The Top 5 scariest places in the world to take students (that I have taken students to)

So, the risk assessments are completed, checked, double-checked, copied, distributed and filed.
Staff are briefed, students are brimming with energy and enthusiasm and the coach driver has drawn himself to his full (not altogether situation-dominating) height and indicated the location of the fire extinguisher and chemical hazard box (‘just in case we have any pukers on board’).
It is trip time. The opportunity to break out from within the confines of the classroom and unleash the as yet untapped mayhem-creating power of Year 9 on an unsuspecting, sleepy world.
For the intrepid MFL teacher, this means crossing international borders too. All too often, a Year 9 trip down to the local park can make you feel like you have been tasked with herding feral felines. So imagine, if you would, what crosses the mind of the individual given responsibility for safely transporting, caring for and simultaneously educating and enthusing students whilst also being abroad?
It’s a tough call and it is certainly not without its risks.
So, after 21 years of participating in and leading trips in the UK and to France, Spain, Germany and Ghana, here (in my opinion) is my choice of the top 5 scariest places to take students.
5 – Theme Parks (PortAventura, Disneyland Paris, Thorpe Park)
In this case it is the potential for disaster which is the key factor. At no other time would you be totally satisfied to let your students put themselves into machines which then hurtle them around at high speed and at nigh impossible angles, but in the name of ‘fun’, break-neck velocity and the accompanying thrills and spills are perfectly permissible.
4 – Large Shopping Centres (Cite Europe)
It’s always a relief to welcome students back to the coach after a visit to one of these monsters. Yes, you’ve said repeatedly where and when to meet and which of the 14 different exits they need to use to get back to you, but sometimes it seems like the mandatory surgical implantation of a satelite-tracking device into each student is the only preventative measure worth taking.
3- City centres (Oxford St, Paris, Barcelona)
This is the time when you feel it really would be a good idea to chain all students and staff together and shuffle along together and thereby ensure you lose none of your number. Shopping involves many risks. Students are distracted and money plays a key part. Money and distraction are the ingredients for late arrivals and also for the loss of the 20 Euros that was destined to buy a ‘geniune solid gold’ 10-inch Eiffel Tower (despite the fact that we are visiting Boulogne at the time)
2 – Koforidua Market, Ghana. Not entirely prepared for this one, we entered in small groups with students and discovered a rabbit warren of busy, interconnected, narrow, dark passage ways with various hidden stalls shrouded in smoke and a range of unrecognisable smells assaulting the senses. Labyrinthine in layout, I felt I needed to buy a roll of silver thread which I could caefully unravel as we walked so that I could safely retrace our steps back to the entrance. One of my students was asked to hold a baby of a passer-by. I think he was only several short steps away from legal adoption of the infant, although he thankfully did not realise this at the time.
1 – Student rooms
This is the Pandora’s Box of any school trip, the contents of which are often unimaginable. The stench of a room full of boys on the fifth day of occupancy with overflowing bags of wet socks and dirty pants, (or more often dirty socks and wet pants) is only to be braved by those who have undertaken the necessary Special Forces training.
Open the door to a student room, place students in it, sit back and then be on your utmost guard against all manner of unfortunate events. During my time I have known (amongst other occurrences) a play fight with glass bottles (result – hospital visit), severe asthma attacks due to Lynx deodorant (result – hospital stay), turning a Lynx deodorant into a flamethrower (result – a short leash for the rest of the trip and a ban on Lynx) and assorted sickness, breakages and misguided shenanigans. It is a dangerous place and totally deserving of its place at number 1.
So, students are likely to scale the heights of Snowdon itself with little more than a few scratches to show for it, ford wild torrents on wildest Dartmoor in search of data for their river study or mingle with thousands in some of the busiest cities of the world, but put them in a dorm with a can of body spray for company and you really only have got yourself to blame.


When the data fades: why I teach

Yesterday was a first.

I went to the wedding of a former student. Someone who had been in my tutor group for the full five years of secondary school (2001-06). I can still remember the day that she turned up on Taster Day back in July 2001 in a primary school uniform dominated by browns and yellows. As she took her vows yesterday, I kept recalling those images of her as a member of our school community. It was a special (yes, even proud) moment for me, because again, it shows that teaching is about far more than just promoting and encouraging academic performance. It is about making connections, forming positive relationships and sharing a large part of a young person’s life at a vital time in their development, to the point where, several years later as their former teacher, you feel totally at ease sharing in the biggest day of their life.

Just stop and think about it for a second. If you teach the same student for 5 years at secondary school, at a rate of 2 hours per week, then that works out at (approximately, taking account of INSET days, Bank Holidays …. but hey, let’s not get too atomistic about this) 75 hours per year, or 375 hours over the full secondary school career. That’s more time than I will spend in the same room with most of my family over the same period of time.

If all we ever cover together is the conjugation of the verb ‘avoir’ (amongst other grammatical and linguistic concepts, naturally), then there is something seriously wrong.

