Recently I was involved in a Year 6 program in which I was one of the lead instructors for the outdoor activities. However, the students’ year 6 teachers were the ones running the overall program. This creates an interesting dynamic and is one with which I've worked over the years. It's something that can work exceptionally well, or end up in an unmitigated disaster.
To avoid such disasters, clear lines of communication and responsibilities are vitally important. However, this is not about demarcations of responsibilities and how to effectively communicate in a team environment. This is about the value of understanding when not to be involved.
My involvement in the camp started on day two. We were running a canoe session for the students to introduce them to some basic canoeing skills before taking them on the expedition the next day. Given the age of the students and their experience, this was very much a day where we were actively teaching and running the activity to ensure skills were being effectively learnt and that the group was being safely managed. In sessions like this, there's a lot of proactive engagement and interaction with the group throughout.
At the end of the training session, the teachers walked the students back up to the campsite, whilst my colleagues and I packed the canoe trailer ready for the next day. For me, this was an important distinction in what we were doing and what we were trying to achieve from an educational point of view. The year 6 teachers who were on the camp were there to develop better relationships with their students and we were there to facilitate a safe, yet appropriately challenging environment in which this could occur.
The next morning, the other outdoor ed teachers and I drove the canoes down to the boat ramp from where we were starting out. Usually, if I were running a high school program, the students would be there doing most of the work themselves. However, this was a different situation and therefore required a different approach. By the time we’d unloaded all the canoes and had everything set up ready to go, the students and the teachers arrived. The other instructor and I organised everyone as quickly as possible with their PFDs and paddles ready to get on the water.
It wasn't long before we had the students working in teams to carry the canoes to the water's edge, at which point I helped them onto the water. As the other instructor took the front of the group and I took the back, we proceeded to paddle our way up river for the next few hours. Covering 8 km in total and having just learnt all the basic canoeing skills the day before, this was a big day for the year 6 students and we spent a lot of the time actively instructing students, helping them to correct and improve their techniques, as well as carefully managing the group.
We eventually made it into camp by mid-afternoon at which point we ran a demonstration as to how to set up a tent and allow the students to work in small teams to replicate what they’d been shown. It was at this point that the other outdoor ed teacher and I transitioned from a very active role into a passive role. The year 6 teachers took over the afternoon's activities, which included gathering firewood and a couple of different games. Meanwhile, we faded into the background to cook dinner.
I do enjoy cooking and it was a BBQ, so it was quite easy to get everything prepared and cooked for the group of around 40 people. It was dark by the time we finished and the students were keen to light the fire. Remaining removed from the situation, we cleaned up from dinner, made a cup of tea and sat back watching the group now sitting around a blazing fire.
With most groups with which I work, I would’ve been over at the fire running a debrief, or an evening session of some sort. However, that wasn't the point of this whole exercise. Even though we all work for the same school, there was a distinct difference in what the group needed from the staff who were there. The year 6 students needed to hear stories and share stories around the fire with their teachers, whom they were now getting to know in a completely different context. It was for that reason, we sat back and didn't directly involve ourselves until much later in the evening.
As outdoor educators, this is a really important thing to understand. What are the educational and emotional needs of the group and how are they best served? It can often be the case that we feel we need to be involved in absolutely everything that happens on a campout or activity. Yet this couldn't be further from the truth. The benefit that the other staff and students received from us taking a back seat at this point of the day was huge. The temptation is often to lead the discussion or allow the focus of the evening to fall upon you as an instructor. After all, you've just safely lead them up a river. Why not spend the next hour regaling them with stories of everything else you've ever done!
To do this would be totally counter-productive, because the relationship that needs to be built at this point is not between yourself and the group that you've just actively managed up the river. The relationship that needs to be built is between the class teachers and their students. At the end of the day, the memory of your instructing them in canoeing will fade into a distant memory. However, the memory of their classroom teacher telling stories, cooking marshmallows and laughing around the fire will last a lifetime.
It's important to understand the context in which you’re running, facilitating and leading any sort of activity. This can help you to understand the needs of the group and adapt your approach and involvement with the group accordingly. As the main part of the evening's activity came to an end, this then provided the opportunity for us to re-join the group and chat with the staff as the students started to make their way to bed.
As teachers, we want to make the most of any opportunity to help and teach others. However, this can lead to the temptation of becoming too involved with a group when there is no need to be. The next time you find yourself in a situation where you're running a session as the expert in that particular activity, when the activity is over, sit back, observe the dynamics of the group and assess whether you really need to be directly involved for the rest of the day, or is it time to sit back, make yourself a cup of coffee and let others take the lead.
