit it, we turned hard right! With only inches to spare, we traversed the second rapid before swiftly changing direction again to negotiate a third one. With my heart pounding and my knuckles going white from gripping the paddle so hard, we slid through the final section and onto a fast-flowing rapid train that bounced us up and down, splashing masses of water over the bow and into my face.
A few hundred metres on, we came to yet another section that was even more extreme. Pulling off into an eddy, we breaked for lunch and examine the rapids ahead from the riverbank. What was becoming increasingly obvious, was the fact the hills were getting steeper around us and we were getting funnelled into a gorge. After lunch and having walked up and down the river examining options, we decided to portage the boats for a couple of hundred metres to avoid some of the more extreme rapids. The feeling of relief rippled through me as I really didn't want to be going down a grade 3 rapid that might’ve slammed us straight into a rock.
It quickly became apparent that canoes weren't really designed to be carried and despite going around some of the rapids being a much safer option, it was an arduous task dragging the canoes and our equipment over the rocky embankment beside the river.
Finding a calm little eddy on the other side, we slid the boat back in and continued on our way. This didn't last long, as the gradient of the river increased and the rocks either side began to appear pillar-like as they reached up higher and higher.
After hitting a few more rapids, the land seemed to just drop away. Pulling in to another eddy, we got out of the boat, and assessed what was a massive grade 3 rapid that split into two streams. Both directions were filled with nasty looking strainers ready for their next customer. Those of you who aren’t familiar with a strainer, it’s an object in the water, usually a tree branch or similar that catches solid objects as the water goes through it. Much like when you cook pasta and strain the water, the strainer in the river will capture you and hold you there. The difference being you don't get tipped out onto a plate and served with a nice tomato and basil sauce, you just get pinned there and drown. Strainers are deadly objects that you want to avoid it all cost.
We’d now hit a point in the river where it was no longer safe to paddle, nor was it easy or suitable to portage due to the increasingly large rocky outcrops. Emptying everything out of the boats we decided to line them down the rapids instead. Lining, if you haven't come across that either is where you attach a rope to the boat and allow the boat to float down the rapid whilst you use the rope to guide it. Sounds easy? Not quite... If the boat tips over at any point you need to let go of the rope immediately. The problem is that as soon as a capsized canoe fills with water, it suddenly weighs around 400kg. Unless you have massive guns, you’ll basically get snatched off the rocks and dragged down into the water, which is not recommended.
Lining the boats, followed by 100m of paddling, then several hundred metres of portaging and another extended lining took around two hours. The end of which we’d covered about 500m! The air felt cool as the sun hung low in the western sky. What was supposed to take a couple of hours in total, was now well into its sixth hour. Looking on the map, there was relief in sight as the river appeared to once again broaden. Back in the boats after another short portage, we paddled forth hoping our reading of the map was correct. The terrain around us had changed slightly. It was looking promising that the worst of it was over. As we rounded the next bend, a feeling of relief flooded over me. We were now back to a wide smooth flowing section of the Murrumbidgee!
With the light fading and the day well and truly done, the sight of Thawa Bridge ahead in the distance was a wonderful sight to see. It was just before dark as we stepped out of the boat. I felt a sense of achievement! Despite it being a harrowing experience at the start of the day and feeling completely out of my depth, it’d turned into an excellent adventure.
Often at work, we can become stagnant in our repetitive roles. Experiences such as this push us and remind us that we must also be prepared to push ourselves outside our comfort zones if we want to grow. There’s no point in telling kids they need to push their boundaries and limits, if we’re not prepared to do it ourselves. Feeling the fear that your students feel when they start a new activity for the first time is an important part of understanding why we do what we do.
Experiential education is so important for the continuous growth and improvement for both teacher and student. If you find you’re happy, content and comfortable day in day out at work, you're simply not pushing the boundaries hard enough. Even if you have a program that works exceptionally well, there’s always space for improvement.
Challenge yourself! Go out and find options B, C, D and in doing so experience something new. Ultimately, the more we test our comfort zone, the more we grow. The more we grow in ourselves, the stronger and more confident we become in our own lives. This strength and confidence translates into far better teaching and mentorship for our students.
There’s always a lot to think about when preparing for an outdoor ed camp. Assuming you know where you’re going and what you’re doing sorted, then it’s time to prepare the finer details.
For most teachers, this is where it can become overwhelming. Often the feeling is, “I want to run an enjoyable and safe trip… but where do I start?”
The first thing to do is develop your risk management plan. Many other things will simply fall into place once this is done. Although the bane of many teachers’ existence, a good risk management plan can save you considerable time and effort down the line.
