Just a short one this week about an interesting phenomenon I’ve noticed over the years in outdoor ed programs has been that of clustering. What I mean by this is the group dynamic of needing to be close together when in large open spaces. Whilst there’s nothing wrong with this, it’s interesting to watch how this can change over a longer-term program as students become more comfortable with their surroundings and the natural environment. For students from cities, most of the groups with which I’ve worked, big open spaces tend to be uncomfortable. When it comes to hiking, canoeing and camping, no matter how much space you have, the students tend to need to be very close together, even if they’re not friends.
I started to notice this across a number of canoeing expeditions where we were paddling on quite wide lakes. Whilst you never want a canoe group to be too far away from boats to boat, quite often students will paddle right on top of each other, rather than giving everyone else room to move. The same is true when they’re setting up their tents at the campsite. No matter how large and unoccupied the camp ground, the students tend to cluster together with tents almost on top of each other and rather than use free time to socialise with friends, they often cluster into one large group.
This is definitely a very primitive comfort zone issue and the fact that students feel safer in large groups when out in the wilderness. From a management point of view, this is great, as it’s easier to keep track of where everyone is. Just look for the massive group and listen for the noise. However, the problem with this is that as a group they can miss so much about the environment around them. They can miss the opportunity to switch off and just enjoy the peace and quiet of the unique landscapes and environments they will most likely never see again.
As I mentioned however, for longer programs, this distance seems to increase. Students feel more comfortable in the environment in which they’re in and as this comfort increases, they don’t need to be as close together to each other as before. They also develop an attitude that it is quite safe and this adds to the de-clustering effect. It’s interesting to watch this transition too as it creates greater moments for reflection and relaxation and opens students’ minds to so much more. It enables them to switch off from a massively connected world. It enables them to focus on the beauty of the world. Students can focus also on how much bigger the world is than just their own lives and their own experiences.
Using the environment as part of an experiential education program is vitally important. So how does the environment change or improve the way in which you can engage with students? Many times, I’ve had some great fireside chats with groups of students that would have never been possible in the classroom. There’s something remarkably special about the natural environment that breaks down barriers within groups and allows for discussions and experiences totally different from a classroom and the built environment. It can often be and should be an even safer place for discussion, as it’s separated from our daily routine and connects us with thousands of years of human experience and relationship with the land.
If you think about how a classroom operates, you have a teacher at the front and no matter how hard you try to create a ‘new classroom’ through open planning or adding bean bags and colourful shelving, the reality is, the space still operates in the same way. A group comes in, a teacher is there, you have a class, the group leaves and the teacher is there ready for the next class. So this is a process. It’s quite structured, regardless of how laissez-faire you want to be about it.
However, the natural environment, whether it be in the bush, the rocky mountain wilderness, a rainforest or coastal setting, there’s very little structure to it and consequently, this space changes the emotional dynamics and experience of the group. In terms of experiential education, if you’ve been on a challenging hike, canoe activity, or maybe a team building task, whatever the case may be, it’s a shared experience and should be debriefed afterwards. However, think of where that debrief should take place and how much the environment will impact on its effectiveness. If you’re running out of a basecamp with building and rooms, what’s going to happen if you take the debrief inside? What unnatural distractions and complications have you just added to the group dynamics? Alternatively, what will be the group’s behaviours and dynamics, if you find a quiet place away from anything man-made? Test the theory out for yourself. However, from my experience, there’s a dramatic difference. The reality is that people are more open to sharing and listening to thoughts, feelings and ideas, than they are in built up environments.
The natural environment provides a wonderful connection with our heritage, which is often forgotten in a highly connected world that is full of endless noise and distractions. Getting back to a natural environment can change the way your students feel, the way in which they are able to express themselves and ultimately has a powerful and positive impact on their learning. It’s interesting when you take a group out of a city and bring them into a unique bush setting.
I was speaking with Mary Preece, the education manager for Bundanon Trust, an art centre in the Shoalhaven. Mary has found a similar phenomenon as she works with a lot of city kids. As part of their art program, they take students out into some beautiful Australian bush locations on the property. They have no phone connectivity, there are no buildings around and the only way the students can get to where the workshops are being conducted is by walking. From the moment the students get off the bus, there’s literally a collective sigh of relief and after that initial transition, one of the activities they do is to lead the group into a rainforest. As they walk the students down into the gully, the natural light is filtered and it becomes slightly darker and the students respond by becoming naturally quieter. This experience with the rainforest, enables the staff to create an extremely relaxed and peaceful environment, free from the noise of everyday life, somewhat of a rarity in this day and age, since many schools mistakenly believe that cramming as much into a student’s day as possible is the best method of creating ‘well-balanced’ individuals.