Teacher education is a subject that's always hotly debated by teachers, academics and politicians. Depending on which way standardised test results are going and how close to an election it is, can determine how a teacher is taught how to teach. Try saying that quickly!
However, this isn't a great way of determining what the future needs of education should be, nor the best way to determine how the next generation of teachers should be trained. It's high time we added a bit more controversy to this topic. The fact that when I was at school, I was taught by teachers who couldn’t teach at all, led me to think about how I gained the skills I have today both as a teacher and entrepreneur. The reality is that most of it was learning through experience.
There have been many studies into how teachers should be trained and what the focus of their training should be. However, many of these ideas seem to be completely out of touch with how rapidly the world is changing. If we don’t suitably adjust this way of thinking, then we risk failing the next generation of staff and students in an epic manner. How a teacher was teaching twenty years ago, is quite different from how they should be teaching today. The sad reality is that whilst the world has changed, many schools have essentially remained the same and are still stuck firmly in the past, still reminiscing about a world of big hair dos, bad fashion and videos that were killing radio stars.
This doesn’t mean we need to radically change our theories on education and re-imagine a classroom full of holograms and corporate ads. What it does mean however, is that we need actually to look back further than the 1980s to what educational ideas and practices were used in the past and I mean way into the past, before the industrial revolution created today's dysfunctional classroom environment.
What did you just say? We need to look further into the past to find solutions for the future??? Well in a word, yes, but before you don a pair of chaps and jump into the Delorian let me explain.
Most education prior to the industrial revolution was experiential. It was done through apprenticeships, through mentoring and working with others who had mastered a trade or a skill before. You learnt by a bit of theory and a lot of practice and this is something that’s been sadly lost in our rush to become a ‘smart country’ where every well-educated grad student can live a life of under-employment and making coffee in the exploding multitude of trendy cafés.
One of the big problems with current teacher training is that it’s so heavily based upon theory and transferring that theory through a standard style of classroom. Whilst many schools claim to be innovating, the classroom remains the same in nature, no matter how many fancy tables, break out areas or bean bags you’ve put in it. The reason is that most of the learning stems from the teacher’s ability to engage in a meaningful way, rather than how the furniture works. If your teachers aren’t engaging, students are going to struggle to learn anything useful.
So back to teacher training! When I did my training, I did a course called a Graduate Diploma of Education. It was a 12 months add-on after I completed my degree in History and Politics. The year after I finished, the course turned into a 2 year Bachelor of Education. Would spending another mindless year in the classroom have made me a better teacher? No, but it would have made more money for the university and I’d still be paying off crippling student loans having achieved the sum total of nothing.
The reality is that if I’d been forced to complete a 2 year degree in Education, rather than a 12 month Graduate Diploma, I wouldn’t have even bothered. I thought at the time, 5 years worth of university study to become a teacher was a bit of a joke and I still do. It doesn’t improve teaching. It simply perpetuates more of the same repetitive theories of education and adds little value to the overall quality of the teacher.
Unfortunately, due to the large amounts of money involved and the fact that too many politicians equate more pre-service study at uni with better long-term standardised test scores, the university education for teachers is going to even more ridiculous extremes. You now have lots of first year out teachers who have stayed on at uni for so long, they’ve completed a Masters in Education, only proving a little bit of knowledge can be dangerous.
When I look at new teachers with Masters degrees. I laugh because it’s a complete joke that you have a brand-new teacher who has a Masters in something they’re not yet experienced in. I’m not saying Masters degrees are bad, because I have managed to collect a couple of them myself, though none in Education. However, this is something which is now being over-sold/over-studied by new teachers.
If new graduates with Masters Degrees was all that it took to re-engage the 40% of our students who are totally disengaged with education, the standardised test results would be through the roof and we’d be well on the way to surpassing Kazakhstan for literacy and numeracy.
However, despite longer university courses and rigorous ie arduous standards for teacher registration, Australian schools are still not making the impact that’s needed in terms of student engagement.
What other options are there to help address this massive problem? This is where looking to the past can be helpful for the education of the future. In my experience, the most effective teachers I’ve worked with are those who have done something totally different from teaching. The worst teachers I’ve worked with are the ones who have gone to school, gone to university to become a teacher and then returned to the exact same school at which they were a student. There’s usually some deeper dysfunction which drives a person to do this, as they’re often running and hiding from something in the real world (usually themselves), but that’s a far more complex issue beyond the discussion for today. As a general rule, it’s not healthy to return to the school you attended no matter how good you thought the experience was, because your belief in ownership and ties with the school might forever perversely affect your judgment about the nature of education and how it needs to continually evolve to meet the changing needs of staff and students.
