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.
It all began with a quick trip to Lismore. I found myself nominated as a finalist for the Alumni of The Year at one of my old unis. (If you’re wondering, I went to three different ones, if you’re not well… it’s too late now!) It was a nice feeling to be nominated and heading back to Southern Cross for the dinner.
The evening itself was a great one and I ran into a number of people I already knew and met so many more interesting people from across Australia who were now doing some amazing things. I always enjoy hearing about other people’s challenges and experiences in whatever they’re doing in life, as it puts your own busy world into perspective. I even met the musician behind the “Bob the Builder” song, which was fun.
After the dinner, I’d planned a quick getaway for a couple of days in Yamba, which was another place I hadn’t been since graduation. It was a warm and wonderful change from the icy conditions of the late winter we’d had in Southern NSW. I went for a couple of runs, ate some local seafood and had a generally relaxing time. It wasn’t until I was heading home that the dramas began.
I left on Monday morning, giving myself plenty of time to get to the airport for my 11:45 flight. Arriving in Ballina, I stopped for coffee and managed to find a wonderful café called …. It was a very smooth double shot latte and just what I needed.
Arriving at the airport, I checked the rental car for marks before dropping the keys back in the box. On check-in, I was informed that the flight was going to be delayed by two hours because of a meltdown of the air traffic control system in Sydney. I thought, ‘Oh well these things happen. I’ll go for a walk.’
I headed off down the road in search of something to do.
I found a homemakers centre in the industrial area and wandered around the air conditioned showroom until I’d seen the same lounge far too many times and considering I don’t own a house to fill with furniture, it was rather pointless. Heading back to the airport, I covered some 5km and was now quite hungry. Stepping into the terminal, I heard over the PA system that there was a further delay in the flight and the airline would be providing food vouchers for everyone on the flight. With my lunch paid for and a new departure time, I was happy to sit and catch up on some work.
For the next hour, I answered some emails and wrote an article, another advantage of being able to work from anywhere. However, as my battery charge diminished, the delays in the flight seemed to increase. There was a momentary reprieve when it was announced the plane had left Sydney and was on its way.
As I had to get a connecting flight to Canberra, I was starting to get a bit concerned about the time. Regardless, I’d worked out that even with another delay I’d still make it. The plane landed and the arrivals area flooded with the passengers out of Sydney. Thinking it would be a fast turn around, I put my phone away and started chatting with a lady who had just sat down next to me. Turns out she was a teacher and had been up scoping out new jobs. We chatted for some time, as the small departure lounge filled with expectant travellers returning to Sydney.
There was a tense anticipation in the air as the plane sat commandingly on the tarmac. Another announcement… ‘We’re sorry to inform you that the pilot of flight JQ451 is over his allowable hours and therefore is unable to fly again today. As a result this flight is cancelled.’ The voice over the PA was suddenly drowned out by hysterical moans and exclamations! The service desk attendant said something to the effect ‘We apologise for the inconvenience…’ but it was barely audible due to the ruckus of bogans swearing.
The departure lounge emptied quickly amid a rabble of angry curses. I remained sitting, thinking of alternate possibilities that could be slightly more constructive and profitable than swearing and yelling at airline staff. In situations like this, you have a couple of options. Quickly turn into an abusive dickhead, or strategise around the problem. As we were already well over the abusive dickhead quota, I decided on the latter.
What were my options? I had three meetings the next day in Canberra starting at 10am. I really wanted to be at all three, but two were moveable. The final meeting in the afternoon had been a long time coming and would’ve been hard to reorganise, so that gave me the hard deadline of 12:30pm landing back in Canberra the next day. Not too bad a scenario!
I quickly looked up alternate flights from other nearby airports, which in Australia is still quite a trek. Goldcoast was the nearest, but no flights given the lateness of the day. The only other one was Brisbane, which was further away, but had a flight at 7:10pm. I checked the map, I checked the time… I could make it. I quickly rang the airline to see if this were possible and after an anxious wait with my battery running low, it was! Feeling relieved, I dashed to the car rentals to get a car. Nothing was available at any of the 6 different rental businesses!
I was back to square one. That solution wasn’t going to work, so I joined the back of the enormous queue with the other 180 people as the airline scrambled to find accommodation for everyone at short notice in a small town. After almost an hour in line an announcement came over the PA. The airline was willing to reimburse customers up to $150 for their accommodation if they organised it themselves. Fearing the sort of accommodation I was going to get given anyway by the low-cost airline, this was a great alternative. With what little battery I had left, I checked out places to stay and found a nice boutique hotel for $169.00. It looked really interesting and was a heritage listed building so I immediately booked it, as there were only a couple of rooms left. Getting there and back was a minor detail. At least I had a bed!
