As a language teacher, you will hopefully have the joy of taking students on exchange and watching them fumble and flourish as they put their communication skills into practice. After accompanying, overseeing and planning countless study tours in my 17 years of language teaching, I hope I can offer a few tips. This article is really about helping those of you who are planning a trip for the first time. It focuses on setting up a concept, and how to get key stakeholders on board. In future articles, I’ll provide more tips about the nitty gritty aspects of planning a trip – and how to survive it! Now... where to begin?
Decide what you want your students to achieve
You will have noticed that even in my first few lines I have used the terms 'trip', 'exchange' and 'study tour'. Each title has different implications, and you want to make sure you know what you’re planning: a cultural and tourist trip, a study tour with a specific curriculum focus, or an exchange staying with families. Alternatively, you could use some combination of these.
Discuss plans at least 2 years in advance with the following key stakeholders
Fellow language teachers: You will want a trip that you can sustain, so make sure it doesn’t all depend on your giving up September holidays until you retire. See if other language teacher colleagues in your school (or in your network of schools) are keen on the type of trip you’re proposing. Unless you are at a truly magical school, all accompanying staff (and parents) will be giving up their time with little compensation for years of planning and weeks of 24/7 supervision and care – other than having your travel expenses covered and, at best, a day in lieu or a mini per diem.
State department of education: Make sure you understand your state government's guidelines for overseas trips (e.g. most require staffing ratios of 1:10). All guidelines can be found online. Don’t accept any information on the phone (if you even manage to get through to anyone!). Keep it all in writing,
Your principal and admin team: If you promote this trip as a well-considered, incredibly beneficial learning experience for young people, then you are likely to get support for a trip. Your principal will want to know what impact it will have more broadly (e.g. Will staff be absent during term time? If so, are replacement costs covered in the trip budget? Will students be absent during term? If so, how will you ensure they don’t miss key events like the school musical?). Your principal will also want to discuss which teachers will take part. I strongly advise that you advocate for two adults who speak the target language fluently. Your principal may want a Leading Teacher to go. You will need to negotiate what’s best, and you may need to advocate for a change to school policy if one exists.
Travel agent: While you may prefer to organise many aspects of the trip on your own, I strongly advise that you use a travel agent for booking flights and ground transport. They are best placed (and insured!) to deal with large sums and to make group bookings. Always get at least two or three quotes, and make sure there are no hidden clauses. Ask them when the trip would have to be paid in full to avoid possible increased airline taxes. Ask how much of a non-refundable deposit would need to be paid to ensure that if someone pulls out it won’t increase the cost for other participants. Ask them what implications there are if you need to change dates after a particular point in time.
Your sister school: If you are lucky enough to have a sister school, you will need to plan around their availability to host. I have always found the ideal scenario with European exchanges is to host a visit around March, then travel to Europe around September. Or to host a visit during the French summer holidays and travel to Europe in the Australian summer holidays. In both cases, you get to meet the sister school students and establish friendships (or make any adjustments to pairings) before you travel.
Your school community: Make sure your trip is promoted at parent information nights, on the school website and in newsletters, as families will often need a long time to save up the sort of money required for a trip. Short notice means only the wealthy can participate. Long notice gives students a chance to get a part-time job and save with a goal in mind. When you get a chance, ask parents and students what they are looking for in a trip.
Decide on an itinerary
The length and itinerary of the trip will depend on your goals, your contacts, your destination and the age of your students. If you have developed a relationship with a sister school, or have found a well-priced home stay, you can probably afford to stay a bit longer. If you’re heading to the other side of the world you will lose two days in travel, and will really want to be there for an absolute minimum of two to three weeks. If you are taking juniors, they may not be as independent as your seniors and a shorter trip may be better. If you want them to improve their language skills they will need lots of opportunities to listen and to practise. They will also need opportunities to marvel at the cultural highlights. However, make sure everyone knows that the itinerary will remain a bit flexible – so they're not too devastated if you can’t get to Schloss Neuschwanstein, for example.
