Over the years, as well as getting my own kids out, enjoying the great outdoors, I’ve been fortunate enough to lead and support outdoor expeditions involving other people’s kids. These have ranged from single day hikes, to one or two night camps, to a yearly week away skiing, to a whole month in Tanzania, Africa. But, what’s it like and what are the major differences between looking after your own kids, and helping them to seek new adventures and experiences, and trying to help other people’s children achieve the same?
If you’re the parent of a child who has ever been away on a school trip, then you’ve almost certainly bemoaned its lack of affordability. I’m with you; some of them are downright expensive! It’s also likely that, as they get older, the frequency of them increases too, putting further pressure on tight family budgets. Add to this the gear, clothing and spending money they need/want and, suddenly, trips run by schools, youth organisations and sports clubs are enough to make you think that there is a recession confined solely to your household.
However, these trips and outdoor expeditions offer kids the opportunity to experience activities and situations that they might not ordinarily. Furthermore, they enable them to have these experiences and learning opportunities alongside their peers, independent from our parental meddling and smothering (what, just me?), which is crucial for their social development and for…well, having a damn good laugh at the same time. I have literally witnessed kids begin an expedition or trip as insular, unassuming individuals, who struggle to confidently express themselves in larger groups, but return home, after picking up new skills and knowledge, noticeably more confident.
But what of the staff who escort and lead your kids on these adventures? Why do they do it and what’s in for them?
Let’s be clear, I involve myself in extra-curricular activities because I choose to and, on the whole, I enjoy it. As an English teacher there has never been any expectation that I’d lead the Duke of Edinburgh programme, coach a football team, accompany ski trips or arrange African adventures. It is simply left up to the goodwill of individual staff to get involved in any activity that they have any expertise or passion for.
Nor do we get paid extra for this service. No overtime pay (oh, imagine!), no time off in lieu, very often very little thanks even! Then there’s the paperwork: the planning and proposals that have to be submitted, which are to somehow account for every second away and every inch of ground covered; the time spent getting quotes from various travel, transport and activity companies, who then harass you by email and phone begging for your business; the risk assessments that we live our lives by, all the time knowing one accident could wind us up in court and out of a career we’ve worked so hard for; the medication lists, storage and responsibility for every ailment known to man. All of this before we’ve even departed school, waving goodbye to a gaggle of weepy mums and dads. And all of this on top of my already hefty English teaching workload – did I mention for no extra pay?
Moreover, as pressure continues to build on academic attainment, and schools continue to have their funding cut, this is now all invariably done either at weekends or during our holidays – time I should probably choose to spend with my wife and my own kids. It really is no wonder a lot of staff are pulling back and schools are having to either cutback on outdoor activities or increasingly tender them out to the lowest bidding external company, which often results in a significant price increase for parents, fewer kids able to take part and, overall, far less impact.
So, just as parents persist in somehow finding that extra money to provide their kids with these opportunities, teachers persist in organising them. There is perhaps not a better example of a home-school partnership than the school trip.
So away from the sheer hassle of getting the trip or outdoor expedition from cerebral conception to departure, what it is actually like being away with other people’s kids? Those of you who have gone on family holidays or weekends away with family members or friends have almost definitely had a whinge about the attitude or behaviour of one of the other kids on the trip. I don’t care if it’s your favourite niece or your best friend’s kids, sometimes they just wind us up, admit it! It’s hard, after all we all have our own regimes and ways of doing things that to us are ‘correct’. However, very few of you will go away for any length of time with up to 90 kids, each with their own quirks and smells. 90 kids…just dwell on that for a moment.
Those people who know me personally will know I have pretty low tolerance levels (I prefer to think of them as high standards). That’s not to say I’m mean, far from it. I still remember taking off my jacket and gloves one afternoon on the slopes when we were away skiing in Italy to give to one of our year 8 girls who had fallen a few times and become absolutely wet through and cold. I ended up bloody freezing, but I’d like to think that someone would do the same for one of my kids in similar circumstances.
That said; I can also give you an infinite number of examples where kids on trips have driven me bonkers. I’ll tell you; sometimes it can be a challenge just to stop yourself from asking ‘why are you so weird?’ It all starts, of course, on the coach journey. Somehow, the most annoying child on the trip (the one with all of the odd questions, statements, musings and smells) wants to sit near Mr Intolerance here. Seriously, I’m like one of those outdoor electric fly and bug zappers: every daft moth and his mate is attracted to me on school trips.