I waited in line for another hour, as transport into town was arranged to the various motels. It was disorganised chaos however. Buses had arrived and passengers were being ushered onboard. I hung back as a wild rabble of bogans who’d been standing in line drinking for the past hour appeared as if they weren’t going to stop anytime soon. I felt relieved as I overheard they were going to the Best Western. Two other ladies had boarded that bus, but it was full and the bogans ungraciously told them to get off the bus.
Meanwhile, I was standing just inside the terminal with one other lady by the name of Jill. I chatted with her for a few minutes before the other two who’d been thrown off the bus joined us appearing rather frazzled. We were the last four at the airport and after being given an assurance that another bus was on its way and going exactly where I needed to go, I was happy to wait a little longer.
Relieved to get on the bus, despite not knowing the area, we had to direct the bus driver to the hotel. As we pulled up, a feeling of relief and excitement came over me. It was a magnificent old Victorian style two storey mansion. Inside the foyer, it was a beautifully restored building that had once been a girls’ boarding school. With some old uniforms and tennis racquets on display, it had a distinct St. Trinians feel to it!
As we waited on the lounges for the receptionist, it was calming to be out of the din of the airport. However, the tranquility was about to be disrupted again. The receptionist walked out, saw four of us sitting on the lounge and a worried look appeared on her face. I knew at that moment, despite the ladies having asked the airline staff several times if there were enough rooms, there weren’t going to be enough rooms!
Having booked the place myself online, thankfully she had a room for me, but then there was only one room left with a single bed and three ladies! At this point after the rolling problems the looks of horror on the ladies faces said it all. They weren’t going anywhere. They were all staying and that was final. It was almost like a scene out of Fawlty Towers. I asked if there was a spare bed in my room, but no, nothing, just a single. Luckily the hotel had a roll out bed for one and they put that in the room for the ladies, who then worked out the rest.
With my stomach growling having missed lunch and the restaurant in the hotel closing, I said I’d freshen up and then meet everyone in the dining room. The dining room was more Fawlty Towers than reception had been, with everything but a hamster and a man from Barcelona. Despite the historic look and feel, the food was great. With the dramas of the day over, dinner was a wonderful experience. I was able to get to know three total strangers and enjoy a really enjoyable meal with them, an experience that would never have happened if it weren’t for a computer malfunction in Sydney.
It’s often the most unusual circumstances which can lead to the best adventures. The only thing you need to be able to do in this sort of situation is have a sense of humour and always remain adaptable as the situation evolves. If you stress too much about it or just believe the solution is through yelling and swearing at people, you’ll miss out on the possibility of having a much better and memorable experience than what would have happened with the original plan anyway. I ended up shopping for sofas, meeting new people, sleeping in the old headmistress’ office in a slightly quirky and most likely haunted Victorian mansion and ended up back in Canberra for my most important meeting the next day.
In any situation, where tensions may get high due to things not going to plan, never forget that the Chinese word for crisis and opportunity is one and the same. In the words of Homer Simpson embrace and enjoy the ‘Crisitunity!’
Happy New Year! May this year be even better than the last. Challenge yourself and those around you to learn and to grow throughout the year. Try new things and experience all you can in this amazing world. Happy 2018!
Thanks to everyone for their support over the last year. May you have a wonderful Christmas with friends and family and have a safe and restful break. Merry Christmas!
For me the new year is always an exciting time. I love Christmas for one as it’s a time of hope and reflection on the goodness in humanity. It also helps us move on from mistakes of the past and look forward to the future possibilities in life. However, as I mentioned around this time last year, it’s got nothing to do with shallow New Years’ resolutions that barely last till sunset on 1st January. It’s far deeper and far more important than that.
The end of the year is instead a time to think big! If you look at the story of Christmas, a simple baby clothed in nothing more than a collection of rags in a barn, surrounded by farm animals brings a message of hope, the likes of which the world has never seen before. It’s simple. It’s raw. It’s completely unassuming and it’s shaped the world for millennia. That simple message of hope has brought people together, healed wounded relationships and helped generations to imagine a better world.
Our world is far from perfect and the reality is that it’s filled with inequality, despair, hatred, greed and fear. However, with massive problems, come great opportunities. Whether it’s through food aid, clean water projects, affordable shelter or education, as global citizens living in Western democracies we can make a difference.