However, without the constant bombardment and endless white noise of the world, it enables students to focus on what’s truly important in life and lets them live in the moment for what can be a very different and immensely effective learning experience. The reality is that for tens of thousands of years, humans have been connected with the natural environment and being away from the built up environment helps us reconnect with a physical and emotional connection that’s being strained by modern life.
Why do we like going to the beach? Why do we like going bushwalking? Why do we like going to lookouts and seeing the natural environment in all its beauty? Why do we like a cool breeze in summer? Why does a change in season, change our mood? It’s all of these environmental connections that have developed over millennia, we often lose through our modern lifestyle. The more we’re connected through digital technology, which can massively improve some parts of our lives, unfortunately, the more distant we can become from ourselves and those around us. It’s really important that with modern life, we don’t lose that connection with our natural environment. Consequently, building opportunities into educational programs for environmental connectivity is extremely important and valuable for staff and students alike.
How does a change in the environment change our state of mind? How does it change our health? How does it change how we relate to others? With youth mental health an increasingly massive issue, the more that educators can enable students to be in touch with and control over their emotions, the better equipped they will be to develop the resilience that’s needed to survive and thrive in a rapidly changing world.
Experiential education is not just about running a series of activities so students can experience something different and schools can cram another thing on top of their programs to justify their fees and distract parents from the fact that they’re still stuck in the 1980s. It’s much deeper than that. Experiential education is an immersive method of education that when combined effectively with the natural environment, can massively improve student health, well-being and their ability to relax, clear their minds and be open to new thoughts, ideas and ways of doing things, which are all critically important skills in a rapidly changing world. Carefully structuring activities with environmental connectivity in mind, is vitally important in a noise filled world to help students reflect and become mindful of where they’re at in their own lives and where they want to be going. This ability to disconnect from the connected and built up world, even for a short period of time, can provide some amazing long-term benefits that last well beyond a student’s time at school. The noisier the world gets, the more important it will be to ensure you have thoughtful and effective environmental connectivity as part of your experiential education program.
An interesting phenomenon is whenever I’ve taken groups out on canoeing expeditions. We tend to paddle on quite wide lakes. There are very few areas where it narrows to the point that we’re either paddling a rapids or we’re paddling close together or need to be paddling close together. However, given the wide open river, the students I work with tend to all cluster together in really small groups. They only use a tiny part of the river. The same is true when they’re setting up their tents. They clustered together in a really small groups despite having masses of open space which they can utilise. This is interesting from the aspect of is this something that we’re finding with city students. Are they afraid of open space or are they made to feel uncomfortable by open space?
As the camps progress, this distance seems to increase. They feel more comfortable in the environment. They don’t need to be as close together to each other as before. There’s a sense that it is quite safe where we are. That’s quite safe doing what we’re doing. It’s this interesting transition that occurs because of being in the natural environment.
This is why it’s so important to use the natural environment as part of any of your Experiential Education Programs. It opens students’ minds to so much more. It enables them to relax. It enables them to switch off from a massively connected world. It enables them to focus on the beauty of the world and to focus on how much bigger the world is than just their own lives and their own experiences.
You can even try with exactly the same question, the same topic basically. See how effective it is covering an important topic and it could be talking about bullying. It could be talking about dogs. It could be talking about decision making. It could be talking about relationships. If you talk about any of these in the classroom, you get one same answers. However, if you talk about these in a different setting, in a wilderness setting, in a bush setting, you will get an entirely different set. It is going to be more involved. It’s going to be more relevant and it is going to be more effective as a learning process for those students. It will enable them to reflect on their answers and how they feel about their answers. Whereas if you do it on class, all they’re thinking of is the next recess break or the next class. You lose that. Therefore, it is vitally important to use the environment as part of your Experiential Education Programs.
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.
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.
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.