Of course, to get themselves through journeys, that in some cases may last more than 24 hours, they need to rely heavily on a high sugar diet of Haribos and Monster Energy drinks. This usually results in a delightful combination of accelerated speech of the high pitched variety, hands that cannot keep still, and urine that resembles some sort of obscure nuclear waste that they now take delight in describing for everybody. Then they’ll complain about the choice of DVD or try, for a matter of seconds, to listen to their own ridiculous taste in music without headphones, which only results in me telling them that music of that nature is usually found blasting out of a 1996 Citroen Saxo with a big bore exhaust, sub-woofers where the boot should be and being driven recklessly by someone with no future!
You’d be forgiven for thinking arriving at your destination would offer some respite. You’d be wrong. Having a toddler and a baby, I’m used to broken sleep and early wake ups, which is a good job because kids on any sort of residential away from their parents somehow revert to their toddler form. Honestly, no matter how well behaved your child is, they’re like wild toddlers for the first couple of nights away from home. Like Han Solo, the highly skilled smuggler, they find evermore elaborate ways of maintaining their sugar high. This in solid form is bad enough, but why oh why do they think consuming 2L of Coke before bed is going to end with anything but wide eyes, inane chatter and a wet bed?
So, by the time you’ve done room checks to limit the contraband; chucked the 30+ plus people out of a room designed for four; watched them tidy up (because they’ve seemingly decided to live the feral lifestyle and are incapable of doing it without being monitored); put lights out, and then waited at the end of the each corridor long enough to hear the first brave footsteps creep out of bed, open the door and attempt to go back to the ‘party room’, only to be greeted by your disgruntled face and a few stern words, you haven’t got long until you’ve got to knock them up again because these mollycoddled little treasures can’t operate an alarm clock!
It’s even worse when you’re away camping with them. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve shouted ‘tents aren’t made of bricks…’ after being kept awake by relationship issues, spot treatments or the latest Justin Bieber gossip. In the morning you then come across the child who has had all of two hours kip, has never in their life made even a cup of tea for themselves, and who you’re now nervously handing highly flammable liquid to in order for them to light a Trangia stove and cook themselves breakfast.
The funny thing is; this is all of the regular stuff. I’ve literally been handed base layer pants full to the brim with diarrhoea, at an altitude of nearly 5000 metres, in temperatures hovering around -18, on the upper slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro after one of the teenagers in our group succumb to African belly and was inconsolable, not knowing what to do or how to clean it. This was a lad almost as big as me who just needed a shoulder to cry on and someone to tell him ‘you can throw those away bud’.
But the funny thing is, as each trip progresses and you get to know these kids away from the formalities of the classroom environment, the more you warm to them. At the same time something even more remarkable happens: they begin to realise that teachers are human. They see your tattoos and your comical early morning hair. They appreciate the time that you spend talking to them when they’re homesick and, recognising that you too may be a little homesick yourself after leaving your first born at just 12 weeks old to take them skiing for a week, they look at you and choose not to interrupt your precious phone call home. They see you struggling with something and they begin to offer you help.
The arrival back at home is always a bit of a whirlwind. We’re as excited to see our wives, husbands and kids as they are their parents and vice versa. We all help to unload the coach and the odd parent comes over, breaking away from their happy reunion, to thank us. Most parents don’t though. Whether it’s the excitement of sharing in the stories of their child’s successes and failures away from home, or whether it’s that they just don’t realise what you’ve gone through to make those memories a reality, most just drift away. Knowing it as I do from the other side, I’ll always be sure to thank anyone who has the guts and patience to put up with my two for any length of time.
The final reason that we give up our time and energy for trips and outdoor expeditions such as these is that the personal relationships you build with the students while you’re away last forever. I still remember my skinny 14 year old self sneakily getting hold of my own contraband and getting rather drunk on a school watersports trip to Spain. I also remember vividly the two teachers who helped me that night and cared for me as one of their own. And yes, I also remember the well-deserved bollocking I got the next morning and how they grounded me the next day from all activities. But it didn’t matter. I realised, in that moment, that they had given me care and opportunities that extended far beyond their classroom roles. I had brilliant relationships with those two teachers from that day on. I just hope that the kids that we take away with us continue to recognise this too.