Schools Somers lovin’

AEU rep Katinka Burggraff with principal Mark Warner. Photo: Sam Danby

Open to all Victorian public primary school students, the Somers School Camp is an incredible opportunity – and not just for children.

Somers School Camp, which sits on 30 acres of sea frontage, began running outdoor programs in 1959 and has been a school since the 1970s. It hosts nine-day camps for Grade 5 and 6 students from public schools across Victoria.

“It’s unique and it’s world class,” says Mark Warner, who has been the principal for 11 years. “We do boating, surfing, rock-pooling, Indigenous history and language, rock climbing, high ropes, bike riding, orienteering, archery, but also performing arts – we do plays, the kids sing every day, and dancing.”

The program centres on building students not just physically but also emotionally. There is a focus on confidence, resilience, personal growth and reflection, and collaboration.

Mark is impressed with the dedication of his staff, who work on weekends, public holidays, and in shifts. “They never want to leave. They are so invested in the program,” he says.

“We have quite a different instructional model and quite a different curriculum. The rigour around it for the staff is different – they have to be fit and active, they have to be able to read kids and build rapport and know which kid can be pushed a bit further and which kid needs a gentle hand. We are very pastoral in our approach.”

He is keen to attract more visiting teachers, and there is clearly the demand for them – the camp is full year-round. “On staff at Somers, there’s myself and the campus principal and 17 teachers, and then we have 17 ES staff who do all the maintenance, cleaning, cooking, admin and animal handling,” says Mark.

They have another campus at Yallourn North – Woorabinda – that takes a younger cohort, Grades 3 to 5, for shorter, three- and five-day programs, and the two sites have the capacity to cater for 6,080 students across both campuses each year.

“It’s unique and it’s world class.”

Mark Warner

Students Zoe and Lucy in the garden. Photo: Sam Danby

Mark references a raft of studies that highlight the importance of outdoor learning. “I see it as an essential part of student development. The kids we see are less and less engaged with nature and the outdoors, and there is so much evidence for the benefits of being in nature, and working collaboratively. Having that sense of achievement has significant long-term effects on their development as people.”

Somers teacher and AEU rep Katinka Burggraaff has been at the school since 2020. She was a primary classroom teacher for 13 years, and during that time she experienced Somers four times as a visiting teacher.

In the camp environment, students have a lot of time to focus on interpersonal and personal development, and social capabilities, Kat explains. And staff have the scope to respond to students’ needs. “You have that time around the clock so that kids can get whatever it is they need to make the next step in their learning.”

The students are rostered on to be part of duty groups where they each have a turn looking after the others, waiting tables and cleaning up. “Whatever the activity is, it’s a vehicle for their learning and development,” Kat explains.

“They set goals at the start of camp, personal and community goals – for example, to ‘make friends’ or to ‘challenge themselves to do things at heights’ or ‘try new foods’. We teach them to set the goal and how to come up with strategies so they’re working on those things through, for example, surfing, or archery.”

The students’ biggest challenge is making a new community. “New friends, building confidence, learning to live independently, keeping their huts clean. And then the challenges of working with people they’ve only just met – cooperation, teamwork,” Kat says.

“You’re their teacher, their coach, parent, big sister – you’ve got such an important role. It’s a challenging time for almost every kid; they do need a lot of support, they’re away from home.”

It’s also a special experience for staff, she adds. “They come to you at the start not really sure about stuff – how to set a table or put a fitted sheet on their bed, or they’re not used to checking the time to be places. They don’t know each other, and by the end it’s like a big family, and you’re a part of that.”

On the last day, the students are invited to reflect, and invited to identify a hero, a highlight, and a hardship related to their experience. “There’s tears and hugs and laughs,” Kat says.

The accommodation is new but there are still some of the original buildings from when it was a RAAF training centre in the 1940s. It was later a migrant camp, and Kat explains the remarkable story of one former staff member who was housed there as a baby from Austria and went on to work at Somers Camp for 50 years.

The students harvest and use food from the campus’s community gardens. “Tomatoes, herbs, beans… they wash them and take them to the kitchen. We have a tea garden so they might pick chamomile and dry it so they can have chamomile tea. We do bushcraft in the cooler months – we make damper and cook it. We make jam from the berries. They get to try bush foods… The food is so good at camp – it’s amazing!” Kat laughs. “When I was a visiting teacher, I put on four kilograms in nine days. I had to wear tracksuit pants home! I’m not even kidding.”

Environmental studies and care for animals are a big part of their focus. One of the core teachings is: “Enough for all, forever.”

“It is not an exaggeration to say that I love what I do. I look forward to going back to school every year.”

Katinka Burggraaff

As well as learning about reptiles like Wilbur the coastal carpet python and Herbie the shingleback stumpy-tailed lizard, and marine creatures like Simon the Port Jackson shark, there is a taxidermy room and a nocturnal enclosure, which is home to sugar gliders, a ringtail possum named Gumnut, two bandicoots, Kermit the tawny frogmouth, guinea pigs and chickens – mostly rescue animals.

The nine-day program includes gourmet food, transport, and accommodation, not to mention a camp hat and t-shirt, and each child receives pocket money. “It’s all part of it,” Mark says, adding that it’s an entirely electronics-free space.

Bek Emonson, visiting teacher from Lysterfield Primary, is on her third visit as a teacher, but she also came to Somers Camp as a child. Asked what brings her back, she says: “Everything! You meet other visiting teachers and the staff look after us really well. The culture of it, the atmosphere, the growth of the kids.”

For her part, Kat never wants to leave. “They’d have to drag me away. It is not an exaggeration to say that I love what I do. I look forward to going back to school every year. You get really tired – it’s a big job – but when you care about what you’re doing as much as we do, it’s easy to get up in the morning. By the end of our days off, I’m just champing at the bit to be back there.”

Somers School Camp is always looking for teachers – for more information email [email protected].

Watch a video to see Somers Camp in action:

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