Even after 22 years as a modern languages teacher, those first few moments of a school exchange still have the same impact for me. There is nothing quite like the excitement and apprehension as the coach goes quiet, the lights of the destination town come into view and the pupils begin to wonder what lies ahead in the homes of their host families.
So I was dismayed when I read in TES last month that exchange visits are now run by just 39 per cent of schools ("Zut alors! Is the exchange trip over?", 21 November). I strongly believe in the linguistic and cultural value of exchanges. And despite students' (and teachers') fears, I can honestly say that the exchange partners get on fantastically well 99 per cent of the time and the tears of apprehension turn to tears of sadness when we have to drag them away from their newfound friends at the end of the trip.
For teachers, the high points can be profound. I felt a particularly strong sense of "this is what it's all about" when I watched one of my sixth-form students - on his fifth consecutive French exchange - interpret for the mayor of Lisieux as we were formally welcomed in a ceremony at the town hall. Another highlight was when we visited the American war cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer; I was so proud of the mature reaction and behaviour of my charges.
Just as gratifying are the long-term friendships forged and pupils' decisions to study a language at A-level after an inspirational trip. In fact, every "thank you" from a child, parent and teacher makes the huge amount of organisation worthwhile.
Admittedly it is a lot of work, but here's how to negotiate it.
Patience is paramount
The first task is to decide on the dates of each visit. It's a difficult job. You have to ensure that pupils who study more than one language can participate in more than one exchange. You also have to work around the other school trips affecting that year group. Then there is the logistical struggle of timing the visit to coincide with your school holiday but the host school's term-time, and vice versa. My advice is simply to have patience and ensure that you communicate clearly at all times. Remember that your peers in the host school have to deal with the same demands as you.
Do your research on pairings
Get pupils to fill out a questionnaire to facilitate the pairing process. The challenges are numerous:
- There is always a huge disparity between the numbers of male and female participants from each school. So start with the pupils who are not happy to be paired with someone of the opposite sex.
- Try to match up smoking or smoking-tolerant households.
- Animal allergies are always problematic, so make sure that affected individuals are placed in pet-free environments.
- Do your best to match similar interests and hobbies. You need to provide the best possible conditions for success.
Trying to balance all these factors can be a real headache. Booking coaches and excursions, ordering currency, writing risk assessments and follow-up letters and all the other time-consuming tasks necessary to organise any trip pale into insignificance when compared with the colossal jigsaw of matching up 40 pairs of pupils. A spreadsheet can sometimes be helpful and it is worth getting your school administration team on board as they will possess useful skills.
Be prepared for anything
Unfortunately, organising the exchange is not the end of the work because it is quite remarkable what can happen when the trip is under way. I have dealt with homesickness, broken limbs, numerous kinds of illness, food poisoning, appendicitis, and mass sea sickness on a particularly stormy ferry crossing. I even had to have someone repatriated in a medical emergency.
Don't let problems deter you
Things can get stressful. At the end of my first German exchange trip to Werther, I had safely got the entire group to the departure lounge at Hanover airport in plenty of time for the flight home. There was a glass-fronted lift between two floors and one of our pupils, Andrew, was going up and down in it. Not a problem, of course - until he decided to see what would happen if he jumped as high as he could between the floors. The lift stopped, Andrew was stuck and then our flight was called. Without an engineer in sight, it looked as though I would have to send my colleagues home with the rest of the group. I was livid.
Then, just as the flight was closing, Andrew noticed a button above his head. With nothing to lose, he pressed it and the lift started to move. I have no recollection of what I said to him (and it is probably best forgotten) but we made our flight with seconds to spare. The moral of this story is that even when things go (very) wrong, you have to see the funny side.
Watch your words
One last piece of advice: never tell a colleague who is about to set off on an exchange to "enjoy their holiday". You may find that the response is less than polite.
Simon Ravenhall is head of modern languages at Yarm School in Stockton-on-Tees
Use this detailed checklist to plan your exchange trip.
Get your pupils ready for a French exchange by revising these key phrases.
Ensure that learning continues after the exchange with advice from Teachers TV.