Lock Down In Parliament House!

Parliament House - Excursion

Since there's an election going on I thought it was time to tell about the most interesting experience I've ever had in Parliament house. Pretty much everyone goes there for their year 6 Canberra trip. The kids are taken from place to place in the name of national discovery and of course, they eventually end up at Parliament. Now I've been to Parliament many many times. I've done work experience there, had dinner there, got lost there and sat in on countless budget nights and question times. All in all each experience was interesting, but all quite unremarkable. However, one day we took the year 9 boys from Scots down to explore the war memorial and attend question time. This experience turned into something entirely different...

It was a normal start to the day like every other time we'd been to Canberra. We wandered around the war memorial and then after lunch, we headed over to Parliament. As the bus drove up the awe inspiring driveway we could see a crowd gathered on the lawn opposite the main entrance. To put the story in context this was the time when Prime Minister John Howard had just committed troops to Iraq for the second Gulf War. So of course it was pretty clear that this crowd wasn't there to celebrate his birthday. There's nothing quite like taking a group of year 9 boys past an angry mob. Since this was the first contact they'd had with the outside world for several weeks, the air was electric with excitement.

Descending into the underground car park, there was a bus with a lot of well-armed police getting off it. This only added to the excitement and through trying to get the boys inside as fast as possible, I started feeling like the fireman standing in front of a burning building moving people on, saying there's nothing to see here. However, with a lot of coaxing, I ushered my group of boys inside and safely through security.

You could feel the tension in the air as there were far more security guards than I’d ever seen before. We led the boys upstairs and into question time. To say this was the most exciting question time I've ever been to would be quite an understatement. It wasn't what was going on in the chamber, it was what was going on in the public galleries that made it so exciting. There were protesters everywhere and despite all the security, there were no shortage of them in the public gallery. Whilst trying to supervise the boys and keep them from talking, I couldn't help but be totally distracted by the drama going on around us. Protester after protester jumped up yelling out over the balcony and into the chamber below. As soon as someone yelled something, they were grabbed by security and dragged out of the gallery. I sensed movement to my right. Glancing up there was a woman. She stepped forward, opened her mouth and cried out. Suddenly her body lurched back as two burley security guards dragged her away, hands awkwardly pinned behind her back. The boys next to me excitedly exclaimed, 'Sir did you see that?' I quickly put my finger to my lips 'Shhhhhh.'

This continued throughout question time and it looked like the speaker was about to close and clear the galleries. However, the politicians persisted with whatever they were doing and we kept enjoying the show that was going on around us. Question time eventually came to an end and all the politicians funneled out of the chamber. To think this was the end of the story, think again, it was only just getting started.

We were ushered out of the House of Reps only to find that we had our own security escort taking us to the hospitality section where we were to have afternoon tea and meet our local member of parliament. Halfway there I heard a voice come over the security guard's radio. 'They going for the front door!' All of a sudden there was a rush of security guards from all over racing towards the foyer. Our escort stayed with us, delivering us to the lounge area in hospitality. He told us to stay there until further notice, then promptly disappeared, no doubt to check out the riot we could hear downstairs.

Whilst being served a popper (juice box - not drugs) and a biscuit for afternoon tea we could hear the shouting, the yelling, the chanting and the commotion of it all. Smoke billowed up past the windows we were told to keep clear of, as flags burnt and the roar of the crowd intensified.

We were locked down in hospitality for over an hour before a security guard returned and said 'we've cleared a way out for you.' Throughout this whole time the noise of the crowd hadn't subsided and things were still in full swing! A number of other security guards had appeared and they divided us into small groups with one teacher and around 15 boys. I had a gappie with me too (an English guy named James, who was also finding this super exciting!) we almost killed him the day he arrived in Australia (our bad, but that's a story for another time). Anyway I was at the front of the group, James was at the back and we were led down the stairs and through the foyer. To our left were the massive glass door, on the inside it was spotted with parliamentary security guards. On the outside, was the police riot squad, vastly out-numbered and pressed up against the doors. The boys wanted to stay and watch (so did I, but our hosts seemed very keen to get us out of the building). I reassured the boys that we'd see something really exciting again and we didn't want to be late for dinner at McDonalds. Sadly many of the boys were more excited about McDonalds than what they were in the middle of right here right now. We cleared the foyer, were led to an elevator and crammed in. Silence gripped the lift as we descended towards the basement. One boy standing next James broke the silence with "Mmm sir, you smell really nice!" Everyone erupted with laughter, with the exception of the security guard who started yelling at everyone to shut up! Now this was weird, obviously no sense of humour, which is very important when dealing with kids, even when there's a crisis. I rolled my eyes as I was laughing myself. Being couped up for hours, this was the funniest thing that had been said all day.

