Last month I returned home from a wonderful Rome training tour, my 13th time as an experienced group leader. While on the Rome Training Tour, I presented both the pre-tour and on-tour tips at the training tours in Beijing, Paris, and Rome, and I often return home wishing I had mentioned this or that. There are so many group leaders who will be departing very soon on their tours. Here are a few more tips to consider before you leave.
Tip #1: Have a sense of humor when you travel with students.
It is so hard to teach teenagers if you don’t have a sense of humor. A sense of humor has allowed me to have a very long and rewarding career in the classroom. I just know how to pick my battles. Many years ago, I remember returning to my room after doing hall duty during the class changes and noticing that the students were always laughing and one girl in the front was always turning red in the face. I couldn’t figure out what was going on so I decided to go back in the classroom one day before the tardy bell rang. I caught a student in the act of mooning the class, apparently a daily ritual for him. He was mortified and I had to laugh at the absurdity of it all. Instead of writing the poor guy up, I just held this incident over his head for the rest of the school year. What a well-behaved and hard-working student he turned out to be!
It’s even harder to travel with students if you don’t have a sense of humor. You just have to laugh at some of the things they do or say on tour. When my group went to a ceilidh one evening in Scotland, some of the students told the master of ceremonies that our tour director was celebrating his birthday that day. It really wasn’t the guy’s birthday so imagine his face when he was called up to the stage and the entire room serenaded him with an off-key “Happy Birthday.” We all had a good laugh at that.
Tip #2: Make sure your students get enough sleep and keep regular (bowel habits)
We all know that teenagers need more sleep than adults. I function well on less than six hours of sleep per night, but my students can’t do what I do. Traveling on an EF tour does not give anyone the luxury of extra sleep. Despite an 11:30 pm curfew and a 6:30 am wake-up call, my students simply do not get enough sleep during a tour. Even after I do the bed checks, I know they stay up late. The only time my students go straight to bed and sleep is the night of our arrival. My students cannot enjoy the tour if they are sleep-deprived and grumpy. I am always in a cheerful mood when I wake them up in person and I do not leave the room until one of the students gets in the shower. Attendance at breakfast is mandatory and I expect a civil conversation with all of them.
My seat on the tour bus is always in the back and one of my main jobs is to keep them awake while the tour director is speaking and to make certain they are not plugged into their music. I take lots of photos of the sleeping students and I must admit that I have been caught by the students when I’ve fallen asleep. Practicing what you preach can be hard sometimes. I just tell them I have to close my eyes to keep my contacts moisturized. Travel is hard work and getting enough sleep can make all the difference in the world for everyone.
Keeping regular is a topic most students do not want to talk about, but I’m the one they will go to when they need to find a toilet in the middle of a touring day. I still remember being grabbed by a desperate student in London and leaving the walking tour with him to find a toilet. I remind them to drink lots of water and eat foods with fiber, and to give themselves enough time in the morning before we leave the hotel to attend to the call of nature. One related tip I need to mention is to make certain your students are not drinking lots of soft drinks before they get on the bus. Bathroom stops may not come every hour, so just remind them they may have to wait for a time before they get a chance to use the bathroom.
Tip #3: Negotiate with your students about what they want to do on tour.
An EF tour itinerary is based on a fairly strict schedule. That’s the only way to see everything promised by the tour company. Negotiate with your students about what you will try to do for them if they are attentive to what’s on the itinerary. You can offer them an interesting afternoon free-time excursion in exchange for their rapt attention during a museum visit if your schedule permits. After a long tour of the British Museum, I took my students to Covent Garden for some free time. (They certainly acted like they were interested in the guide’s lecture on Assyrian history!)
Think about letting your students have the incentive of some free time during the lunch break. Show them exactly where they can explore. Make sure they know the meeting spot and time, and let them go off in small groups. More likely than not, most will want to hang out together and they may show up at the meeting spot before you do. They can do some shopping during the lunch break or find an Internet café. In exchange for their exemplary behavior and positive attitude, I will try to arrange something fun for the evening, depending on the location of our hotel. My students enjoy opportunities to hear local music, see a movie, go bowling, or take a ghost walk. Work with your tour director for ideas about what to do with your students in the evening.
Tip #4: Let go of some of your expectations as a teacher.
One reason why I never turn down an invitation to make a presentation at a training tour is that I love being around teachers who are on their first overseas trip. They are so excited and appreciative of everything they do and see. You will never hear them say, “Do we have to?” “I’m bored” or even “This sucks.” Teachers are more enraptured by all of the cultural treasures they see. One of my favorite authors is Jane Austen and I remember being close to tears when I paid my respects at her tomb in Winchester Cathedral. My students were not very interested, and by that time on the tour, they were probably burned out after seeing too many cathedrals. One of my students who went to Japan with me complained about seeing too many temples and shrines.
Not everything on a tour has to be completely educational. On a free afternoon in London, I wanted to take my students to the Victoria and Albert Museum, but I gave it a pass and took them to the London Dungeon instead. As we walked to our destination, we were treated to the sight of people in costumes who were running in the London marathon that day. I can still remember trying to keep my students awake during a Shakespearean play at the Barbicon Theater in London. After that miserable evening, I took later groups to the Criterion Theatre to see the Reduced Shakespeare Company. They were still getting their exposure to Shakespeare, but in a more entertaining way for them.
When we were in Dublin, we went to the Abbey Theatre to see a production of “Juno and the Paycock” by Sean O’Casey. I loved it, but most of my students were bored by the play. The highlight of the evening for my daughter, who was 15 at the time, was meeting an Irish actor during intermission who had a role in the television series, “Beverly Hills 90210,” and getting his autograph. She was mobbed afterwards by some Irish girls who wanted to see the actor’s autograph. Popular culture ruled that evening.
My students’ best travel memories come from their experiences with local people. So what if they don’t remember everything they hear from the tour director or local guide. When we stayed in a hotel in Italy, I spoke to the wife of the hotel owner, a very gracious and beautiful woman named Rosemary, who suggested that I let my students go out and meet the local teenagers in the village square located in front of the hotel. My students dressed up in their best clothes and spent a memorable evening trying to bridge the communication gap.
As a teacher, I have high expectations for my students, but I’ve learned to be more laid back on tour. It is my students’ spring break and that means cutting them some slack. I must admit there can be lots of trials and tribulations when you travel with teenagers. You spend months getting them ready for the tour and you can’t help but feel a bit disappointed when they are not as excited as you. Don’t give up hope. They are probably more excited about the tour than you think. They are just too cool to let you know. Here’s my greatest expectation as a teacher on tour. I always tell the new group leaders that as long as I bring my students back home alive, then I’ve had a successful tour. Anything else would be icing on a cake!