Back to the issue of good teachers. What makes a good teacher? One factor is diversity of experience. If you’re teaching students to think for themselves, take risks and become a caring and well-balanced member of society, what better way than to be taught by other caring, risk-taking well-balanced members of society?
Unless you understand and have experienced the world outside of education for yourself, how can you possibly prepare others to do the same? This is where we start looking to the past. As I mentioned earlier, for thousands of years young men and women learnt trades or life skills from the experience of others. They could have had apprenticeships or been indentured in all sorts of trades and professions, but the benefit was, they were learning directly from those who knew exactly what they were doing. Whilst this lacked efficiency in the world of the industrial revolution, the positive adult role modelling and mentoring combined with learning by doing, remains one of the most powerful means through which we learn.
Unfortunately, schools too often perpetuate this cycle of school to uni and back to school by not insisting on anything but uni qualifications. What if teacher registration instead were changed to require a new teacher to have completed at least 12 months of other work outside of education? Therefore, instead of wasting someone’s time with another year of pointless study, line them up with internships in companies, banks, cafes, factories, on farms, in real industries, though perhaps avoiding government departments. This forces new teachers to be adaptable and to take on skills and roles which might make them feel discomfort, but ultimately these provide massive opportunities for personal growth. This could appear to have nothing to do with education on the surface, but the reality is gaining the skill-set that students now need to be developing to thrive in the future. This style of work experience that would be happening outside the sheltered world of schools can provide great life skills which teachers can leverage over the long-term in their teaching practice helping them to be far more genuine and effective.
In addition to this, rotations through industry partners should be encouraged every 5-10 years as part of a well-designed and well-organised professional development program. The reality is that the world has experienced a seismic shift and will continue to change at an increasingly rapid pace. If you want people capable of teaching children how to adapt to this new paradigm, then teachers need to have experienced life in the real world themselves.
There’s no real benefit in being taught by someone who has only had school as the measure for life’s experiences. However, there’s immense benefit that can be gained from teachers who have experienced life’s ups and downs in various diverse contexts. This makes better teachers and can improve student engagement.
The world is never changed by easy options or sheer luck. It’s changed by those who take risks, backed by action and have the moral framework and persistence to see it through. We’re at a time where the direction of the world is in flux and this provides us with a great opportunity to shape our world in a positive and meaningful way. Consequently, we can’t afford to lose the next generation into the emotional wilderness because we’re not prepared to take the action necessary to help build brilliant young men and women who can and will change the world.
It’s time we reconsidered the way we train and maintain our teachers in their careers, to ensure we’re able to maximise the effectiveness of the time students spend at school and help them transition smoothly and effectively into adult life.
Often teachers like to tell others what to think. I know my teachers did when I was at school. In fact, they had an entire system in place there which actively stifled creative thinking.
However, as creative and independent thought becomes an increasingly important skill for students to have, how do we help develop creative thinkers?
Firstly, whatever you do, don't give students all the answers! This is a total cop out, much of which is borne from easy access to someone else's thoughts. What better way to study a novel for English, other than watch the movie and download all the crib notes! After all that's what everyone else is doing!
The problem with this approach is that you end up thinking exactly the way someone wants you to think, but ultimately other people's thoughts and feelings can never be your own and the most powerful lessons are based upon our own experiences, not others.
I see it all the time in education. Teachers feel the need to tell you exactly what a text means, what a character represents, what underlying themes are at play. All of this places a huge amount of perspective bias on a text. But what a text, a song, a piece of art or an engineering system means to one person, may be completely different to another! It's through encouraging and supporting this difference of perspective that drives creative thinkers.
If there were only ever one answer to everything, then between Google and Wikipedia, the world would be a perfectly balanced and happy place. Yet that would be a boring world in which to live.
Thankfully, instead there are endless answers, perspectives and feelings that are generated from literature, art and science that's taught in schools. The key to unlocking the value of this is by allowing students to explore and communicate their own personal perspectives.
Music for example is an easy way to spark discussions about abstract feedback such as feelings and interpretation. Give your students a song to listen to over and over and see what emotional response they have and ask them why. Whilst some songs will entice similar responses, there's countless ones that will have vastly different meanings for different people, because they're applying their own thoughts and experiences to the subject matter.
