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20 February 2023

The Monday Briefing: Leaving Home Ain't Easy

The Monday Briefing: Leaving Home Aint Easy

'It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out of your door. You step into the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there is no telling where you might be swept off to.'

Bilbo Baggins, speaking to Frodo, from The Fellowship of the Ring by JRR Tolkien

Since the start of my teaching career, I’ve always valued the educational benefits of school trips and excursions. Such a notion has only become more fully embedded the more I’ve experienced these opportunities. I’ve always strived to make them part of my contribution to any school community I’ve been part of. Not only does a trip strengthen the bonds between teacher and student, but one gets to see those under your care in a completely different aspect. 

I recall very fondly, during my first teaching role at The Radcliffe School in Milton Keynes, accompanying students on the final part of their Duke of Edinburgh’s Award expedition in Wales. It was gruelling for the students: planning their routes meticulously; walking miles day after day; organising their camps when exhausted after the hikes. But it was rewarding beyond measure. Seeing some of the young men and women whom I taught History at A Level taking their final steps to complete the challenge they had spent a long time planning brought great joy, of course to themselves, but also to their fellow expedition teams and the teachers accompanying the excursion. I also recall an incredibly engaging joint English and Humanities visit to the First World War battlefields in France and Belgium, a visit which brought History and poetry to life for the students who came. But it went beyond simply academic learning. They saw new environments and new countries, and with that they grew.

My second school, Waddesdon, was no different in helping students to develop beyond the classroom. The stand out trip which I was extremely fortunate to be a part of was a World Challenge expedition to Malaysia and Borneo, where I was part of a two-teacher team which led a 17 strong student group. We explored caves and rain forests in Borneo, were feasted on by the leeches or mosquitos who tracked our progress, spent an unforgettable day in a school for disadvantaged children in Kuala Lumpur and rode a sleeper train the length of Malaysia following an incredible few days on the Perhentian Islands as part of the rest and relaxation phase of our trip. I had been in a unique position on this trip, having departed the school the summer before. But the students were keen for me to go, and, knowing what I did about the benefits of trips, I was keen not to miss out. One could see, whilst living it all with the students, just how ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ the experience was. They were making memories which would remain present for a very long time - a sense of accomplishment being an overriding one.

Besides my participation on the Battlefields trip to Ypres with the students at the Highcrest Academy, my third school again offered a huge scope for learning through travel. Being partnered with a wonderful school in India through the British Council’s Connecting Classrooms initiative, I was incredibly fortunate to visit Chennai, delivering an assembly as well as some teaching to the children there, and then hosting a special half term project for a small delegation of visitors - teachers and students - to investigate the legacy of the 2012 London Olympics. Making friends and forging links across borders is such an exciting part of life. I still have extremely fond memories of being part of this relationship - far more vivid recollections than the day to day of classroom direction. The relationship itself had been ongoing for several years, through teachers, students and governors at the school, and had made a firmly embedded legacy - through shared experiences and valuable collaboration.

Finally, at Ealing, I found that I had joined an establishment where such a dedication to travel had not been invested in. I took swift action to remedy such a state of affairs - and there were numerous opportunities to do so. A Level historians benefited hugely from a day-trip to Auschwitz through the Holocaust Educational Trust towards the end of my first year in post. I, myself, learned a huge amount from a week spent in Jerusalem with a wonderful group of teachers as part of the annual training course at Yad Vashem. It was at points moving, and always absorbing. Again, making some great links with other professionals on the trip brought many positives. Having whetted my appetite on the previous expedition to Borneo, I thought it only right to see if the EIC students were up for a similar challenge. In fact, a small group were enticed by an even greater one - a month-long expedition in China. We walked the Great Wall, were dazzled by the Terracotta Warriors, as well as the incredible food, climbed the awe-inspiring Mount Siguniang and cycled through the Karst landscapes of Guizhou. That the trip was organised so incredibly well by the STC, who were incredibly flawless in their assistance throughout, made it an incredible experience. I’ve been able to catch up with several of the group through our Alumni chats series. They still look back on their time in the Far East with exultation. It has truly left a strongly defined overwhelmingly positive mark on their lives.

Another trip which I have been delighted to be involved in came very much by chance. Emailed out of the blue by an undergraduate student at MIT in Boston to send over a delegation for a Model UN Conference, I first considered it an intriguing proposition. Our first visit in 2018 was eye-opening for the three students who attended, but, universally, they revelled in the opportunity to forge new links with their American hosts and debate valid and engaging topics whilst learning about diplomacy. 

It was a huge privilege of mine to accompany our 2023 delegation to Massachusetts this time around. Five superb students made it an easy trip to supervise, and one which taught me a great deal about the cohort. They had already proved their debating skills in the inaugural Bellevue Education debating competition. Now they showed how quickly they could learn the format of Model UN, how well they could forge friendships and alliances to work towards reaching resolutions. It also gave them a huge sense of responsibility. Though they did not say so at the time, I’m sure they all very much enjoyed wearing formal business dress and visiting the campuses of both Harvard and MIT, with a view to their university studies. They also, clearly, enjoyed making new friends. As the only UK delegation, our students were somewhat of a novelty to the natives who were positively overwhelmed by our presence. All of our students performed with dignity and passion - and all gave an incredibly strong account of themselves (including one who was taking part online - which meant they were debating until 2am UK time some evenings).

It was a huge boon for one of our students, Aavani, to win an award for best Position Paper (a prepared research task setting out the views and goals of the country she represented - Latvia) in the UNHRC committee. She set out an incredibly perceptive and detailed argument surrounding the exploitation of prisoners and uncompensated labour. She may have won an award, but the students themselves were all winners. One of those students sent me an email the day after the trip, apparently still buzzing at having attended:

‘Thank you so much for organising the trip to Boston - it was the best school trip I’ve ever had and so interesting to learn something new. It was a great experience and I hope we can do something like this again next year’

I was contemplating the reasons behind the positives of school trips over the past week, having had some time to reflect during half term. I would track my own development as someone who would consider themselves as a thoughtful contributor to a positive global community as coinciding with when my experiences of travel became more profound. In my younger years, family holidays were risk free - with minimal exposure to new languages, cultures or cuisines. From around 2011, when I visited India for a month with my now wife, and then having the good fortune to have subsequent opportunities through the schools I’ve worked in, I have been and always will be a huge advocate for learning through travel. 

When students are placed in situations outside their comfort zone, and given the time and space to reason solutions for themselves, the personal growth is not only long lasting, but is also rather special.

There is a great deal of truth in the sentiment that ‘adventures are the best way to learn’ - one only needs to consider the unique experience of Frodo after hearing Bilbo’s advice. Life outside of the shire made him who he was - and life outside of the school performs a similar role for students.

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