Looking for ways to provide students with the ultimate cultural experience so they can broaden their horizons? Have a desire to travel to far-off places — for free? If the answer to both these questions is yes, consider chaperoning a student trip. It’s never too early to plan.
Chaperoning isn’t for everyone; some educators shudder at combining the words “travel” and “student.” And, truthfully, it’s a huge leap to go from supervising lunchtime activities on campus to shepherding students through airports and foreign countries. But the rewards of chaperoning can be amazing and magical, says Kelly Davis, an English teacher at Pioneer Valley High School in Santa Maria.
“My husband and I accompanied the school’s advanced choir to France, Italy and Switzerland,” says Davis. “The students were gifted singers. In every city, they found a gorgeous cathedral, church, plaza or historic site and asked for permission to sing a madrigal or two. When they lifted their voices in the baptistry of the Duomo in Florence it truly was angelic. Later, in the Florence countryside, the kids discovered fireflies. The joy and wonder on their faces as they danced among the little lighted creatures was something we’ll never forget.”
Most students on that trip were low-income and English learners, recalls the Santa Maria Joint Union High School District Faculty Association member. Most had never flown on an airplane and some had never seen the ocean, despite living 15 miles away. But they flew to Europe and discovered the world. It didn’t go perfectly: Some students couldn’t push their way out of a Paris subway and got lost. But the trip was a wonderful experience.
Teachers emphasize that most chaperone gigs are not official school trips. Educators mostly use private companies and often fundraise to help families with costs.
“My trips are not district-approved trips,” explains Natalie Valles, an English resource teacher and digital lead TOSA at Tahquitz High School in Hemet. “Other than allowing me to access the students, the district is not involved. I make sure parents recognize this is not a district trip and that students are signing up with the Education First (EF) tour company through me.”
“We meet people from all over the planet and make friends we otherwise wouldn’t make – who we can continue to be friends with and learn from, thanks to social media.” —Natalie Valles, Hemet Teachers Association
Once an EF tour has six students signed up, the teacher is free, and with each additional six travelers another free chaperone spot opens up. (This is only for international travel; for domestic tours it is one free spot for every 10 students.) “But it’s not exactly free,” says Valles. “There’s all the preparation, and managing students on tour is a lot of work. I don’t ever say I go for free; I say, ‘My travel is how I’m paid.’”
The Hemet Teachers Association member has chaperoned trips to 13 countries and went to Japan last year, where she was delighted to discover “being a teacher is the most honorable job there is.” She marvels at how students go from clinging to her like “baby ducks” in the beginning to becoming confident explorers.
“We have visited castles and historical sites and famous art museums throughout Europe; ziplined from mountaintops in Costa Rica; enjoyed soccer games during local school visits; seen spectacular tech in Asia; and gained understanding and respect of other cultures and religions. We meet people from all over the planet and make friends we otherwise wouldn’t make – who we can continue to be friends with and learn from, thanks to social media. I cannot say enough about taking students abroad.”
Brian Jacobs, an English and journalism teacher at Ernest Lawrence Highly Gifted Magnet Middle School in Los Angeles, loves the thrill of seeing students experience what they have studied. When he taught high school in his district, he chaperoned trips to China, New Zealand and Europe. He took his middle schoolers to New York this summer with a tour company called Explorica, visiting the United Nations, 911 Memorial and Harlem Museum – with a backstage visit after a Wicked performance.
“Being a chaperone is wonderful,” says the United Teachers Los Angeles member. “But it’s a big responsibility. I always remind myself I am taking care of somebody’s baby. I’m lucky; so far, everything has gone smoothly.”
When students travel with Larry Hooper to Europe each year, they practice their German and French, which he teaches at Los Alamitos High School. “We have gone to France, Spain, England, Holland, Italy, Germany and Austria. We use an outside company to coordinate the trip (A la Carte Travel). We took 22 students last year but have taken as many as 51. It’s so much fun seeing students discover the world.”