The artist may have had one idea stemming from life, but to be brutally honest, that means nothing to the listener. It's only from our own lives that we can draw our own emotional interpretations. Understanding this can be a powerful tool to help students develop a sense of independence, self-worth and identity and should be encouraged.
One song which fascinates me is Mad World, by Gary Jules, which is the theme song to Donnie Darko, which again is a movie which is amazingly complex and what it means to me is totally different from what it means to everyone else with whom I've discussed it.
There's no point in my analysing the song nor the movie here because I can only express my thoughts and feelings on it. Instead, listen to it a few times. How does it make you feel? Who do you think of when you hear it? This can be applied to so many songs. We listen to music, not because we care about the artist’s experiences. It's all an expression of our own. This is true for literature, art and science. They're all reflections of our own experiences and emotional responses.
So no matter what you're doing, there's never just one answer. Allow your students to explore and apply their own perspective. This encourages them to be creative and develops their critical and independent thinking skills, skills which will help them thrive in an ever-changing world.
After a recent hike, during our debrief, one of the students made a comment which was quite profound. It made me seriously rethink my approach to the whole subject of leadership. We were talking about what makes someone a leader. ‘Taking control’, said one student, ‘making things happen,’ said another. This continued for some time with similar answers more about command and control than anything else, until one boy called out, ‘helping others!’
I asked the boy to explain what he meant and the discussion continued further around the topic of helping others out. Suddenly, one of the boys said, ‘Well, why not call it helpership?’ I thought about this for a moment and it struck me. What a profound statement! Whilst I’m sure someone has come up with this before, I’d never actually looked at leadership from that point of view. Even though as a leader, that’s exactly what you’re doing, I’d always explained leadership in a different way, more about looking for opportunities and inspiring those around you than the idea of helping others.
However, when working with students, especially younger ones, the idea of helpership makes a lot more sense. Through a straight forward comment of one of the students, I immediately found this to be a much easier and more accessible way for students to understand leadership than any other method I’ve come across before. We continued to run with it and the discussion turned out to be a very productive and meaningful one for the students who had come up with the idea, as well as for all the other students involved.
Often leadership gets confused with the sense of largess military or political leadership. The vision of a president tweeting something stupid or a repressed dictator joyfully pressing launch buttons for his collection of inter-continental ballistic missiles, further confuses the subject as neither of these projected figures are true leaders. Often for students it’s even harder trying to understand the concept of leadership when bombarded with these political figures in the news every day. When people hear the term ‘world leader,’ they think of visible public figures who have somehow risen to power and often obtained their position through dubious means. Whilst this is a misconception about leadership, it’s an easily made mistake.
The reality is that a leader is there to help others and not themselves. If you look at leadership in a military sense, leaders are helping others to achieve goals under demanding and often life-threatening circumstances. If you look at it from a business sense, leaders are helping others to achieve common goals and a vision for their company that’s greater than any of its individual parts. If you look at leadership in sport, again it’s all about helping others to achieve common goals that the individual could never achieve alone.
However, for many, leadership is a concept that’s hard to grasp and it’s often confusing and difficult for people to differentiate between qualities of a leader and traits of a manager. Much of this comes from experience and context and many students might also only see leadership as what teachers do. They could see it through their sports’ teams in which someone has been nominated as captain and everybody must listen to the captain or else be dropped from the team. Again, these are not necessarily the best ways to learn about leadership unless the person in that position is actively helping others.
If team building and leadership are important goals for your school, then instead of working with complex leadership theory (of which there’s a huge amount of literature), start with the concept of helpership. It immediately changes the conversation and makes the discussion more accessible. Rather than somebody being in charge and dictating orders, which is what a lot of younger people perceive leadership to be about, frame the discussion around helping others. This approach can change the entire mindset as to what an individual can do to become a leader. As a result, you can develop leadership and mindfulness in students as they look for ways to help each other, rather than thinking that they need to tell each other what to do.
As students progress through their high-school years, they’re searching for a sense of self, a sense of belonging and a sense of how they can make a difference in the world. Consequently, developing positive leadership qualities throughout this time is vital and can make a huge difference to their lives and the lives of those with whom they’ll interact no matter what they choose to do.
Ultimately, this can be a powerful lesson and an important one to develop leadership skills in young men and women. Whilst leadership development is often far more complex than the idea of helpership, if students have it in their minds when they’re just starting to think about leadership and where they fit into the world, this can have a profound impact on their longer-term leadership development and success as a leader.
Helpership starts the conversation in an assessable way so students can begin to understand that, unlike the political egotists of the world, leadership is not about you. It’s about others. It’s about shared goals and values. It’s about the welfare of others. It’s about putting yourself second and the needs of others first. It’s about service.
