How often do you review the programs you’re running and how they’re being run? Are there any specific activities which require specialised training, experience or knowledge? When it comes to experiential or outdoor education programs, there are often key activities which need specific training and or experience so they’re able to be run effectively, efficiently and safely. However, when one team member moves on, standards change or complacency creeps in, this can become a significant risk to your organisation and programs.
How often do you review your team dynamics and skill set? What are the strengths of your team? What are the gaps in your team? Can those gaps be amended through staff training or training courses? Do you have a system in place for constantly assessing and reviewing this?
To be clear, to begin with micromanagement of staff is definitely not needed here and can be massively counterproductive. However, the opposite is also true. If you have staff whose skills are never developed reviewed or improved, this can lead to complacency, poor work and an ‘expert’ blind spot situation where everything will be ok, because it always has been. For your organisation, there needs to be a happy and effective medium for this. With no reviews or identification of key skills and experience, or the blind expectation that everyone has the same level of skill because you set a qualification as a minimum standard for employment, then you’re deluding yourself into a false sense of security and setting yourself up for problems down the track.
One place I worked, we had all field staff training as a minimum with a Cert IV in outdoor recreation. However, the skills and abilities of each member of staff varied enormously. Their ability to engage students in the group, their ability to setup ropes courses, expeditions and debrief activities all varied massively. Yet they all had the same qualifications. The potential risk in this situation is that you can’t simply allocate staff to activities without understanding their strengths and weaknesses in specific areas. However, the positive of this is that you need people with different and complementary skills to make it a fun and dynamic working environment.
That same organisation for which I was working, despite having gaps in training and skills, the team dynamics were really positive as the task and role allocations were done based upon those complementary skills. For example, I can’t reverse trailers. I try, but it never ends well. So one of my colleagues always reversed the trailer. Conversely, some of the team were squeamish with ticks, blood and open wounds, which I wasn’t, so I ended up removing all the ticks and patching up all the gaping open wounds.
At the end of the day, we worked well together. However, there were still gaps in skills and understanding of a range of things which caused a number of breakdowns in communications and challenges along the way. It’s therefore critical, even if things are running reasonably well, to review the skills needed to run the programs for which you’re responsible, as part of your ongoing risk management. So often people think of risk management as simply the documentation you’re creating. However, it’s far more than that and the skills and experience of your staff is critical to the way in which risk management is developed and implemented.
What are the strengths of your team? What are the gaps in their skills and what training to they need to help close these gaps? Often general risk management training is overlooked versus activity specific training. However, activity specific training, whilst it develops a great set of specific skills, is often the broader contexts of risk management that gets missed when we focus on one specific area. Hence, it’s important to keep this in mind when reviewing the training needs of your team.
Once you’ve been able to identify the gaps, then it’s important to provide opportunities for training, or on the job experience to help the team members to improve their skills in this area. This can make a huge difference to the safety and coherence of the organisation and the team dynamics.
External training is also critical to ensure that the right skills are being developed and being done in a way that’s also at arm’s length so that internal processes and procedures are also being challenged and tested to help ensure industry standards are up to date and being met. What are your gaps? If you haven’t reviewed where you’re at for a while, then it’s time to do so right now. Identify your skills’ gaps and ensure you get your team trained in each of those areas of need to ensure you’re running safe, awesome experiential outdoor programs for your students.
‘We’ve got that covered,’ are often the famous last words of people who under-estimate what’s needed in terms of risk management and who are also over-confident in their ability to deliver. Unfortunately, I’ve seen this so often in schools where people think they have everything covered, that risk management is just an annoying document or ‘it’s someone else’s job to do that.’ The reality is that, one, it’s everyone’s job. Two, nobody else can do it for you and three copy and pasting someone else’s mistakes leaves you liable to their lack of ability to assess and implement good risk management, leaving massive holes in everything.
I’ve also seen schools going down the path of employing someone to do all the risk assessments for them. Now this is problematic on a number of levels. One, I could write endless risk assessments and be confident that we’ve minimised our foreseeable risks and have documented it well. However, that’s like my taking a driving test for someone else. I know I can drive, but can they? What actual understanding of risk do teachers have and why are there still so many issues with risk management?
The fact is that unfortunately, the majority of teachers have never had any training in risk management. They’re suddenly expected to know how to write a risk assessment for school excursions, without any training whatsoever. I’ve had some people say to me, ‘But our teachers know how to manage students, so they’re ok.’ I’ve never understood this, as being able to manage a group of students in a classroom, is fine, but risk management for school excursions and activities is far more complex than this and there’s so many considerations and random factors which play into good risk management. These go well-beyond the ability to count the number of students you have with you and make sure they stay together.
Risk management training is critically important for all teachers to have. Whilst it does take time and experience to fully develop these skills, there needs to be a solid foundation of training and understanding so that teachers can become good risk managers which helps them in the classroom, on the sports field and wherever else their excursions, international tours and programs may take them.
As a starting point, we decided to take our 20 plus years of experience in school risk management and distil it into a 3 hour training course to help teachers develop a solid understanding of risk and risk management and what they need to do when taking any group for a school excursion or activity. How to write a risk assessment for school excursions is like risk management 101 for teachers. It covers everything to get started so they can run safe school excursions and activities for their students.
Professional development for teachers is extremely important for their ongoing development. It’s not just classroom practice they need to develop, but all those other skills to ensure they’re keeping their students safe.