I’m two days back from a school trip, sunburnt, covered in insect bites, and I’m so tired that getting through a day is like negotiating my way over a bouncy castle in high heels.
A bit like a secret club, the 20 of us on the trip – students and staff – exchange giggles and memories and catchphrases. Colleagues and other students have been regaled with tales of boundary-breaking and new bonds and floppy pancakes.
I’m not going to write about my own students or my own school – I never do. So I thought I’d reflect more generally on the insanity and sheer preciousness of these 24/7 tests of endurance that I’ve felt compelled to come back to again and again and again.
School trips: 'A smell of cheese and dog'
You don’t notice the smell of the coach until you stop for a break and get back on again. Then it hits: a fuggy wall of cheese and something distinctly canine. As you walk up the coach chanting “Seatbelts!” for what must be the thousandth time this week, your feet crunch on sand that’s fallen out of clothing (whose idea was it to make the last stop the beach?) and you tread on something vaguely moist and sticky, the provenance of which you’d rather not consider.
There’s something otherwordly about this bubble you find yourself in – the world and its concerns seem distant and unreachable. You’ve been seated for hours on this coach, and yet your senses are sharp, as they have been for the past five days (even during the few precious hours of sleep you’ve snatched), with the knowledge that these children’s safety and happiness are the sole responsibility of you and your colleagues. The phrase “in loco parentis” has never felt so pertinent.
In fact, you’ve lost count of the number of times you’ve been called “Mum” this week. The parallels with parenthood have been uncanny at times, from temperature-checking to “Can you open this?” to offering confidential comfort over dark and secret fears in the middle of the night.
This little microcosm is more of a distillation of what teaching is really about than anything I’ve experienced in the classroom. You’re a nurse, a confidante, a figure of fun, a map-reader and a finder of lost objects. The sheer precious privilege of being with children as they experience things for the first time has no match.
From the halcyon days of the early 2000s, when there seemed to be a pot of money for every area of need (I remember one trip for which I’m not sure a single student paid a penny), I’ve been able to take children who’ve never left London to the beaches of the south of France, the skies of Normandy, the treacherous roads of Naples and the historical monuments of Berlin.
I’ve watched a child who shared a two-bedroom flat with his mother and seven siblings splash for the very first time in the sea with such squeals of joyful delight that they’ll stay with me forever. I’ve been the person to whom a child whispered that they thought they might be gay for the first time. I’ve followed a little boy who’d written “I wish my mother hadn’t left me” on the wishing tree in Berlin, and overheard girls comparing the relative virtues of their respective social workers. I’ve seen children wrap their mouths around the French language and, like magic, find themselves tasting authentic croissant for the first time. And I’ve stood quietly by while they absorbed the absence of birdsong at a concentration camp and truly felt their place in history.
It’s no coincidence that most of the students I’ve managed to track through the years that have passed since these trips are the ones who accompanied me year after year. Many are now approaching their mid-30s; others are still negotiating the tricky path to adulthood.
One told me that the trips had “provided a blueprint” for his future travels. A group of them have travelled, year after year, more widely that I could ever hope to have done myself. One, who used his best alliteration to tell me exactly what he’d like to do with French, is now a suave and successful businessman based in Paris. Another travels the world as a TV presenter. The one whose bottom it certainly was at the window facing the girls from the school opposite is making a stable life for himself on the railways after a rocky few years. This weekend, I had news of a young man who had an awful time persuading his family that his homosexuality didn’t require a “cure”. He got engaged to his boyfriend as we watched the remnants of the Pride festival leave Paris.
“You are stronger than you know – you have greater potential than you imagine,” I wanted to shout to my students, but I was distracted by a chorus of The Wheels on the Bus from the teenagers at the back, whose mobiles had all run out of battery and who seemed to have rediscovered what it was to be children.
It wasn’t all roses. I learned the hard way that a quiet room doesn’t mean a sleeping room, as my wiser colleague entered the girls’ room to open the wardrobe, out of which spilled more boys than I could have imagined might have fitted. We learned quickly, so were there to intercept the following year. The boys plotting their escape from a tent hadn’t quite figured that sound travels through canvas. The story of the bottle of pee left outside the girls’ room is one I will never fully fathom, but will go down in legend, and will come out at a wedding speech or two, if I have my way.
There are sadder stories, too. The boy who I’ll always remember riding the waves on the banana boat died of leukaemia in his early 20s. A disastrous decision led to a charge of murder for another – he’ll be my age by the time he is free again. On our school trip, he was the tiny child who made it back to the coach 20 minutes late, giving us all heart palpitations in the days before mobile phones.
The planning of a school trip is a tedious business. The finances, the risk assessments, the negotiation of time away from the classroom… But, if you’re thinking of it – if it’s even crossed your mind – I say: do it. No Brexit, no funding cuts must ever be allowed to take these special experiences away, and I consider myself supremely lucky to have helped make new imprints on these children’s lives.
Dr Emma Kell is a secondary teacher in north-east London and author of How to Survive in Teaching