I was in my first year of teaching when I announced: "There's this great show in London and I want to take my 18-year-old students. How can I make that happen?"
I expected derision from the mob of miserable veterans in the corner, but I was shocked to also see several of my more down-to-earth colleagues snort into their personalised mugs - these teachers were the committed and often inspirational yardsticks for my own teaching practice.
I was worried. What could possibly be so troublesome about arranging a school trip? Quite a lot, apparently. Here are some of the challenges I faced.
What students and parents do not realise is that the paperwork for a school trip does not begin and end with a consent form - multiple sheets need to be signed and countersigned by faceless head honchos in distant offices. Chief among them is the burgeoning risk assessment. We are very close to having to risk-assess the act of breathing.
The result of all these forms for my spontaneous trip was that, because I was crossing county lines, my paperwork would take three weeks to clear, which took me to a week after the show finished. Undeterred, I arranged for the class to watch a recording of the show in the National Archives DVD room.
We wanted to get a train, but taxis to the station were out as they would blow the budget, and the school minibus was booked for a badminton match. There were not enough parents of the stay-at-home variety to drop students off, either. So, at a loss, I had to upgrade my insurance at my own expense and ferry students to the station.
When it comes to trips, you will often become the taxi.
The main event
If you manage to arrive on time, at the right production, on the right day and with all students present, well done. It is an almost impossible feat. You will then have tickets to find, behaviour to monitor and multiple students to keep track of. It's the craziest hazard-awareness test you could ever take.
My first foray was textbook disaster: we turned up late, nearly lost two students on the London Underground and were ejected from the building before the end of the film because the place was closing.
The same challenges face you on the return journey. Arriving back at school in darkness - often having rung parents to notify them of a delay - you then face an awkward wait to see which parent forgets to pick their little cherub up. You inevitably have to play taxi to a sobbingangryresigned student if you want to make it home before midnight.
So, why bother? What's the point of dragging yourself and your students through the minefield of a school trip?
Well, my story is not complete. Before we caught the train home, our bedraggled crew headed to a restaurant. I ordered everyone a pint and we had the kind of "hopes and fears" chat that has been squashed out of classrooms by the tyranny of the curriculum: the "will I be in debt forever?" discussion; the "can we make it work long distance?" conversation.
A new environment and the camaraderie of travel are two of the few remaining ways of facilitating these types of chats, and this counts for students of any age. Shift the context and you change a relationship for the better.
But this requires the academic and experiential side of the trip to be successful enough for someone to let you do it again, of course. Thankfully, although you can't iron out all the issues, 10 years on from that first trip I think I have cracked a recipe that helps to avoid or at least deal with most disasters.
Plan far in advance
Spontaneity is an archaic word in schools today. Plan your trip as if it is the exodus of the Israelites.
Prioritise the trip
Your lesson planning may slide, your marking may gather dust, but if you don't make any concessions your trip will never happen.
Have a contingency plan
If things can go wrong, they will. Students may get lost or behave so badly that you wish they would. You may miss the show altogether, or some medical crisis may crop up regarding undeclared peanut allergies. You need to know who to call and what to do if it does.
Keep your sense of humour
Remember that a school outing is not a parade of the Queen's Guard. A member of the public may get riled at some point, but that is simply the collateral damage of working with children and teenagers - you should not get too worked up about it. Try to enjoy yourself, come what may (within reason, of course).
Realise the point
Most of all, remember that the lowly school trip is where students come face to face with the life for which school is only a rehearsal. And here more than anywhere else can teachers make the leap from syllabus-delivery mechanisms to human beings. Make the most of it.
Nelson Thornberry is a pseudonym. He teaches in an international school in Asia
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