The outdoors: Great? - Tough Young Teachers midweek special

6th February 2014 at 15:20

The last few weeks on Tough Young Teachers has seen an interesting phenomenon: the school trip, as therapy. Both Charles and Nick have been busy in their sealskins, taking kids off for a romp in the wild – residential boot-farms where algebra is replaced by lambing – and even, incredibly, pheasant shooting.


It's reasonable to ask the question: why? Schools are designed to teach children a broad liberal education of gateway literacy and numeracy, coupled with access to the cultural and scientific legacy of their species. Where in that curriculum can you find shepherding or marksmanship? If school is about qualifications, then why study something with no certification? If schools are about preparing pupils for employability, then why teach them skills that will have no practical applicability in almost none of their conceivable futures. I'm sure that Caleb is itching to get behind the wheel of a combine harvester, but probably not to bring the corn in before it rots.


I've taken pupils away on many trips, some abroad, some local; some overnight, some there and back again between chimes of a bell. I used to co-run Duke of Edinburgh field trips for a few years, where students would try to work out the stupidest way of packing a 50-litre rucksack for a ten-mile trek. Inevitably, someone would bring 2 litres of Coca Cola in their side pocket, and we'd all have a good chuckle and take bets on how long they'd last before they ditched their sugary ballast, or expired. I ran annual trips to the University of Edinburgh to hear Scottish voices talk about Scottish philosophers, over the gentle snoring of tired puppies who had exhausted themselves tearing up and down the Royal Mile. Anyone thinking of having children would do well to organise a residential trip to see how you cope with teenagers dislocated from the safety of the classroom.


It's a steep learning curve for teachers too, even tough young ones. Liberated from the privations of their homes, freedom often intoxicates the child. Lamp curfews are forgotten, and meals are replaced with sponsored Skittles marathons, followed by missed alarms and sore bellies. You learn that children need to be told when to go to the toilet, even if they're old enough to buy cigarettes.


But eventually, even they become trained to put the toilet seat of life down. Bronze expedition rookies turn into Gold veterans. Relationships form, too, ones difficult to imagine in the school. As custodian of their care, they often see you in a different light outside the school, especially on residential trips. You become the hologram of a parent. Depressingly, you even provide more succour for their wellbeing than some of their real parents. Seeing you look out for them, some of them – some of them – see you as a benefactor more than the brute they imagine you to be in the school.


Does this have an effect on the relationship in school? Sometimes. When the teacher shows professional parental care, always keeping an arms distance between the mentor and the mentee. When the trip is seen not as a right, but as an education. Not a jolly, but an extension of the classroom. One of the problems I had with the pheasant shoot was that it seemed – and all I have is the semblance – that students were picked purely because they were disengaging from school. Well that's a lovely thought, but what about all the kids who work hard and don't tell the teacher to blow his lesson out his ass? It's an injustice to reward children for being difficult. It's also helluva expensive, not just in terms of the financial implications, but also in terms of the opportunity cost of lessons missed.


The best kind of motivation comes from conditioning students into great habits of self-restraint combined with diligence, fuelled by incentives and disincentives – which can all be done in the classroom. The best reward for a student is praise, sincerely and proportionately given. The best way to build relationships with kids is by being reliable, consistent, fair and expecting the world from them. For all of that, you don't need a farm, a pheasant or a gun.