A while back, I talked about the weather and how it was a good way of pushing kids outside of their comfort zones when it was raining and a little bit tough. I also mentioned at the time, there was one experience in which I was sent out in conditions that weren’t safe, nor character building. Balancing this risk versus benefit is the ongoing challenge for the outdoor educator. However, even when you plan and prepare for everything, sometimes you find yourself caught by a weather front that's far more intense than anyone predicted and this was one of those times.\
The morning started as most days towards the end of summer. Clear blue skies, hot, humid and not a hint of breeze. After a delicious cooked breakfast of bacon and eggs, we finished packing the trailers and I checked the weather. Despite this perfect morning, when I saw the forecast, I immediately raised my concerns. The weather was set to change early to mid afternoon and a severe weather warning had been issued. With severe thunderstorms and damaging winds forecast, it wasn't something I wanted to be taking the kids into.
Clear Blue Skies
I argued the point with the director, expressing my concerns that it wasn't a great idea to head out with that warning in place, especially when we were supposed to be camping near a river, which floods quite quickly. Despite all these concerns, I was told, “Don't worry about it. It will be fine.” Unconvinced, I left, having been told we were still going out on the hike.
It was about a 50 min drive from base camp to get to the trail head where we left the bus and our ute. By the time we'd done all our briefings and had lunch, it was around 1pm. It was hot and extremely muggy. The sky above was clear, but to the southwest an angry bank of clouds was building and I could hear the distant rumble of thunder. Setting out, I had a nervous feeling in the pit of my stomach. The hike followed a winding track along a rugged ridge line. I'd hiked it many times before, but this time felt so different.
About an hour passed and, several kilometres in, the humidity shifted, the temperature suddenly dropped and that's when the storm hit. We were engulfed. The wind ripped through, mercilessly bending the trees above us. Suddenly came a flash. It felt as if the air had been sucked out of my lungs. The deafening boom rippled through the group. There'd been no time to count the seconds between the two.
I yelled out for the group to stop. “Everyone on their packs!” I instructed to try and insulate them in some way from what was about to hit. Moments later, another blinding flash, was followed immediately by the concussive boom. I could feel the ground shake. Quickly checking I had everyone and they were all in their rain jackets and sitting on their packs, there was nothing else I could do, as we were hit by wave after wave of lightning strikes.
My heart raced and I felt helpless as each strike hit, some of them only metres away and rain sheeted down. There was nothing we could do. There was no shelter and no lower ground to which we could safely get. We had to hold our position or increase the risk of getting hit.
Branches whipped and creaked ominously, several cracking loudly and crashing down below us. It felt as if it’d never end. The rain cascaded over us, soaking every inch of our Gortex jackets until they reached saturation point and no longer held the moisture at bay.
The storm crashed around us for what felt like an eternity, yet in reality, it had only been two hours. The rain began to ease, and the deafening booms of the thunder become increasingly distant.
I felt a sense of relief as I did a quick assessment of the group, but this was short-lived. I realised quickly that three students had all the signs of hypothermia and another storm front was rapidly approaching. With no time to lose, I left the other two instructors with the group and taking one instructor with me, we raced back for the vehicle. I'd had a lot of time to think of a plan whilst perched on top of my pack trying to avoid a subterranean strike through the tree roots and pool of water in which I was sitting. The plan was simple. Get the 4WD and find a safe alternate campsite. This was easier said than done, as we had to race the coming storm and run about 3km back to where we started. Through muddy puddles we dashed, slipping and sliding on the sodden surface.
Massive droplets crashed down on our back. The storm was here! Without our packs and with less than a kilometre to go, we sprinted for the vehicles. Lightning flashed around us as the thunderous boom smashed us again and again. I felt as if any moment we were going to get nailed by a strike. Gasping for air, I could feel my heart pounding through my chest. Turning a corner and charging down the hill, I could see the vehicles. Suddenly there was a blinding flash and a deafening explosion. I saw sparks fly from the roof of the nearby building, as I felt the air get sucked out of me as the concussion of the blast rippled through my skin.
With keys in hand I grabbed the door handle and jabbed the key into the lock. It clicked open and I leapt into the driver’s seat, safely out of the storm. Taking a few moments to catch my breath, there was no time to lose. Off we went to shuttle the group back to safety.
It was a slippery and treacherous drive in and out from where we'd left them. It took another hour and a half to complete the evacuation. We soon had a fire going, some water on the boil and our hypothermic campers in some warm dry clothes.
That evening, camp food had never tasted better and I was more thankful than ever before of my cosy sleeping bag. The evening air was filled with the sound of joyous frogs and cicadas. There was not even a hint of the storm that had torn through us that day.