If you take a quick look for example at the World Food Program - www.wfp.org. They’re fighting famine and starvation across 80 countries and helping feed approximately 80 Million people each year. What’s the cost of a single meal to keep someone alive? 39¢ which equates to $1.17 per person, per day! When you think how much we spend on a coffee, this puts into perspective the extent of the inequality in the world and how even going one day without a latte could feed someone for half the week!
Back in 2010, Josette Sheeran set out 10 Ways To Feed The World and whilst hunger is still a major issue, the core principles of how individuals and groups can help address this major problem remain the same. It’s about taking real action and this is what makes the difference in any situation. If you do nothing, nothing will change. If you take real action, then you can change the lives of others for the better.
In a world where people believe they’re making a difference by changing their Facebook image overlay or liking an image after another tragic bombing, shooting or vile act, we need to avoid such shallow sentiments and look for real ways to make a difference. Even if it’s just making a difference to one person, one family or your local community, this will have more of a lasting impact than the pointless liking of a digital image that will disappear as quickly as it appeared. Armchair activists that think they’re doing something by clicking a button, are as useful as fly screens on submarines and should be avoided at all costs.
Hence, what can you do? On one level, you could donate to an organisation that helps feed countless people across the world. On a much more pro-active level, you could join a community service group, help out a disadvantaged school (sadly in Australia we have many disadvantaged schools despite our overall national wealth) or you could even help out with meals on wheels for elderly members of the community. There are so many opportunities to make a difference and once you break down the problem into smaller parts and take some action to do something about it, you can start to make a real difference.
Despite this, as just one example, you don’t have to focus on hunger. There are countless other social, economic, health and well-being issues throughout the world that need to be addressed. From clean water, to education, to poverty, to slavery and freedom of expression, the world needs your help. Even if it’s only a small contribution, it’s still important and far more effective than doing nothing at all.
In 2018, don’t let enormity of the human condition overwhelm you or stop you from looking at the opportunities to make a difference. As my old friend said, ‘How do you eat an elephant?’ I replied, ‘Why the hell do you want to eat an elephant?!! That’s kind of weird and upsetting!’ He then told me it was a metaphor and he really didn’t like to eat elephant (or so he says…). But seriously, how do we take on massive problems? We approach them one step at a time. If everyone took on even just a small community service project, or helped someone out in just a little way, with each step, we move closer to a better world and one in which inequality, violence, hatred and fear is a thing of the past.
As this year comes to an end, think about the importance of the Christmas message that remains so strong and important after 2,000 years and from this, consider what positive impact can you have on the world as we know it, throughout the year ahead.
As a teacher you work hard throughout the year, but as with all hard work, there’s a payoff and for me, it’s the summer holidays! Having seven clear weeks to do whatever you like is something that many people never get to do until retirement. For me, that’s way too far away to even think of and I don’t want to save up all the fun and adventures for when I’m not physically able to do them. Bit pointless and a bit too industrial revolution style for me!
However, back to the annual pay off! Now if you’re doing teaching just for the holidays, perhaps you need to find another profession. What I’m talking about is not just getting away from work. For me, this break is a great opportunity to travel, discover the world, experience new things and ultimately learn something new.
Unfortunately, too many people waste all this time doing virtually nothing! I’ve never really understood this. Sure, I could spend a week at the beach, relaxing, sunbaking and going for swims and this could be extremely refreshing, but if I did this for seven weeks, I’d be bored and I’d be thinking I’m wasting opportunities. Even with a week of hanging around, that leaves six weeks for something new, exciting, challenging and meaningful.
A few different things I’ve done in this time over the years have included a TV & Radio presenting course, being an extra in a feature film, playing a corpse in a short student film and being a cook for a snowboarding program. This last one was a great opportunity to travel to the US, challenge myself to improve my culinary skills, live at altitude for an extended period and push the boundaries with my snow skiing. Next year, I plan to travel overseas to do an intensive language course to try and learn a new language in a really short period of time.
None of these experiences have been the stock standard ‘holiday’ experience. They’ve challenged me in different ways, opened my eyes to new possibilities and other cultures, enhanced my world view and ultimately helped me to improve my teaching. Every year I get more professional development value from this extended break than I have ever gained from any conference, workshop or the dreaded first day back PD sessions. This time is important for your professional development as a teacher and what you learn yourself can have a marked impact on the way to teach.