This year I am teaching some Year 8 Life Studies (RE, Citizenship, PSHE). I taught my first lesson this week and found (not unsurprisingly) that this subject area provides far more opportunities for discussing meaty ethical and moral issues. On these occasions it is more likely as a teacher that you will ‘connect’ with students than if your lesson focus is (say) feminine adjectival endings in Spanish.

Whether you teach Life Studies or MFL though, it is all to easy to become too data-focused and put aside that you are dealing with the development of young people and not the mass production of tin cans, for example.

@venspired recently posted the following on Twitter:

‘If your school is more focused on data than on relationships, you’re missing the true purpose of ‘education’

I whole-heartedly agree with this. I understand that student academic achievement is one important factor in the life of a school, but it is exactly that: one important factor, alongside others which include social development, cultural awareness and exploring and developing individual talents and appreciating them in others. Clearly, many of these talents may lie outside the so-called ‘academic field’. Fine.

The glib expression ‘educating the whole person’ comes to mind at this point. Isn’t there more than a ring of truth in this though? You may be surprised by the scale of the positive impact you have on the life of a young person. It may not become apparent or be recognised by them until well after they leave school.

In the beautifully honest and open blog entry ‘Where I’ve failed as a teacher’ @TeacherToolkit writes the following:

‘One of my most treasured memories as a developing teacher, was my second ever tutor group who I supported for 5 years, between 2000 to 2005. They are all grown up 25 year-olds now, and in my heart of hearts, I still feel a special bond for them ….. They were a great bunch of students; a full spectrum of talent and ability, but equally bursting with educational needs; disproportion and starting points.’

When he lists the ways to break down barriers to learning, Ross McGill (@TeacherToolkit) advises making time for students ‘and then-some’ This strategy is key to breaking down barriers to learning exactly because it builds bridges between teacher and student.

So, dear student, if you ever read this, you may not necessarily remember how to conjugate the verb ‘tener’ in Spanish or be able to recall that the preposition ‘mit’ is always followed by the dative in German (duh!), but if you remember from your time spent inside and outside my classroom that I valued you as a person, supported and encouraged you in your learning, respected your views, but equally challenged you to reflect on them occasionally, then I can look back on a job well done.

‘My name is Jon and I like teaching’ – Reflections on the start of a new school year

So, we have the first day of proper student-filled school under our educational belts and it’s always an exciting one, in my opinion.
Freshly-pressed, crisp Year 7 students all with blazers that they will certainly have to grow into. The rest of the school student population are there too, all those familiar faces, yet many noticeably older. Even with these classes where you are helping them as they pick up the pieces of learning that they can remember from before the summer break, there would appear to be a short honeymoon period during which new leaves are turned and resolutions made. I try to enjoy this period while it lasts. Like a flower in the desert, its life span is short, but it’s lovely to see while it is there.
As I stood at a busy corridor intersection and directed my fifth enquiring small person to the correct room, it brought to mind my first day at ‘big school’. I can clearly picture myself stumbling into a crowded, silent classroom, uttering profuse apologies and walking to the front to collect my bag. Lunchtime had overrun. Afternoon lessons had started. All the older faces in the classroom looked on with a quiet smugness as I quickly grabbed my belongings and was hit by a loud tirade from the resident French teacher which started with ‘How DARE you …!’ After this experience, I was keen to make my first day my last.
How different we try to make things now for our newest students!
In my first Year 7 lesson today, (not French you understand – we are doing a Planet Earth induction project with them) I took a last-minute decision to get them to add something about themselves when they answered the register, in the format, ‘My name is ….. and I like ….’  Within 3 minutes I had discovered that we have (amongst others) mathematicians, artists, keen readers, a scout (female), a horse rider, avid scientists, 2 ICT wizards, a flautist (grade 1), a pianist (grade 4) and 5 Manchester United fans (no comment).
Making connections with young people as their teacher is so important. It builds relationships. You are taking an interest in the young person as an individual and not simply as ‘lesson fodder’. I believe it counts for a lot.
It’s been a good day.
My name is Jon and I like teaching.

Vive la differ-France (Full Version)

I’ve been visiting France on and off for more than 30 years now as ‘homme’ and ‘garcon’.
Our ‘person-to-country’ relationship didn’t get off to the most promising of starts when, aged 12, I accompanied my Dad and younger brother on a day trip (yes, a day trip) to Boulogne from Birmingham. Two lingering memories from that trip still resonate:
1) Following encouragement from my French teacher at primary school, Mrs Sambrook, I was keen to buy something from a souvenir shop. Spotting two embroidered badges with the Boulogne crest, but not aware of the word for ‘badge’, I nevertheless launched in with ‘Je voudrais deux badges de Boulogne s’il vous plait’, no doubt sounding something akin to Inspector Clouseau as he discussed his now legendary ‘berm’.
The reply came with crystal clarity and in sparkling English.
‘Red or blue?’
‘Er, un rouge et un bleu’
This transactional dialogue continued in the form of linguistic jousting, a sort of one potato-two potato, with the fist stack building to ever greater heights, with neither one of us wishing to admit defeat and retreat to the safety of our native language. More of this later.
2) Having had a long day’s travel (we had left Birmingham at midnight), I had a good, hearty meal on the ferry as we departed Boulogne. However, during a crossing which my dad subsequently (and supportively) described as ‘rather rough’, I was cruelly separated from my meal (despite desperate attempts on my part to hang on to it) within sight of those famous white cliffs. Dad soon after insisted on taking a photo of me with said white cliffs in the background and a clearly visible vomit stain still lingering on my Parka coat.