When building your plan, look at your daily routine and work out what the key risks are for each activity and how you will accept, eliminate or mitigate these risks. You’ll need to consider things such as time of year (season), weather, temperatures, location and emergency exit points. Add to this the specific risks for each activity in those locations at that time of the year and you’ll start to build a picture of what your key risks are and how you’re going to address them.
With your risk management strategy created, remember, this is a living document not a copy and paste job which just makes up part of the ‘annoying paperwork.’ All staff need to be aware of risks and mitigation strategies and be prepared to react and respond if and when it’s needed.
The next step is to sort permission notes, get updated medicals and provide a student packing list with all the items they need to bring (and things they shouldn’t). Have a detailed plan ready to go before you send this out to parents. You’re bound to get lots of questions so the more detailed the itinerary you can provide upfront, the better.
For the equipment list, clearly specify quantity and quality of what’s required. Whilst I know some parents might not be able to supply this, as a matter of safety, it’s important that you’re able to cater for any shortfall. One of the most important pieces of equipment is a set of thermals. Even in warmer months, it’s good safety practice to carry some thermals in case of emergency and if you’re running an autumn or winter camp, it’s essential that all students have a set. The reason being (not just to support our great wool industry), hypothermia is always a significant environmental risk due to wet and windy conditions in Australia.
With permissions notes, medicals and gear all sorted, it’s time to brief everyone! This is often overlooked, but it’s vitally important to run a pre-camp briefing for staff and students. This goes back to pro-active risk management. Set the scene, set the expectations and build the excitement for camp. After all, you’ve just spent weeks preparing something very special it’s now time to tell everyone about it! Showing images from a previous camp and location on a map, is a great way to put into perspective some of the experiences they’re about to have.
With all this done, it’s down to the last items and you’re ready to go! First Aid kits, spare Asthma Puffer, spare EpiPen, any medications, groups lists, medical summaries, food and you’re good to go! By the way… did anyone book the buses?
One of the biggest problems in any outdoor program is the blindness of experts. They’re generally people who are experts in their specific field or activity and become over-confident and blind to situations in which risk can be quite dangerous to themselves and others. However, I’m not going to be covering that right now. Instead I’d like to coin the term, ‘The Idiot Blindspot!’ What happens when inexperienced and incompetent people think they know what they’re doing when they truly don’t?
The idiot blindspot is a dangerous place in which to be operating, as there’s actually no consideration of risk at all. It’s merely given lip service and no real implementation of any considerations about risk are thought about nor are there any systems in place to manage risks. These are the people you want to avoid like they plague. They are your classic copy and paste crew who think that a risk management document is what risk management is about and once you have that document (copied and pasted from someone else), that whatever you do after that is ok.
The ‘whatever you do after that is ok’ approach can be a strange and nerve wracking experience for someone who is able to read situations. Sadly, if unaddressed, the idiots involved tend to end up in front of coroners having caused life-shattering damage to those they should have been protecting. They will then make excuses for their behaviour and lack of judgment.
I’ve experienced a few idiots over the years and despite going to great lengths to explain the reasons why we should or should not do something, they would invariably not see reason. In fact, they would get quite defensive and hostile at the suggestion that what they were considering was perhaps not that well thought out.
Unfortunately, I can think of a number of occasions that this has happened. One was a rafting exercise where the activity was being conducted in a tidal creek, which had a sucky mud base and was murky to the point that you couldn’t see 10cm below the surface. What better way to run a raft building exercise than to have students testing their make-shift crafts in this environment with no life jackets on. But wait, there’s more! Not only were there no personal flotation devices being used, the activity spontaneously changed into students wrestling with each other on the makeshift rafts attempting to throw each other off into the murky water. For someone with at least half a brain, you could reasonably foresee problems with this activity. Sadly, the idiots running it could not.
“Why didn’t you stop the activity?” I hear you shouting in disbelief!!! Well, I wasn’t actually there. The idiots had filmed all of this and could be heard encouraging the wrestling on the dodgy rafts. I already had my doubts about these members of staff, and now here we were seeing their stupidity in full-flight. Operating your risk management based upon pure luck is not something that should ever be done. Nor is letting an idiot run an activity such as this, with no regard for even the most basic notions of student safety. The difficulty in this situation was that the person running the activity was my boss, which only added to the dangerous nature of the organisation’s idiot blindspot.