This year, if you don’t have any plans, it’s time to make some. If you say it’s too late, then you’re just not trying hard enough. The first time I went to Japan, I booked it all the day before. By 9:45pm the next evening I was off to discover a new culture! Be bold, be adventurous and do something completely different. Nobody wants to hear about how you sat at home for over a month and did chores. That’s boring, so don’t be boring! There are plenty of accountants and lawyers who have already monopolised that talent, so do something people might be interesting in hearing about. Do something totally left field that others wouldn’t expect!
Normal people never change the world and as a teacher, you have the power and influence to change a generation. However, without understanding and experiencing a wide range of things in your own life, you will never truly be well placed to effectively shape the lives of others. Get out there! You have the time, you have the opportunity so this year find something new and exciting to do and have a wonderful and memorable summer break!
Goal setting is always one of those fun, challenging and extremely valuable activities. However, in the busyness of life we often forget to assess, evaluate and celebrate how well we actually went towards achieving the goals we set for ourselves.
As the year comes to an end, it’s worth looking back and evaluating how well you did. For me, I set quite a number of quite challenging goals this year, including a tough fitness goal of running 1000km. Some of my efforts have been very successful and others are still a work in progress. However, I didn't really appreciate what I’d achieved versus my perception of what I’d achieved, until I took the time to sit down and review each goal. Since I wrote all my goals down at the start of the year, it’s made it easier to go back and check out what I wanted to get out of this year and compare that with what I’ve actually been able to do.
As a result, I've been very excited, since when I looked back and reviewed my list, I didn't realise how many goals I'd accomplished until I went back through and took stock of it all. We often get caught up in how immensely busy modern life is and often you complete one thing, only to roll straight into the next thing with little time for reflection. Unlike winning a race, often when you complete a goal, there’s not the great pinnacle of success moment and spontaneous fanfare at which point fireworks burst into the sky and a Ferris Bueller style street parade randomly appears and sweeps you along in song and dance.
Instead, the completion of personal goals are often quiet moments we have with ourselves that we might only share with a couple of close friends before moving on to the next thing we have happening in our lives.
However, it’s worth taking the time to look back and assess your own overall performance. For me, this isn’t an opportunity to tell you all about what I did or didn’t get done. It’s a chance for you to look at your own goals and celebrate the successes and failures along the way. Why are we celebrating failure? Failure is one of our greatest teachers and looking back to see what worked, we often don’t even think about improving further our success. However, when something doesn’t work, then this is an opportunity to explore why, change tactics and improve on this for next time.
For me the failure was my fitness goal. It was this year’s bridge too far! Although having said that, I did run across several bridges. Anyway, I’d set myself the goal of running 1000km. At the start of the year, all was going well and I was covering about 5-6 km per day. Having reverse engineered my goal through working out how many days of the year there were and how many I wouldn’t be able to run due to travel, or commitments, it worked out that I would need to only run about 4km a day. Easy right? Well, in theory it was. However, life tends to get in the way of good plans and I found myself missing too many days due to work commitments. The further into the year, the longer the days at work seemed to become and the shorter the daylight. This made it increasingly difficult to cover the distance.
However, although on the surface it might appear that the goal was a failure, I’d experienced the same issues the year before, as I attempted my goal of running 500km in 2016. The end result was that I was able to cover just 300km in 2016. It was a bit disappointing as I’d only reached just over half way to my goal.
From a goalsetting point of view there were two things I could have done after I didn’t make it in 2016.
2. Double my goal and push myself harder to achieve it.
If you choose Number 1, that’s not really goal setting and it’s not really challenging you, nor allowing you to grow. It’s like my saying I’m not going to smoke in 2017, when I’ve never smoked before in my life. Wow, I’ve just achieved Zen by doing nothing!
If you choose Number 2, as I did, the added challenge of the new goal means it’s going to push you harder and require you to take more action to achieve it.
Despite increasing my goal and improving upon my efforts to achieve this new target, at this point in time, I'm not looking as if I'm going to achieve it. I’m going to revisit why this is the case and how I’m going to fix it for 2018. However, despite not getting there this year, I managed to smash the previous year's distance and as at today, I’ve have run 620km and for me, this in itself is an achievement and something with which I’m very happy and proud. Whilst it might not be the headline figure of the 1000km, it’s still twice what I ran last year. Next year's goal will now be 1250 km, but to get there, I’m going to have to review the root causes of why I didn’t get there this year and make sure I address that as quickly as possible.