The doors opened and we were in what appeared to be a service corridor. Gone were the grand and glamorous marbles and polished timbers. Now it was just Stalinist concrete. Very secure, very functional. The corridor led to another security station, which we passed through and were handed off from grumpy security guard to a much friendlier one who took us right up to the exit and out we popped in a carpark. The heavy security doors closed behind us, we could see our bus waiting as well as another riot squad formed, ready to charge up the stairs and take the protesters by surprise.

For getting 80 kids and 6 staff out of the building like that, it all happened so quickly. Counting the boys onto the bus and making sure we had everyone we were soon driving out away from the chaos. Smoke still plumed out of the crowd, which was now so large that it engulfed the entire entrance to parliament. All I can say, was that it was never a better time to visit our Federal Parliament for question time!

Catering For Dietary Needs!

Burrito Mince In Trangia

Burrito Mince In Trangia

Food on camps is tricky, but not in the sense that it's hard to do well, there's just so many considerations when you're catering for a diverse school group. Added to this, you often don't know the kids very well. Before camp we do a lot of work preparing for any group and no two camps are the same. To begin with, we look at medical risks and dietary needs. What concerns are there? Do we have kids with allergies? Will some additives make them sick? Will bread and milk cause them to be ill? Can they eat meat? Is it the right sort of meat? Are there any other foods are of concern?

Having catered for so many groups on camps and residential programs, one of the key concerns was that everything has to be ‘normalised.’ Even though I might’ve been catering and cooking for a number of different dietary needs, because they’re kids, I never want anything to stand out or be remarkably different. The last thing I want to hear is a whiney toned, “Why do they get that?!” So if I was cooking burritos for example (which kids love), I'd cook a variation of the burrito for everyone to enjoy. Some have mince, some have chicken, some have tofu, some have beans. Some have tortillas, some have gluten free tortillas, some prefer just to have it on the plate!

Regardless of the mix of ingredients and the time that goes into this, the most important thing from my point of view is every student’s well-being and part of that is making sure they don’t feel ‘different’ a meal times. I’ve been to far to many venues that provide vastly different meals for the kids, making them feel left out and even isolated due to their dietary needs. I won’t have any of that on the camps I run and it’s not unreasonable to expect the same! To be honest, I love buying different foods when I go shopping. I think of all the cool combinations I can do for pizzas, curries and salads just to name a few! Whatever the menu is, I just love wandering around and searching for the best combo to make sure my one meal, can be eaten by all! This does take time, but once you’ve got an idea of a meal plan, each time you have a student with special dietary needs, it’s now only a matter of checking the plan and grabbing the right ingredient!

Staff Exhaustion

Staff Exhaustion - Camps

This week, it's time to cover burnout and exhaustion on programs. Having done four straight weeks of Year 8 camps, despite having two days off in between each camp, this weekend I feel totally and utterly exhausted! Thankfully I have the next week off to recover before we start the Year 9 program. However, if the staff didn't have this recovery time, a serious number of dangers and increase risks for activities can creep in!

It's often the case that management don't figure in burnout to the overall risk assessment of programs. It might be thrown in as an idea on a risk management form, but is it really taken seriously?

After the past month of intense programs, without a week off to recover, I doubt very much that we’d actually have any staff left to run the next program. I used to work for one such school, who on the one hand said staff need to be looked after, but in reality, they didn’t. Staff exhaustion and burnout were common place and it resulted in massive staff turnover. Because the school could never really decide what they want to do with their program, they did a bit of everything and a bit of everything meant a lot of everything. Half the staff did the majority of the work whilst management sat around scratching their heads not really knowing what was going on. The core of issue of burn out in that situation came down to the nature of leadership within the organisation. After four years in that job I was one of the most senior staff on campus, people just got sick of working ridiculous hours without any real break and they simply left, which ultimately costs more in the continuous recruitment, induction and retraining processes than it’s worth.

