How to send bad trips packing

13th July 2012 at 01:00
Behaviour expert Tom Bennett reveals his ways of keeping calm when the world becomes his classroom

I went to see The Lion King this week (to hell with your mockery - I've read Camus). As I sat in the royal circle, I realised that the entire upper gallery was composed of about 1,000 pre-teen children out on some enormous school trip. Over the perfume of flatulence and sweets, I marvelled at the moxie of the enterprise: one adult to every 10 kids, dotted across the circle like sentinels, herding bees in neat groups of 10.

What makes behaviour tick on a trip? Trips can be the catalyst that turns worksheets into experience; they can sink the roots of understanding so deep that no axe can fell it. They are also a gale force of anxiety and sand-juggling.

Make a mistake in the classroom and you will likely only experience a surge in monkey business; get it wrong in the field and you may find yourself in The Hangover Part II. But here are some ideas to stop school trips turning from the yellow brick road to the road to hell.

- Plan it like Normandy. I take to paperwork like Prometheus takes to having his liver torn out by an eagle, and you will likely feel the same. However, risk assessments are a must, if only because they should make you stop and think, "Actually, maybe this could result in decapitation." But the point of assessments is not just to feed the dreaded beast of bureaucracy; they are meant to make you think ahead. In behavioural terms, this is half the battle.

- If you're not sure, don't do it. I don't mean zip-lining over Mount Doom; I mean if you are not sure pupils will behave to a certain threshold, don't take them. I like a bit of risk in my life, but a trip is not the place to turn boys into men through a coming-of-age ritual.

- Misbehaviour increases exponentially as numbers grow. I cannot refer you to any algorithm that supports this, only cold, cruel experience. Ten pupils are not 10 times as wilful as one pupil; they are 100 times harder to manage. And, like water, their behaviour runs through any tiny gap that permits it.

- You know that really naughty child in lessons? The one who won't do anything he's told? Yeah, don't bring him. I'm serious. If they won't follow instructions in a classroom, it's unlikely they will follow instructions next to a furnace or a motorway. Leave them behind, and let their guardians howl. And let the child learn that their foolishness has led them to this.

- Bear in mind that you will need extra staff. The usual requirement is one per 10 pupils, plus a spare in case someone has to be taken home. I have had to escort pupils home or back to school for many reasons. If a crisis hits, you don't want to be a person short. Cancelling the trip because one child isn't behaving is not where you want to be. On the other side of things, you don't want to have to decide not to send someone home because you don't have enough staff.

- Communicate your mission values. In other words, make it unmistakably clear what the ground rules of the trip are. It is far easier to tell them how to behave, and then refer them to those rules throughout, than to hoof it and busk the boundaries as you skip along.

- For residential trips, you need to be alert to their whole needs, almost like a parent. A three-day visit to Paris will be ruined if you forget that human beings need to eat, that children don't have the stamina of adults and that bladders are not infinitely elastic.

- Trips are an amazing way to deepen the trust between teacher and pupil; the children see you, perhaps for the first time, as a human and as someone who is looking out for their well-being, not just the dragdragon at the interactive whiteboard banging on about learning skills.

- Trips are exhausting but, when run properly, you reap a priceless harvest of coherent and experiential learning. Resist the temptation to be too pally, to over-reveal in a way that you may regret later on. But letting them see you as a human is no bad thing.

- "Hakuna matata" means, apparently, no worries. Wrong, buddy. You should worry, at least a bit. Don't assume that things will go well; plan for them not going well and you will have a strategy in case they don't.

Tom Bennett's new book, Teacher: mastering the art and craft of teaching, is out now, published by Continuum.

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