One of the recent debrief questions I posed to a group, made me think and reflect on my own experiences. Whenever I run a debrief, I’ll always frame the question, then provide an example from my own experience before asking the students to share their thoughts and feelings about the topic or issue. This isn’t just about story telling though. This is about relationship building and whilst you’re not telling them your life story, you're giving them a glimpse at how you think and feel. This can be a very powerful way to effectively engage everyone in what can be, at times, a very challenging, yet positive conversation and educational tool. For me, this is very easy to jump in and do, because we have groups come for a short period of time (generally four weeks on my current program). They know nothing about me and I know nothing about them and the only way we get to know each other is through sharing stories and experiences. However, one massive problem for most classroom teachers who don’t do experiential education programs all the time, is that they only know their students from the classroom context. Consequently, getting out on camp and sharing a vulnerability, can be extremely difficult and confronting.
Despite this, the right story for the right group can have a powerful effect and change the classroom relationship for good! I can't tell you which story from your life will result in this, but I can say that being honest and genuine is a wonderful relationship building tool and can help you teach some of the most important lessons in life.
The most nerve wracking experience of my teaching to date was when I was working for a school in the country and one of the kids had googled my name. This revealed a number of newspaper articles about bullying which occurred to me years ago when I was at school. Even though the articles weren’t bad, it exposed a huge vulnerability of mine. The thoughts that ran through my mind were horrible and I felt totally exposed because of what had happened to me. However, in the end, rather than shy away from this, I tackled it head on! I spoke with the Yr 9 boys (the entire year in fact) and was open and honest with them about what happened to me and the fallout from the experience at school and after school. There were masses of questions thrown at me and I answered every single one honestly and openly. The positive and supportive response from the students was totally unexpected. I went from thinking my career was over, to ending up with really positive long-lasting relationships with that year group. It actually made every class I taught so much easier than ever before.
So what is it from your life? What is it from your experience that you can share which will help your students face the challenges that life throws at them? This is where the debrief becomes so powerful. It's not just about asking questions to fill in time around the fire or getting the kids to think and reflect a bit, it should also challenge you, as the teacher and instructor. If you're not facing your own challenges head on, how can you expect others to? Sharing parts of your own experience is a valuable tool in conveying real meaning to a debrief.
Back to the original point though of self-reflection, the question that I posed, on hearing some of the students’ responses made me think about my answer more. It made me question if I were tackling my biggest problem in the most intelligent way and sparked my thinking about different ways I could tackle it! Without this transparency and honesty about myself, I would probably get superficial and shallow responses in all my debriefs, which simply makes them pointless ventures. You might as well just tell ghost stories round the fire, if you don't put any genuine effort in to engage with your students. However, by using this wonderful reflective conversation and snippets of your own experience, you can teach some truly remarkable lessons and build some amazing, positive relationships with your students that can totally change the dynamics of their lives and your teaching.
This week’s kinda short and to the point. We’ve been flooded in down south of Sydney on one of the Yr 9 programs and thankfully, we’ve been flooded in in a good way! How can we been flooded in in a good way I hear you ask?! Well last year, we got flooded to the point we had to evacuate from the campus, then I ended up sleeping on a gym matt for the night (not comfy at all)!
Last Year's Gym Matt
This time, we’re all ok, we’re still on site and the right decisions have been made about changes to activities. We’d planned for canoeing on Saturday, then abseiling and archery on Sunday. However, none of these could be safely run with the continuous deluge of rain we’ve been having and it’s put our upcoming 3 day expedition in doubt as well.
Slightly Wet Out There!
We’d been watching this weather front for days on the Bureau of Meteorology, so it was no surprise when it hit yesterday. This is why regular weather checks and updates are so important for safely planning and implementing activities. It reduces your risk and can save you massive amounts of time dealing with bad situations you don’t need to be in.
Flooding Around Us!
So with endless rain falling, roads blocked and floods surrounding us, we’ve stayed indoors, taught some lessons. Now everyone’s learnt something, had fun and are safe and dry. The bottom line this week is that even though sometimes taking students out in adverse weather conditions can be character building, in situations like this it’s not! Therefore, changing plans and rethinking activities is a vital part of your risk management and operational management strategy to ensure you keep everyone safe from seriously dangerous weather conditions.
Oh and I finally watched Tron! Awesome movie.
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!