Learning beyond the classroom – Why this school principal chose an experiential learning leadership program

How does a teacher by trade who has a knack for cooking and is a self-confessed extrovert who likes to hide out in his beach shack with a good book end up in an experiential learning leadership program? Thanks to the goodwill of those who have walked the path before him.

Well, let’s give you a glimpse into Paul Harmer’s story. He is the recipient of an open scholarship for course 30 of the Australian Rural Leadership Program.

He’s a city-gone-country bloke. He has always searched for purpose. In his twenties, it was at the cricket club. Later, he became a footy coach, golf club president, and volunteer ambo. Currently, he is the principal of a school with students from diverse backgrounds. His brothers would say he always wanted to take control. But for Paul, he just takes the initiative when things need to get done.

‘I have always valued connection to local communities and what I can do to contribute, but also what it gives back to me.’

While most of his mates stayed in Adelaide, this mix of duty to take the traditional first country placement as much as his father’s roots led him to work in small rural schools all over South Australia.

At one of these schools, his colleague Kirsty Lush (ARLP C27) dropped the first hint that he ‘should do this course’. He didn’t think much of it but was curious to see his colleague purchase camping gear and disappear for a while. Only to return with more in-between-the-lines talk about this mysterious experiential learning leadership program. She seemed to return invigorated and connected to people who also wanted to do more and know more.

Saying yes to an unknown experience 

‘My wife thinks it’s a cult, and my dad said I’m not fit enough.’ 

Those close to Paul have questioned more than his physical fitness for his planned adventures, wondering if they would see him change in similar fashion as contestants on the survival competition show ‘Alone’. 

Despite their scepticism, the 47-year-old, who enjoys frequent games of golf, AFL, cricket, fishing, and any other sport you might put in front of him, feels confident. 

‘I’ve talked to a few people, and a farmer friend also said it’s a good course.’

Fuelled by such curious recommendations and armed with a hunger for self-development and purpose, Paul decided to apply for course 30 of the Australian Rural Leadership Program.

Reflecting on your place in the world in a leadership program

‘You can’t give your best when you’re not at your best.’

The opportunity to complete the ARLP is timely as Paul reflects on his place and contribution as an educator, leader, and community member. 

Many children at his school come from low socioeconomic backgrounds or are humanitarian refugees. Leading the school through the standard education system and making positive changes to the often complex challenges faced by his students takes a toll on him as a leader. As he struggles to maintain his work-life balance, Paul seeks to find a way to deal with what’s in front of him. 

‘I want to see myself as a principal remembered for making positive changes, influencing others and bringing young leaders up.’ 

He was at a children’s mental health and trauma conference not long after funding for a support program had been pulled when he completed his ARLP application.

While he can’t quite put his finger on the solution yet, he knows his contribution is to make a difference in the lives of those children and extend it to adult men struggling to manage their emotions and lives. 

‘We have all these programs, but none of them are funded. I can’t pull money of the air, but if we can create awareness and advocate for more money with the government to save one more child from going down the wrong path, we’re on the right track.’

‘You see success stories of kids that come through from all these different backgrounds and that makes it all worthwhile. It’s getting out of that cycle.’ 

Connecting and learning beyond the classroom  

‘For some teachers, their sole job is to educate and teach kids – and that’s ok. But I’d like to challenge that there’s a bigger picture to be seen.’

Most leadership opportunities for people working in the education sector are insulated within the industry. Just like for some teachers, their sole job is to educate and teach kids – and that’s ok. But for Paul, there’s a bigger picture to be seen in the local communities. 

He hopes to find the connection, self-awareness and resilience to contribute beyond the classroom through the ARLP.

‘It’s an opportunity to work with people in lots of different industries. And there’s always room for development and coming to an understanding of what makes you tick and why you do the things you do and how you can do things differently to become a better person.’

‘I’m incredibly fortunate and humbled to receive the alumni scholarship. The funds have come out of peoples’ pockets because they have been part of these programs and value them. It certainly puts a bit of pressure on me. Good pressure to do my best.’

Paul Harmer has received an open scholarship to complete course 30 of the Australian Rural Leadership Program. Contributions to his scholarship came from alumni, the public and the H V McKay Charitable Trust.

Candidates who don’t fit into industry-awarded scholarships receive open scholarships where possible. Open scholarships consist of donations from alumni and public donations as well as philanthropic and private sector contributions.

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