This is why we should embrace our failures, as the experience that comes from failure can provide us with the most valuable lessons. For me on fitness, it’s consistency of approach. When it’s cold in winter and dark outside, I know I can still find opportunities to run, perhaps at the gym. Or if this is going to be an issue, increase the length of my runs during the summer so that there are less kms to cover in the winter. There are plenty of possible solutions for this that I can continue to explore and work out what works best for me.
Despite how busy it gets at this time of year, take the time, sit down and review all your goals. How many of your goals were successful? How many weren’t? What were the factors which contributed to your success or failure? Write this down! Expand on this and truly understand what action needs to be taken to change this. Through conducting an honest goal-setting analysis, this can help you focus on the strengths and weaknesses in what you’re doing and can massively improve your ability to get the most out of each and every challenge you set yourself.
Once you’ve reviewed your 2017 list, celebrated your wins and have your strategy for improvement ready, it’s now time to start planning for an even greater and more successful 2018. All the best for achieving some wonderful goals in life, work and your community for the next 12months.
In every outdoor activity there are countless risk factors that must be considered and effectively managed to ensure safe operations and enjoyable experiences. Whilst it's easy to get overwhelmed by the idea of risk management and the enormous task of trying to think of every risk possible, from falling tree branches to unprovoked possum attacks, generally in outdoor ed, risks fall into three main categories. These create a nice triangle which could be used on a pretty PowerPoint presentation, for the world dominating purposes of the illuminati, or to make lots of money mysteriously disappear into places such as Bermuda. Whatever the case may be, the three components which make up the triangle are:
Again, broadly speaking, a failure of one of these area is problematic, but manageable. A failure of two of these areas is dangerous, as the ability to effectively mange the situation seriously diminishes and failure in all three could be catastrophic.
Over the years, I've experienced some interesting situations where one of these areas of ‘normal’ operation becomes compromised. For example, when environmental conditions have unexpectedly turned for the worse, I've found myself in the middle of storms, freezing cold nights, ragingly hot days, white outs, blizzards and everything in between. However, each and every time the situation hasn't been a problem. It's not only been manageable, but it's also been character building for those involved. So why's that?
If the environment itself is the only failing component of the risk triangle, it means you have the right equipment and people are following instructions appropriately, therefore you're just experiencing discomfort, rather than anything else more serious. As a result, the discomfort can provide great learning experiences for the group and not adversely impact on safety.
I will however, qualify something at this point, because someone’s bound to say, ‘What about lightning?’ Let’s take lightning out of the mix for the moment, as getting caught in a thunderstorm is dangerous no matter how you look at it. Supercharged bolts of electricity randomly shooting down from the sky is something you really don't want to be in, especially if you've upset Zeus, Thor or …. at some stage in your life. If you have upset any of these mythical gods for some reason, basically you’re on your own from here on in.
Excluding the wrath of angry gods and severe storms that should be picked up by your weather monitoring practices, getting caught in bad weather is not generally dangerous. However, let's see what happens when we throw a spanner in the works and another component of the triangle becomes compromised. For example, inadequate or poor quality equipment!
On one trip I was leading many years ago, it was late winter and had been raining all morning. We were running a program in the southern highlands of NSW. The hike was around 8km and the forecast was for more light showers. On the surface, not a problem. However, during the lunch stop, we decided to do an equipment check, as most of the students were wearing cheap useless ponchos that their parents had misguidedly bought them to ‘save’ money. This sort of thing will last two minutes in the bush and be torn to shreds in no time at all. You may as well not bother and you’re better off spending that money on an overpriced coffee, as it will have more of an effect on your comfort and well-being than the rubbish poncho. Despite the inadequate rain protection, this wasn’t the major issue, as the most important thing for the students to have was their thermals. This was on their packaging list, but untrusting of the parents and their poor decision made on the rain gear, we thought it best to double check. The result was three pairs of thermals were being carried out of 28 students! This was without a doubt an Epic Fail!!!
Suddenly, we had two components of the risk triangle in play and actively compromised, so our risk profile just shot up dramatically! Hypothermia was at the forefront of my mind and the fact we didn't have any vehicle access to the area only added to this. Given the poor quality of equipment, the lack of essential clothing and the potential for students to be carrying useless summer sleeping bags, we had two options. Accept the high-level of dangerous risk involved with continuing, or modify the plan… Needless to say, we modified the plan, extended the day trip and returned to base.
In stark contrast with this, another trip I led, we were completely smashed by rain, far worse than anything we had experienced the day we had to pull the pin, but the difference was that everyone had thermals and was wearing Gortex jackets. With no epic equipment failure, the situation was uncomfortable for everyone, but completely safe to continue with as planned.
