People often say to me: “I couldn’t do your job.” It usually turns out that this is not as flattering as it sounds; they’re not referring to any high-order skills in child development or pedagogy, they mean they don’t have the patience to work with other people’s kids. Which I always find surprising, because that’s the best bit. Children are bright, sparky, funny, insightful, full of surprises and utterly rewarding. And, like grandparents, we also have the luxury of returning them at the end of the day.
But if you are of the view that being a teacher is beyond what could reasonably be expected of a rational adult, then the school residential trip would really not be for you. This is hard-core teaching; twenty-four hour, constant supervision of children who are at the very height of their capacity for excitement, anxiety and, in some cases, homesickness. Like all teaching it is exhausting and fulfilling in equal measure, only much, much more so. From the moment you board the coach (counting the children on and checking again once they are all sat down, seat belts on, anyone who might be travel sick near the front, bucket ready), you are hyper aware of every detail of their behaviour and the environments they are entering and the potential for triumph and disaster in every single minute of the day.
The level of excitement on that first day is beyond anything you ever see in school. For many of those children it will be the first night of their young lives away from home without at least one of their parents or grandparents and it shows in some of their eyes, but most (sorry to break this if you had formed a picture of them missing you), most are fixated on the night ahead; what was going to happen when the lights go out, and particularly the prospect of midnight feasts and other subterfuge. No matter how many times you tell them this is not going to happen, there will remain a belief in the possibility which will only be extinguished by the very presence of a teacher in the doorway imposing silence until everyone is asleep. From the teacher’s point of view this isn’t quite as miserable as it sounds, depending on whether you have somewhere comfortable to sit, (how often does any of us get the chance to just sit quietly?) but even this enforced period of reflection and meditation can wear a bit thin after half an hour or so. Once you are sure everyone is asleep, the next challenge is to get out of the room without waking them all up again. Most of these places tend to be large, ageing houses with creaking floorboards and doors and it’s hard to move without creating a noise of exactly the sort that might convince the little minds that they really are in an episode of Scooby Doo.
One of the earliest instructions the children will have been given is what time they are allowed to get up. No one out of their room before 7.30; if you wake up before that, lie quietly so others can continue sleeping. Needless to say this does not always happen; and you often hear the first footsteps in the rooms and along the corridors by 6am. The sense of despair which settles over you when this happens, when you realise that there is absolutely no prospect of you going back to sleep yourself, is almost enough to make you agree with the contention at the top of the page. But reality soon sets in and the very different character of the second day quickly emerges. Gone is the slightly frenzied air of day one to be replaced by heavy eyelids and a subdued mood which quietens even further as the day goes on. It is not unusual for children to nod off on day two; at a previous school I found a lad fast asleep on a kitchen chair in the Reedcutter’s Cottage at How Hill; and by the time the second bedtime comes around, few put up much resistance. And they all get what they need most; a good night’s sleep.
So by the time we board the coach for the trip back home, everyone is happy again and the many benefits of these trips become apparent. The children will all have learned a huge amount, be it science or geography, or how to cook and clean, or how it feels to tackle a climbing wall or a zip wire. And they will have developed new bonds, with their classmates and with their teachers, and developed their self-confidence, their independence and their maturity. The effects will last throughout their time at the school together; and that is why it is a privilege for us to take these trips.
For the teachers they can be hard; many of us have children of our own at home and, as well as missing our families, we burden our spouses or partners with all the childcare for a couple of days while we are away. And as the years roll on it becomes harder to cope on a few hours’ sleep and takes a few more days to recover. But with the benefit of a weekend to catch up (and usually takes all of that) we are usually just about ready to say that we’ll be ready to do it all again next year.