I have undertaken numerous visits across the Channel either as French teacher responsible for eager young Francophiles or as family member in search of sun and relaxation.
Many of the cultural differences between our two countries are immediately apparent and well documented. However, certain differences only occur to you when you take to the roads; roads that for the most part are dead straight and conveniently absent of substantial amounts of traffic unless you hit the major town and city centres.
However, display a British car registration plate and the accompanying GB sticker and you will immediately attract attention in an almost magical fashion, like in Lord of the Rings when Frodo places the One True Ring on his finger. All of the French driving public within a 5km radius (Nazgul-like as in Tolkien’s epic fantasy) are suddenly and instinctively aware of a British presence on the roads. We are then a focus for all driving attention in the vicinity.
I feel it is clearly in recognition of our role as part of the Allied liberation forces of 1944. The French gratitude for this event is exhibited by:
a) driving close behind any GB vehicle (in an attempt to display solidarity and intimacy with their liberators)
b) overtaking in an over-enthusiastic, even reckless fashion just to be able to escort the GB vehicle to its destination. I was undertaken on a particularly tight urban roundabout by an incredibly keen White Van man (known coloquially as Homme de Camionette Blanc) who then got so carried away that he completely forgot about his escorting duties and sped off at high velocity. He remembered shortly afterwards though, as we saw him career into a side road clearly racked with embarrassment at this dereliction of duty.

We rely on our satnav in France. It is the metaphorical ball of thread that we start to unwind as we leave our base camp and then reel in as we return. Indeed, it leaves a luminous blue line on the display showing the route we have taken. Every time my wife reaches for the road atlas of France, the kids remind her that we should ‘always trust the satnav’ This stems from the time last year when, in search of a suitable picnic spot during a 5-hour French road trip, we ignored our computer-aided navigational ally and relied instead on good old map-reading. The combined result was a 30 km detour, a minor family falling out and a satnav onscreen display that looked like a ball of bright blue wool that had been left in a room all day with an overly-inquisitive kitten.
The satnav (and no doubt your trusty road atlas also) takes you through many a French village which all combine the following features:
1) a church that resembles what any city in the UK would feel privileged to have as its cathedral.
2) no people on the streets at all. My current theory for this is that the GB vehicle detection device is now located in French residences too. French families are all inside frantically hunting for their half-Tricolore, half-Union Jack bunting to rush out and wave at us. Clearly the warning system is not sophisticated enough to give sufficient time for this process and they are all mid-search as we pass through their seemingly deserted village.

Most tourist interactions naturally occur in shops and restaurants. This is where my 30-year linguistic battle for supremacy continues.
Part of the interview process for positions in the French restaurant and food retail business clearly involves selecting employees who possess an ability to detect the slightest English accent in spoken French. No-one is appointed to deal with the moules-frites-consuming public unless they possess this skill.
The next stage (following the realisation that an English accent is present in its minutest form) results in a switch flicked in the French brain which means that only English can be spoken in response and it would be a matter of utmost humiliation should French be used from this point onwards. This is hardly the story that I want to be telling my classes back at school, but I can understand why the French act like this.
You see, the plucky Brit has worked out what he/she wants to say or ask to initiate the conversation. However, when the response comes in full-flowing fluent French, our British linguistic adventurer takes on the appearance of a goldfish out of water, with mouth opening and closing at 2-second intervals but with no audible utterance forthcoming.
Our French restauranteur (following many such stilted conversations with UK tourists) has learned that the best thing to do is miss out the middle man completely and just use the language of fullest communication, i.e. English.
It just saves everyone involved so much time and effort … apart from those with some aptitude for French who would like to practise it please!

To sum up then, I love France.
Agreed, there are lots of differences that exist between our two cultures. Some of them are irritating, some baffling, but wouldn’t the world be an incredibly dull and vapid place if everywhere resembled our homeland? Also, in every good and lasting relationship, surely there has to be the grit in the oyster to keep the relationship looking its pearly best? Mustn’t we be able to look back at our joint history like any long-term relationship not simply tolerating but also appreciating the differences that exist between us? In my role at school, this is the type of attitude that I try to foster amongst the students.
So here are just a few of the differences that I truly appreciate about France:
* The language which (when spoken fluently) is the linguistic version of smoothest silk on the ears
* A culture that sees a main meal as an event worth investing time in
* Food, that appropriately enough only the word ‘gourmet’ can best truly describe
* Breath-taking architecture and vistas (often in unexpected, humble places)
* Open roads and mostly free parking that Brit drivers enjoy with a good degree of envy

So, where will I probably be spending my holidays next year?
Yep, France.

Recommended further reading:
‘Road to Rouen’ by Ben Hatch

‘1000 years of annoying the French’ by Stephen Clarke