Importantly, the way these three components interact with each other is the determining factor for the real level of risk with which you're working. Many risk assessment schemes fail to take this into account and are focused on writing everything down, but without the understanding of how risk may increase as one or more of these components become compromised or fail. However, it's critical that this is understood and is factored into the risk assessment and management processes and practices for the organisation.
This brings us to the People component of the risk triangle! Unfortunately, there’s no material safety data sheets, engineering limits or forecasts when it comes to people and how they’re going to act, react and behave in any given environment or situation. Even though it’s the most unpredictable and complex factor in the risk triangle, it’s often the least considered and most underestimated. There’s no shortage of stupid people in the world. In fact, many people excel in this area every day of the week and should certainly not be trusted with open flames or power tools, or anything without smooth edges.
The problem is that when you're responsible for people like this who are unpredictable, or taken to doing idiotic thing, it's vital that you watch them and actively manage them. Unlike finding a faulty or damaged piece of equipment and replacing it with a new one, the people risk is far more emotive and complex.
If you can exclude a student from activities who simply will not listen or engage, that could be the best solution as they drag everyone else down with them. However, often schools are reluctant to take definitive action and sadly, sometimes as leaders, we’re stuck with a compounding people risk until their idiocy negatively impacts on the group and someone higher up in the organisation suddenly realises that what you said in assessing the participant risk has now come true. This is not a situation you want to find yourself in and it’s worth having good behaviour management strategies in place, such as higher staff to student ratios or modified programs when the people factor has the increased potential for producing adverse risk to the staff and the group.
As with any other individual component of risk, behaviour alone isn’t necessarily critical and with a good leader more often than not, like every other risk factor in isolation, is not a major concern. However, throw in a bit of bad weather, forget or misuse some vitally important piece of safety equipment and you’re now shaping up for some major issues.
When you’re reviewing your risk management systems it’s well worth considering the interaction of these three components in the context of your organisation and how you can best address them when running any sort of program. Being aware of how the level of risks escalate as one or more are compromised, will help you to build far greater situational awareness. This keeps your risk management practices alive to ensure safe operations and great educational outcomes.
Friendship in the digital world is an interesting phenomenon, especially amongst teenagers. Since relationships are changing, I feel there’s a need to redefine how we refer to different sorts of friends. On the one hand, teenagers have some friends they know quite well. They probably go to school with, play sports with and hang out with these friends. On the other end of the spectrum, a friend could also be nothing more than a number on a screen.
Given the digital age in which we live, I think we need to split these radically different sorts of friends into two categories. There’s the ‘high-res’ friends (4K) that you see and interact with in real life and real time and ‘low-res’ friends (Internet Friends) that only ever appear as pixelated visages on a screen and may come with some annoying time delay or lag when communicating with them, if you communicate with them at all.
The internet and social media has brought the world so much closer together, especially in terms of people being able to interact with others who have similar shared interests and shared beliefs. However, at the same time, it’s also created a massive disconnect between real friends and those who are often never met in real life, or just appear as a number on a screen.
This can cause significant problems for teenagers as they search for meaningful connections, but especially for teens who struggle making friends at school and who become reliant on the internet for all their socialisation.
The reality is that despite being able to connect with others who may be in similar circumstances or have shared interests, there are many subtle nuances, reactions, facial expressions and body language that go into developing and fostering real friendships. These subtle behaviours and communications are completely lost when those friendships occur online. It’s all these complex subtleties that make up human relationships which are critical to success in all aspects of life and it’s these same complex subtleties, which are most at risk in the digital age.
Whilst some interactions and connections online can be quite good, many should be seen more as the penpals of days gone by where you’d write to someone and learn about their culture through letters, rather than someone suddenly being your new best friend about whom you know very little.
When I was at school, I had a Spanish penpal. We’d write to each other, exchange stories and photos. It was always exciting to get a letter from overseas and through this I gained a wonderful insight into a culture completely different from my own. I enjoyed this a lot, but the reality was that this was a person from another country and quite distant and disconnected from my other friends.
However, as the global network of devices and connectivity grows, the disconnect between people and real relationships increases. The ease at which you can find new ‘friends’ who might have similar interests is remarkable. However, the speed at which these ‘friendships’ fade is also remarkable. It’s almost transactional in nature. ‘I’ll be friends if you like all my posts!’ That sort of thing. However just as fast as the interaction is made possible, people move on to the next person who might, on the surface, appear to be more interesting. The cycle goes on and on and on with friendships being nothing more than superficial at best and toxic and destructive at the other end of the spectrum.