So when you’re thinking about your next leadership program for teens, why not simply re-frame the language? You don’t have to call it a helpership program, but it’s well worth using the concept of helpership as a key idea to help students to start to really understand what leadership is all about.
Late last year, I was involved with another film project called The Merger! I enjoy the different sort of challenge that comes with a film project. For me however, the biggest challenge was just finding the time to get there. With that in mind, I was able to sneak it in between work days and I’m so glad that I did.
Film projects are lots of fun (although there’s a lot of work behind the scenes that goes into them and a lot of sitting around doing nothing). I think the bigger the budget, the more sitting around doing nothing there is. I would imagine that actors should be very well-read, as the time spent doing nothing at all, is significant.
A few years ago, I was in the movie Unbroken, directed by Angelina Jolie. Most of the film was done in Australia and I somehow ended up in it as a journalist. The free haircut was probably the most exciting part of the whole experience and when it came to the day of filming, I sat around for eleven hours in a room full of Nazis and did nothing. Ok, so to be honest, they weren’t real Nazis. They were just dressed up as Nazis as we were supposed to be at the Berlin Olympics. Finally, everyone was called onto the set, where we stood around for another hour waiting for something to happen. As if in the blink of an eye, the scene was filmed and everyone was sent back to get changed out of their SS uniforms. Not really the most exciting of days as the illusion of stardom feels so much emptier and extremely uninteresting after thirteen hours of standing around and waiting.
However, I don’t want to discourage anyone from giving this a go. It’s one of those things where I can say, “I’ve been there and done that.” I was however, far more interested when I became involved in two much smaller Australian films. The first one being “The Backyard Ashes,” and most recently, “The Merger,” which are both by Director Mark Grental.
I only became involved by a chance meeting at a political party convention back in 2011. Mark was the guest speaker and a very unusual one to have at a political meeting, because he was funny and interesting. He’d told his story of growing up in a rural community near Wagga Wagga and what it was like being interested in the arts. He’d moved away to study at NIDA and was now back to work on a feature film called The Backyard Ashes. As expected, this was a movie about cricket. As soon as he gave the overview of the film, I was hooked. It was a great Australian Story that tells the tale of a neighbourhood dispute where the main character and his friends are playing backyard cricket and after hitting the ball for six, accidentally incinerates his boss’s prized cat on the barbecue. He collects the ashes of the cat and returns it to the owner. Long story short to resolve the neighbourhood dispute, they then play a game of backyard cricket with the ashes as the prize!
It’s a funny movie and throughout it, I was able to be involved on the set and off the set with a cameo as an extra and also helping out with the post production marketing! I’d never imagined that a chance meeting at a fairly dull political conference could lead to me to meeting so many interesting people and going to so many cool parties. When I saw that Mark was making another film, I decided that I wanted to be involved once again!
The Merger is another sports movie, this time based around AFL. The basic story is that this country football club is basically going to wreck and ruin. The team’s gone, the clubhouse condemned and it’s not looking good. However, there’s a chance to revive things with the idea of enlisting and training refugees to play on the team. I won’t give any more of the plot away and you should go and see if for yourself. It’s a very politically topical movie given the debate in Australia around refuges and what we should be doing as a nation and there’s not an easy solution, as it’s a very emotive and devise debate.
The beauty of art and film however, is that it can present ideas in such a unique way that’s outside of the standard partisan political debate we see in our daily media. If you look at how art has pushed the boundaries for centuries in helping our world modernise, fight for human rights and become more equitable, you start to really appreciate the value of art within our society.
Whilst I have no intention of going into the film industry, for me, being involved in projects in this way, gives me something different to do. It’s a chance to be part of something much bigger and something that’s going to last forever. Whenever I see The Backyard Ashes advertised, or on TV or even on the inflight entertainment, I feel excited to have been part of it all. From the first meeting of the actors and crew, which happened to be at a BBQ, to the green and red carpet premiers in Wagga and Sydney. The people I met, the friendships I developed, the experience I gained and the stories I now have, were all a wonderful part of this. I now have two films I can watch with great pride and also scream out when I spot myself standing obscurely in the corner of a scene.
As we’re now into a new year and the holidays are coming to an end, why don’t you find something you’ve always wanted to try, just for the sake of it. I challenge everybody over the next twelve months to get yourself involved in something completely different. A random project that you’ve always wanted to try out! You never know who you will meet, or where it will take you. Live your life to the fullest and make the most of every opportunity that comes your way this year.
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.