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Meet Rick; NGC Staff Reflect On Our Decade of Disruption

Rick is our NGC Programs Manager and School Chaplain/Student Wellbeing Officer. However, anyone who knows him can attest that what he does every day defies a simple job title! Rick's role has grown alongside our school for the past decade, but the common thread has always been his commitment to bringing out the fun, humour and creativity in everything we offer here. We sat down with Rick to pick his brains on the guiding principles we teach our young people, why challenge and adventure are crucial to success, and some highlights of his decade-long journey with us.

What brought you to NGC?

I started as a Case Worker with Youth Connections (which was originally the parent company of NGC), before the idea of a school had been conceived. Originally, I was working with disengaged, vulnerable students in local schools and then headed up the Connectors initiative from 2012. This was a Board-endorsed alternative Year 10 program, where we essentially covered all sorts of life skills for young people who were falling through the cracks in the mainstream system. It was very hands-on; we had vocational training, English and Maths, sport, cooking, outdoor recreation. But an issue we faced was that it was only part-time and ultimately didn't give young people a widely recognised Year 10 qualification that they could use for TAFE entry. We wanted to build a genuine alternative to mainstream schooling, where students could benefit from a more personalised approach to learning, get support for their wellbeing and still leave with the qualifications they needed to find a job. How does NGC represent a disruption within the education system? What are we doing differently?

While we have to work within the structure of a typical secondary school to some extent, there are so many opportunities to be creative and flexible with what this looks like in practice. Importantly, these are totally supported by our Principal and the Board too. We are as hands-on as we can possibly be to ensure our students are genuinely engaged and whenever there is a chance to take learning outdoors or turn it into a more practical exercise, we take it. I don't think people recognise just how important novelty, adventure and fun are in education, especially for young people who are completely disengaged and have never felt excited about school. I always remember that when the Youth Connections team were first conceiving of the school back in 2013, our then-CEO Maggie was asked "What do you want young people to get out of Ngaruki Gulgul?" and she said, "I want them to have the time of their lives". That has always been part of our approach; to focus on the journey, rather than the end outcome. If thinking outside the box and prioritising enjoyment keeps a young person in school and engaged, it's worth it.

How does NGC disrupt the negative life trajectories of our young people? How do we offer them an alternative pathway? At the start of every year or when a student enrols with us, I talk about the concept of checking your baggage at the door. So many of our young people have had countless experiences of being defined by their mistakes, let down by other people (including educators), and made to feel like they don't belong or they're not capable of something. At NGC, we are giving them a fresh slate. It's a genuine chance to do things differently and open their minds up to new possibilities.

Something that really helps our students make the most of this opportunity is having some guiding expectations and principles we stick to. A big one is respectful communication between all students and with the staff, where we treat others like we want to be treated, even when they're not in the room. We don't let anything simmer in the background; that's why mediation is such an important tool at our school. It's not about eliminating any potential challenge or upset but instead having a willingness to sit down and talk through issues in a safe, respectful way. And something that sets us apart as a school is that this accountability goes for our staff too. We model what it looks like to make a mistake or have a misunderstanding, own it and apologise. It shows that we are real people and our students respond to that.

Another expectation is that everyone gives everything a red-hot go. Of course, we'll always respect their agency and limitations and we don't tolerate peer pressure, but there is no deciding ahead of time that "I can't" or "I won't" do something. I am a big believer in 'challenge by choice'. So many of our students have had unhealthy risk-taking behaviour modelled for them and they come to rely on this to get a boost of adrenaline. I want to show them how they can push themselves in safe, calculated and healthy ways and build their confidence in the process.

Why have you stuck with NGC since the beginning? What motivates you to keep showing up and doing this work?

What I love about my role is that every single day is different. Each student that comes to NGC brings their own unique set of circumstances and a lot of the time, they have their walls up. I like the challenge of getting to know the young person and finding a way in, to slowly bring those walls down. It's very gratifying to help our young people challenge themselves physically, socially and academically. There are hundreds of moments when they've pushed through barriers to achieve something they never thought they could do or that they were scared of. And the effect is often immediate but sometimes, it might take a long while for the impact to really sink in. I love running into students years later and getting to hear how their life changed because of NGC. Even if it wasn't always smooth sailing at the time, they can reflect back and see the intention behind everything we did. I'm incredibly lucky to have had the freedom and support to carve out such a fun niche at NGC. My job is essentially adding value to our young people's experience here. Some of my favourite memories over the years have been painting murals together around our site, playing Oz Tag in the Kids VS Cops competition, and exploring the Central Coast to take them to places they might otherwise never know about. There's nothing like seeing their jaws drop when we head out to some of our 'secret spots' and helping them to experience that sense of awe. Of course, there are always the harder moments but for the most part, I get to have so much fun with our students and I'm really grateful for that. 


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