So how do you avoid burning out your stuff and churning them over so many times that there’s no history or culture left with in your school or organisation? The first approach is to value the work that your staff are doing. Simply acknowledging the fact that they’re not off on vacation is a good start. The work outdoor ed teachers do is different. It’s not in a structured classroom environment where you can set and forget half way through the lesson. It’s in a fluid, risk filled world that requires constant attention to detail and vigilance. Camps and activities can be all consuming and over this period of time staff have to make sacrifices including being away from family, from home and all the conveniences of the modern world. For one thing, I miss good coffee!!!

The acknowledgement by senior management that this is above and beyond what most staff do, is essential in reinforcing positive and proactive culture within the school and encourages others volunteer and organise other trips themselves, which ultimately enhance the student’s educational experiences throughout their schooling.

The danger of staff exhaustion is that the tiredness, isolation, time away from family can creep in and start to impact on staff morale and staff judgement. You want teachers and instructors at the top of the game running your excursion! You want them exercising the best judgement, constantly monitoring the group, the environment and any third party risks that may arise. What you don’t want is having your staff thinking, ‘When am I getting off this activity?’ ‘When can I go home?’ ‘Why is this job so relentless?’ All of these negative thoughts and distractions mean that your staff aren't focused on the task at hand of running high quality activities and providing continuous operational management and risk assessment for activities.

It's important to balance everything. Some programs are longer than others. Some run on weekends and some run for weeks on end. All of this costs times and money to provide quality educational outcomes, but it’s all worth it in the holistic educational development of students in functional and effective young adults. In the overall risk management of excursions, it’s vital to consider the fact that staff are humans and need real breaks from children and all the demands that come with the responsibility of looking after other people's kids for extended periods of time. Always ensure that your excursions have sufficient staff not only to cover statuary ratios, but also to figure in the 24 hour supervision needs and the contingency plans if something goes wrong. By doing this it means you’ll have the most proactive and effective operational management in place for your excursions. Keeping staff happy, kids safe and providing the best framework for everyone to have a wonderful, memorable experience when away from school.

Finally Relaxing In Front Of The Fire!

Finally Relaxing In Front Of The Fire!

Alcohol & Camp Don't Mix... Ever!

Alcohol School Policy

Ok so, this is something that should go without saying, but it really annoys me when it has to be said. I’ve been in the situation before on a number of occasions where we’ve shared a venue with another school and after dinner you notice some of the teachers sneaking off to have a drink! I mean seriously!!!! WTF? They even speak in poorly veiled code that most kids would understand.

I was reminded of this the other day, when I was plowing through a boarding school training manual, something which just seems common sense after working in boarding schools for 15 years. However, I still had to go through this and there was a question about the school’s alcohol policy, which was really easy to answer! Zero! Nothing whilst on duty, on back up, on camp or anywhere near the kids! It makes perfect sense! So why is it so hard for some teachers not to have a drink for a few nights?

The real danger is if something unexpected happens and yes, on camp, something unexpected happens all the time. Things like finding a kangaroo in my bedroom, finding a funnel web spider in my bed, kids accidentally falling out of bunks and hitting their heads, kids getting stuff in their eyes, one boy cut his leg tripping up a step late at night when he was trying to get a drink of water after lights out. So yeah, anything can happen!!!

When something random and unexpected does happen, you’re immediately on deck, and so are other staff, even if they have to be woken up. I’ve had the experience of night time trips to the hospital and having to delegate responsibility to other staff, but what if they’d been drinking? This puts everyone in a compromising position!

Scenario: You must take a student to hospital to get urgent treatment, but your backup staff have had something to drink, therefore not able to responsibly deliver their duty of care. You’re suddenly put in a terrible situation and really have no back up at all. What if something else happens? Who can deal with it then?

Before I get too preachy about this, it’s something that you as a responsible adult must make an informed decision on. Even if it’s one drink, it’s one too many! If you can’t go a couple of days without a drink, then perhaps you shouldn’t be taking kids anywhere.

At the end of the day, all staff members are responsible for kids throughout the camp and they need to be able to effectively step in if something happens. Stay sober! Stay safe! Then if anything ever happens, there’s no come back on you at all.