This is the true problem with these low-res friends. It’s often the most vulnerable teens who are searching for friendships online and it’s these teens who need high-res, a.k.a. real friends, they can actually spend time with more than anything else. If they’re experiencing something in life that’s hard or they’re not sure how to deal with it, the low-res friends invariably lose even more resolution and simply fade away into the aethernet. If you have no real connection with anyone, then it’s easy to just leave them in the lurch, especially if helping them makes you feel slightly uncomfortable and many teenagers today don’t like discomfort. It’s a sad harsh reality that needs to be addressed in a meaningful way.
For real relationships to develop and flourish, teenagers need high-res friends, the sort with whom they can go to the park, to the beach, ride bikes, play sport and have sleepovers. I know this may be a way out concept and the paranoid parents of the world don't want to let their children leave the house, as it could be quite scary out there! But the reality is that many of the dangers of the world can now be accessed directly from home. Going outside and playing with real friends is much safer, healthier and leads to far more balanced individuals.
If teenagers understand how to make friends and how to develop friendships in real life with hi-res friends, then equally, they can meet people online and develop friendships over longer distances, through which they can develop a whole range of different and wonderful experiences throughout life with people that have similar interests.
However, the reverse isn’t true. If they make all their friends online first, they have no way of really understanding what relationships are about. They won’t know how to interact with other people properly and in a meaningful way. This problem then flows through to university and the workplace and has the potential to cost a teenager years of their life as they play catchup and try to understand others in the real world around them.
Having said that, low-res friends aren’t all bad because they can open up the world to a whole range of different people which can be wonderful and beneficial. However, the most important thing to begin with is to develop real friendships in real life with high-res friends and then when teenagers have that real world experience, they can go and make as many low-risk friends as they like, but seriously if you’re working through this issue with teenagers, ask them, at the end of the day, what’s more important a high friend count, or friends who count?
Decision-making is something that most teachers love to control and who can blame them! How could you possibly trust kids to make any sort of decision for themselves? Have you seen what their rooms look like at the end of a week? Kids struggle to decide what they want for breakfast, let alone anything important.
However, rather than hoarding all the decision making for yourself, how can we as teachers teach good decision making processes and skills? For many teachers, this will strike fear into their hearts. The idea of letting go the reins and losing control of the class is a nightmare scenario. After all, they’ve spent years perfecting the art of being in control and it’s something that's deeply entrenched into teachers’ psyche.
No teacher wants to go back to the nerve wracking days of feeling out of control, when they first stepped into the classroom to start their teaching practicum. It's an experience that's etched in all teachers’ minds. Whilst some teachers might have been thinking about delivering a good lesson, others, including myself, were just hoping that no chairs were thrown and no dolphins were injured during the lesson.
Whilst many teachers are used to exercising control over their class, which is a very good idea when dealing with a ratty year seven class to ensure the windows don't get broken, at what point should you start letting go and allowing students to transition into decision makers themselves?
If you want to produce mature young independent thinking adults, at some point you need to relinquish much of the standard ‘classroom’ control associated with education. Many schools profess how wonderful they are at giving students the opportunity to lead, the opportunity to think for themselves and the opportunity to make decisions. However, what's the practical reality of this? Does this really happen? Unfortunately, when I’ve seen this in outdoor education, it's often a case of students being led around on an activity and pretending that they're making decisions along the way, rather than empowering students to take real responsibility for this themselves.
The problem is that students see right through the false veneer of fake ownership and illusionary responsibility. The only way to address this is to actually allow your students to make decisions for themselves. Unless there's a real safety issue that arises, then extract yourself from the process and simply provide the operational framework. Whilst this can be extremely difficult for someone who is used to being in control, it makes a massive difference to the educational outcome.
On one canoe expedition, we were paddling up into the Shoalhaven Gorge. The journey saw us covering around 15km each day, which is a decent distance to paddle, but add to this the fact that it was raining, slightly complicated things. To put this in context, when I said it was raining, it wasn't just drizzling, it was pelting down and had been for some time.
After a long gruelling morning paddle that had lasted several hours, the river split and we turned up into a narrowing section of the waterway. To our right appeared a large sandstone outcrop, which jutted out over the water, forming a natural shelter. The students who were navigating led us over to the shelter, which was large enough to shelter six of our boats. Unfortunately, we had seven, so one boat with two students in it was stuck out in the rain, which was getting heavier.