On a number of different occasions, I’ve found myself in a bizarre arguments over weather warnings, equipment usage and group dynamics, all of which materially impact on safety. However, there’s a difference between a robust discussion with experienced and knowledgable colleagues versus complete idiots, especially when the complete idiots think they’re amazing and know what they’re doing. No advice is better than any advice from someone who knows nothing about risk management. A very dangerous mix, which if left unaddressed has the potential to put you in front of the coroner. Sadly, it’s usually the death of an innocent child that the coroner is investigating and not the idiot whose lack of judgment and understanding led to the accident.
If your organisation has people like this in it, get rid of them as fast as possible. They’re not going to benefit from any sort of professional development or training, as they completely lack the understanding and ability to understand risk and how to be situationally aware. It’s often not until an activity or expedition is in motion that risks (which were copied and pasted on that dusty document) become apparent. Being able to read situations is critical to good risk management and ensuring that all your activities and programs run well and are beneficial to everyone involved.
Before you let any staff loose on programs with any level of risk, then they’re well trained and are mentored along the way. It does take time and experience to develop situational awareness. However, once you’ve detected the idiots, you know they have to go. You don’t need the idiots. They contribute nothing other than red flags and an immense danger to you and everyone around you and the faster you can understand their blindness to risk and take them out of the mix, the better off your organisation will be.
I see this so often in experiential education. A teacher either gets so caught up in running an activity that at the end of it, there isn’t the opportunity to debrief, or worse, it's simply not even part of the program.
Neither are good approaches, but not having any form of debrief or reflection factored into what you’re doing, is a huge mistake and a wasted learning opportunity.
Experiential education is not just about running fun activities. If it were, it would be called a holiday camp. Yet this couldn't be further from the truth, despite some teachers thinking of it as such. Experiential education is about providing opportunities through real challenges and being able to reflect on how everyone worked through and faced each challenge.
It's essentially the business of providing practical learning experiences that have real measurable consequences as a mechanism for pushing students outside their comfort zones. Through doing this, we’re able to build positive relationships, increase social awareness and promote personal growth.
Often the specific activity through which this is done is quite irrelevant. It really doesn't matter if you hike, canoe, mountain bike, abseil or kayak, so long as the activity is suitably challenging for the students and will extend all involved.
What does matter however, is what you do after the activity is over. During each challenge, you should be actively monitoring the performance of individuals and the group. Keep in mind any stand out behaviours both positive and negative, but also note those in the middle who may lack confidence or just not even try. It's a lot to keep an eye on. However, the more time you spend with groups, the easier to become to know what to look for.
At the end of the activity, it's time to debrief and reflect. Not doing this is a massive mistake for experiential education, because reflection is where the value of the learning comes in. If a group fails at an activity, it's pointless just to say, ‘just try harder next time.’ This is a cop out on the teacher's part and what does try harder even mean?
You need to explore reasons for the failure and discuss this with the group. An activity such as raft building for example is a great test of teamwork, planning and execution. More often than not, I see the crews go down with the makeshift crafts. So why does this happen? Is it that they don't try hard enough? Well no, it's usually because in the excitement and pressure of a time limit, they rush things, they build before they plan or they plan for a craft that is great on land, but not suited to the water!
Whilst this sounds just like the daily operations of a government department, it also produces a similar result. It's not until you gather the group together and talk through the experience, that they start to learn from it. I usually bring in other relevant examples from their lives and get them to think more broadly than just the activity itself. Questions such as, “What’s something else you’ve experienced that didn’t work because you rushed into it too quickly?” Or, “What's something else you have to carefully plan out to make sure it works?”
It's through reflections that the real learning occurs. I've seen far too many teachers run this sort of activity and because everyone ends up getting soaking wet and it descends into organised chaos, they think that it's all over when the students get out of the water. However, the opportunity for learning has only just begun!
It’s your qualities as a teacher that then comes into play to tie in all of the related social and emotional themes to effectively debrief the activity. The more challenging the activity, the greater the need for your group to reflect on it. You’ll often be surprised by the comments students make when you use the experience to reflect on a bigger picture issue or question.
One of the most powerful comments I've heard was after a caving exercise where the students had to make their way out of total darkness. I mean total darkness! There were no luminescent glow worms to help you out. You couldn’t even see your hand in front of your face. The only way out was to shuffle along a cramped passageway on your stomach and hold onto the person ahead of you. When we finally emerged from the cave and debriefed the activity, one student, who was afraid of the dark said, “I could feel my friend holding my hand. He kept talking to me the whole time and I knew I'd be ok.” This then led into a wider discussion about looking after each other and some amazing comments from other students in the group.
I never know what to expect when reflecting on an activity, but the bottom line is that it’s a must for each and every program you’re running. It’s through this sort of reflection, that students and ourselves are able to learn the most.
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.