Promote the goals of your trip well
Make sure that students are keen to participate for the right reasons. You don’t want students who look at the trip as a way to get away from their parents, or to have a week off school, or even to visit relatives at their maison secondaire in the south of France. You want students to participate because they have a genuine interest in their language studies and other people and cultures. You don’t need students who are brilliant, you want students who are prepared to throw themselves into the immersion experience and make the most of every museum, every meal, and every conversation.
Make sure you have a fair and transparent selection process.
While you can aim to include everyone, you may unfortunately need to exclude some students. Most schools will not allow students to spend several thousand on a trip if they have not paid their school fees. You will need to have a limited number of places as large groups can be very difficult to accommodate (I personally think 30 students is a maximum). Also, you may wish to cap the trip to match the most favourable staff ratio (e.g. two staff for 20 students is much more cost efficient for families than 3 staff for 21 students). Will you allow students who have had discipline issues take part? What about students who are doing no work in class? I strongly encourage you to design a section in your consent forms where parents must agree to fly a child home (as an unaccompanied minor) at the parents' expense if there is a major breach of rules (e.g: refusing to following important requests, smoking etc.).
What age group? This depends on your goals. I recently took a group of 22 Year 7 and 8 French students to New Caledonia knowing they had very limited language skills, but also knowing that they were desperate to be in a French-speaking community to hear the language and do their best. A one-week trip, with study in the morning, market shopping for lunch, excursions in the afternoon and home stay in the evening, was a perfect balance for this age group. I’m also organising a seven-week summer holiday trip for my Year 10 and 11 students where they have a very short time in Paris, then they will dive into six weeks home stay at our sister school, going to classes every day. They need solid basic French to take this on, but I am sure they will return incredibly motivated and with hugely increased confidence in their communication skills!
What skill level? This is less important. It is more about the students' motivation to improve. In many ways, it will be less important to take the student who has been to Japan several times already with his parents and has good Japanese than the student who will only ever get the chance to travel on a school trip.
Do they need to host? If you’re organising an exchange then ideally, the students who travel will need to be able to host. Some may have to share a room to make this possible. It’s worth flagging this early.
Exclusions on medical grounds? I have always asked parents to tell us on medical forms if their child suffers from allergies, anxiety, depression etc. This would certainly not preclude a child from coming, but would make a difference when you’re completing a risk assessment. Open discussions also give you time to talk with families about how to best support their child. With permission, you may be able to speak to any doctors or counsellors to get their specific advice.
Prepare your students
Not everyone in your language class will be able to travel with you on your trip, so so it would be unfair to dedicate all class time talking about the trip. You should, however, make sure students and parents receive all information in writing and that they acknowledge that they have read all this information. Google forms are ideal to disseminate and collect information from your group. As the trip approaches, organise one or two face-to-face meetings to do some team building activities, to reinforce trip rules and to build travel specific vocabulary. Also make sure the students know if you want them to maintain a diary, set up their own webpage or present to assembly on your return so they have reasons to focus and take their participation seriously.
Prepare your parents
I always tell parents that all communication (prior to and during the trip) will be via (group) email and Google Docs as this improves efficiency enormously. While you should offer an information meeting and a pre-departure meeting for those parents who want to attend, you will not have time to respond to individual emails and phone calls – even before departure.
If you can, set up an Instagram account or a website before you go, so parents know they will be able to see what you’ve been up to without expecting phone calls from their child. Make sure that parents have a 24/7 mobile contact number, but tell them it is only for emergencies. Also, always remind parents that you may not have regular communications and they should avoid speaking with their child too often so their child can gain more independence.
Tasha Paquier has been teaching modern languages for the last 17 years and calls herself a French teacher, but has been known to teach German, Japanese, Indonesian, EAL, English, Accounting, Global Politics Theory of Knowledge and even ICT. She is currently Head of French at Albert Park College and is a Teaching Fellow at the Melbourne Graduate School of Education.