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!
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?
Just Slightly Tired...
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!!!
Catching Up Between Sessions
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!
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!
Ok! I’m going to preface this by saying that there’s been way more than just one weird encounter when I’ve had kids out with me on an excursion. I’d love to hear other people’s experiences too, so feel free to get in touch and share some weird moments, I can’t be the only one having fun out there on excursions. I won’t say 'wilderness,' because some of my strange encounters have been in the city. Having said that, this week, I will actually be talking about an encounter in the Australian bush!
A few weeks back I talked about running into random people who weren't quite prepared for their hike, this week is another one of those. This happened mid-October and I was leading what was called a parent hike. This was part of a year 9 program, in which the boys spent six months with us and faced a range of different challenges. I’ll talk more about that program another time, but back to the hike! The parent hike was an overnight trip where one of the boys’ parents came down and we took both parent and son away, the idea being a complete role reversal where the kids were looking after the parents! We’d been hiking in the hot spring afternoon. Having stopped for lunch at the top of a spur, we’d then descended the steep 300 odd metres down to the river flats. It’s quite a spectacular area and once on the water, it’s this amazing funnel of cliffs and narrow banks.
A View Towards The River Valley
Coming into camp, the parents were quite weary, most of them not used to the heat and exertion of the hike. I was at the front of the group with one of the boys, whose dad couldn’t make it, so I was fulfilling the role and had happily chatted away all afternoon. I was suddenly stopped in my tracks however, by a lady standing over a Trangia (camping stove) boiling water. It was more of the surprise of coming across someone in our camp ground more than anything else. It was rather remote and in the years of coming here, had never encountered anyone before. I politely said hello (thinking oh dear, we’ve just wrecked her night out with the forty people I had with me). She asked me where I was from and almost immediately following that asked me “What do you know about snakes?”
“I know a reasonable amount,” I replied. “What would you like to know?”
The lady look slightly relieved and proceeded to describe to me the colour, tones and features of a snake.
“Hmmm, that sounds like a baby brown snake!” I said.
“No it wasn’t a brown snake!” She curtly replied.
I did go on to explain that brown snakes do vary in colour quite a bit and given the area (which is known for its brown snakes), there was every chance that it was one.
“No definitely not a brown snake!” The lady reiterated.
“Ok, so have you seen one here at the camp site?” I asked.
“Well, it’s just that a friend of mine has been bitten by it.”
I looked around…
“She’s down along the river a bit, I’m just making her a cup of tea.”
“Oooh, that’s no good! Have you sent for help?” I enquired.
“Yeah, some of our friends are walking back out and we’ve wrapped up a t-shirt around her leg.”
I immediately replied with, “We’re first aid trained, we’ve got first aid kits with us and we’ve got a doctor with us.”
“No, it’s ok, she’ll be fine with a cup of tea!”
Inland Taipan - Deadliest Snake In The World! (Not The Snake In Question, But Looks Cool)
This is the first sign of weirdness. I can understand if they had first aid training, if they had communications, if they had a decent first aid kid, they’d be ok… But I wasn’t expecting that reaction. My concern was immediately the fact that if it were a brown snake, then the person who’s been bitten had about an hour untreated to get to a hospital! Not something I’d be comfortable with knowing the area, knowing the fact that it’s a two hour walk out and that once at the car park, it was a fifteen minute drive to get mobile reception! This picture was looking ugly, even though the tea was smelling rather nice.
I walked over to my group of parents and to the one who was a doctor for some advice. He was equally concerned and said to call the poisons unit at the Westmead Children’s Hospital in Sydney, get an ID on the snake and present this information to the lady. At the same time, we also offered compression bandages out of our first aid kids and literally forced them into the tea lady’s hand!
Reluctantly she took them. I know at this point many people would say, it’s not your problem as they’ve declined our help. However, with puzzled looks between myself and the doctor, we still had the feeling we should explore every possible avenue before leaving them to their own devices. Evening was fast approaching and the last thing we wanted to have to deal with was a body 200 metres from a camp full of kids and parents. At least we had someone who could call it… But we didn’t want that.
I made the call back to base on my radio, which had massive coverage throughout the area. I asked for an ID on the snake and gave full details of our location. Meanwhile, our doctor parent walked down, spoke with the lady who had been bitten and provided the offer of assistance to her directly. She thanked him and declined, saying that her foot was sore, but her friends had gone for help. Again 2hour walk! 15mins drive to get Comms. Meanwhile I was talking with base, who were on the phone to the poisons unit! I’m not seeing the logic in this, and even less when the poisons unit replied saying they think it was most likely a brown snake and you need to get the lady out of there as fast as possible!
Ok then… Now how do we approach this one? I thought about it as I walked down towards the lady who’d been bitten. I may as well just go with the honest blunt approach, that may upset her cup of tea, but I guess we could always make her another one. I did break the news in the most gentle way and said, "We’ve been talking with the poisons unit at the Westmead Children's Hospital and they’ve identified the snake as a brown snake. Because of that we believe it’s in your best interest for us to call emergency services for you."
She thought on this…
The seconds felt like hours as I kept glancing at my watch, calculating the time that had already elapsed. We’d burnt a lot of time. The one saving grace was the fact that she was at least somewhat relaxed (perhaps too relaxed about this).
Finally she spoke!
“Oh ok I suppose so!”
Bam! We had consent!
I felt a rush of adrenaline shoot through me, because we were now responsible for making sure this lady didn’t die.
My manner changed from negotiator to dictator. Back on the radio to base.
“I urgently need emergency services to figures grid 659483!” (not the real location) At this point I started recording everything I did in more detail. Glancing at my watch, I tagged the time of the call and started the timer.
Back to the lady, I clearly outlined the details of my call and their response. She then gave us consent to rewrap the shoddy bandage on her leg and we applied a proper compression bandage. We started to monitor her heart rate, which was elevated, but her being relaxed, was keeping this in check (lucky she had a cup of tea!)
Another glance at the watch to record my observations, a couple of minutes had passed. Continuing to reassure her, I could see some redness emerging and signs of envenomation. Now my heart rate was shooting through the roof.
In the distance I heard a mechanical hum. It was getting closer! The purr grew louder and louder. Suddenly, the Westpac Rescue Helicopter roared over our heads. You never realise how amazing and powerful these helicopters are until they fly over you just above the tree line! Checking my watch it had been 12 mins from when I gave the grid reference to when they flew over us!!!
About 2km Down River From Where This Happened
I’d organised my gappies (our young staff from overseas) minutes earlier to setup a ground signal for the chopper, given that there was nowhere to land in the valley. To give you an idea of the lay of the land, it was essentially a river, flanked by stunning sheer cliffs. I could see the pilot wave as he descended, hovered over the water with one of the skids just touching the land. A medic jumped out from the back and walked over to where we were. The helicopter roared back up into the air and flew with its nose down along the river a few hundred metres before it lifted up spun 180 degrees, back toward us, skid down on the river bank, collected the lady and the medic and they were gone!!! If you had blinked you would have missed this extraction. It was amazing in its speed and co-ordination.
The doctor and I stood looking at each other with relief!
“Well that escalated quickly!” I laughed to him.
We wandered back down to the camp site where the rest of the group were setting up tents. Back to camp leader mode, I checked on how everyone else was going and got started on setting up my tent.
That evening we chatted around the fire, a quiet and relaxing change from the excitement of the afternoon.
A few days later we received a call back at school from the lady thanking us for our help. It turned out it was a brown snake and she had been poisoned! All I could think was thank goodness we persisted and had good communications back to base.
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:
$12 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!