Moments of madness

21st February 2014 at 00:00

My school, like all others, has an "activities week". But since my new employer is in deepest, darkest Asia, the line-up of excursions is slightly more exotic than I am used to, taking in Thailand's temple-tastic Chiang Mai and Vietnam's tribal hill station of Sapa.

This year, I am off to a national park with 150 students for a week of camping, white-water rafting and zip-lining - in 36degC heat. As different as this trip may sound, it still throws up a dilemma that will be familiar to teachers everywhere: should I get involved or not?

On the first day, the tour leader says that teachers are welcome to have a go, but we nervously sit out the first few activities, milling around like awkward sentinels while the children go wild. The students try several times to drag us into the action, but no one can be persuaded.

I think it's a shame, this increasing reticence among teachers to take part. Not least because, in my experience, students love few things more than when we cast off our sensible hats and welcome whatever ridicule may land on our exposed bald patches.

But the constant-supervision-and-no-fun approach soon becomes mind-numbingly boring and, as early as Day 2, a few of us crack. Unnoticed by participants in a race of home-made rafts, we slide stealthily into the lake. We swim silently under the rafts and launch them upwards, spilling their various occupants. We spin the winning rafts in circles and, for good measure, we clamber aboard to steal the vessels' flags.

Wonderful chaos ensues. The children screech delightedly at their assailants, no one remembers to finish the race and half the capsized rafts need to be rescued. But as we return to shore, the other staff greet us with stony faces. Soon our ears are burning with remarks about health and safety and appropriate boundaries.

Next up is a scavenger hunt. Predictably, my group becomes hopelessly lost and we miss an important rendezvous. Worse, the light is fading. I ham the situation up to students by claiming that my phone has died, severing all contact with civilisation. They look as if they've just heard Santa Claus in the chimney. I tell them that we should be prepared to fashion a makeshift campsite and urge them to do a rations check. Rapturous planning follows.

Here I am again, actively involved with the students, having fun on their activities week. I can't help but think that this is an important lesson: there's more than one side to all figures of authority and even teachers can have fun.

Our merriment is rudely interrupted when my phone rings; a slightly concerned team leader is on the line. A splinter group has arrived at base camp alone, along with everyone else, and she wants to know where the hell I am. Suddenly, so do I...

With a jolt, I am back to my adult self. Not any old adult though - I'm that zealous incarnation known as Accountable Teacher. But for the rest of the week, the children beg for a repeat of the raft escapade, and I can't promise that temptation didn't get the better of me.

Nelson Thornberry is a pseudonym. He teaches at an international school in Asia.

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