Given the nature and structure of the shelter, there was no way to allow the students to get out of the boats and all shelter. For the shelter to be of any use they had to be in the water. This created a problem, even though most students were sheltered from the rain, at least two weren’t. This wasn't a problem that I was going to solve for them, so I posed the question, ‘What are your options?’
The group talked amongst themselves for a few minutes, their initial resolution was that they would stay under the shelter and everybody would then have a turn on the outside for five minutes. This meant they would cycle through all the boats every 35 minutes. This seemed fair in a really, pragmatic sense, however, the practical reality of getting boats in and out, especially ones that were fully loaded with gear was just a slight complication to this.
They tried this for ten minutes before realising how difficult this decision was logistically. At this point, it was also lunch time and the students were getting hungry. We could easily eat lunch on the canoes, but again, a tricky initial logistical problem as the food was buried in barrels. Not an impossible task, but fiddly all the same.
I realised I needed to facilitate a discussion with the students. Although it wasn't a huge concern and we could easily have sat there and waited out the storm, which could be another few hours, but then my concern from a safety point of view was hypothermia and so a decision had to be made one way or another so I could factor in a suitable response to avoid students getting too cold. From my point of view, the decision being made was still completely the responsibility of the students. However, I remained diligent in my role as leader to provide the required safety net.
As the students sat there directionless, waiting to be told what to do, which wasn’t going to happen, I threw out another suggestion, “Why don’t you see where we are on the map, then look at where the campsite is and assess how long going it’s going to take us to get there. Then assess other factors, such as the rain, our current shelter and the terrain between here and the campsite. What are some options?
The sound of the students’ voices bounced off the rocky wall of the shelter as they discussed the possibilities and consequences of each option. The reality was the rain wasn’t stopping anytime soon, the canoes were starting to become rather uncomfortable due to the additional few kilograms of water that had been accumulating at the bottom from heavy rain and people were getting hungry. With all these factors at play, it was an interesting discussion to listen to and I had no idea what the outcome would be. I had guessed it was going to be ‘let’s have lunch.’
No matter what the decision was, unless it was ridiculously unsafe, I was ready to go with it. I didn’t frontload the process either to try to get them to decide what I wanted and this is a very important part of the process to ensure that students really are empowered.
The rain kept pouring down relentlessly as they went back and forth with their discussion. I could hear it getting heavier and heavier as the droplets of rain hit the water and splashed back up at us, convincing me that their decision was going to be stay here and have lunch. The students however, seemed to have little interest in the lunch option as they discussed all the various ideas. What I found interesting about this discussion was the fact that the needs of the group seemed to come out as more important than the needs of the individual.
The end result, despite all the uncertainty of for how long the storm was going to continue, was for us to get back out onto the river and keep paddling to camp. The students thought that by doing that, it would mean they could get a fire going, set up their tents for shelter, have something to eat and dry their clothes.
Whilst I was surprised and happy with the decision they made, what really impressed me was the process through which the decision making was made. It was done in a logical manner which explored lots of options I hadn’t thought of myself. Again, if I had just been leading the group on a trip and didn’t let them make any decision for themselves, this wouldn’t have provided any educational benefit whatsoever. I later commended the students on their discussion and decision making process.
As soon as we started paddling though, we got absolutely smashed by the rain. It came in over wave after wave of torrential rain. Yet everyone pressed on and a few kilometres later we arrived at our destination. Despite being totally and utterly soaked and slightly exhausted, as soon as we arrived we had another problem to deal with. Cold wet students and so the race was on to get a fire going in the rain! What impressed me about this was that the earlier discussion that had been led by the students, somehow brought them together as a team and when it came to getting the fire organised, they were already out looking for sticks.
Before too long, the tents were up, we had a raging fire going, the soaking wet clothes had been swapped for warm dry ones and everyone was happily eating their well-deserved lunch. However, the other teacher and I can’t claim responsibility for any of this happening. The work to get the fire going, the food out and organised and everything else done, was not from us telling the kids what to do. They just did it all themselves. I was amazed, as it’s not something that usually happens with groups like this. I’d like to think that once they realised they were trusted to make decisions, it gave them the opportunity to push the boundaries of this and not wait to be told what to do next. Instead, they used their initiative and found what needed to be done next to ensure they and their friends were warm, comfortable and well-fed.
Despite the rain, the discomfort and the one trip to hospital the next day, this remains one of the most memorable canoeing expeditions I’ve ever had and certainly one of the most rewarding.