Hooper incorporates educational excursions, like museums (Pergamon and East German Spy Museum) and Dachau Concentration Camp, but also plans fun outings such as salt mine slides, bike tours, soccer arena visits and attending an Austrian show with slap dancing and yodeling.
“For me, the biggest challenge is keeping up with the kids. We go nonstop.” —Larry Hooper, Los Alamitos Education Association
But it’s not all sightseeing and fun, comments Leesa Rankins, a drama teacher at Riverside Poly High School. She has encountered other types of drama on trips to London and New York, where students saw Broadway musicals, attended theater workshops with professionals and took backstage tours.
“Sometimes you have kids breaking curfew or sneaking out of their rooms,” says the Riverside City Teachers Association member. She puts tape on doors, because it will break if they leave and once students are back inside, they can’t replace it. There may be friction among students from constant togetherness. But a bigger problem is parents who sign up to chaperone, then complain about the accommodations and food. It’s best, she says, when parents stay home, so their children experience independence.
“Being away from parents is a good thing, because kids get a bit of freedom and learn practical life skills, such as using the ‘Tube’ in London, reading a map and learning how to budget when they are given $10 for lunch.” Rankins not only travels free; she earns points with EF and has received free teacher appreciation trips to Rome, New York and Boston.
“Being a chaperone is a wonderful experience,” says Rankins. “Students benefit so much from learning about the world that it’s 100 percent worth it.”
Kristy Jimenez took students to Cuba this summer, where they had the unique experience of being guests in private homes. “Our hosts cooked for us and talked with us; it felt like a more personal experience,” relates the photography and animation instructor at Palos Verde High School. “Even better, there wasn’t an internet connection except in town plazas, so kids could not be on their phones.”
Jimenez, a member of the Palos Verde Faculty Association, says the trip allowed students to connect with Cubans through shared interests in photography. “We traveled throughout Havana and the countryside making friends and taking their photographs. We saw an old sugar plantation where slaves lived. We enjoyed salsa music and dancing. During the evenings, students participated in photo workshops, where they reflected on photos taken that day and learned how to improve their skills. Now we are editing and selecting the best photos from Cuba for an exhibition at our local library.” She describes the experience as rejuvenating.
“Chaperoning is a great way for teachers to ‘reset.’ It can give you the energy to start the next year with a fresh mind and attitude.” – Kristy Jimenez, Palos Verde Faculty Association
“Chaperoning is a great way for teachers to ‘reset.’ It can give you the energy to start the next year with a fresh mind and attitude. I love seeing students learn in a different environment. It’s inspiring to see them immersed in another world.”
Students don’t need to go overseas to be transformed by travel, says Colleen Taylor, a teacher from Bieber, a remote rural town in Lassen County. “For the past four years, I have chaperoned eighth-graders on three-day trips to Sacramento and San Francisco. A most generous community helps with fundraising throughout the fall and winter.”
The math and science teacher at Big Valley Junior/Senior High School — which has about 80 students – says the school-sponsored trip is a way to “show students there’s a world outside of Big Valley.” It allows them to experience, often for the first time, automobile traffic, public transportation, a boat ride when they visit Alcatraz and a professional baseball game. She does not use a tour agency.
In Sacramento, students visit their local representative and Assembly Republican Leader Brian Dahle, who takes them on a tour of the Capitol and takes them onto the floor when legislators are voting. “I love that they see government in action,” says the Big Valley Teachers Association member.
Karen Latham is super excited about chaperoning students on a trip to Italy this spring break with colleagues who teach Italian. They will stay in private homes along the way and visit Rome, Florence and Tuscany. The guidance counselor at Burlingame High School has previously chaperoned trips sponsored by Sojourn to the Past, where students explore the Civil Rights movement in the South. But she has never taken students abroad.
“I am moving toward the end of my career, so when I was approached with this offer, I jumped at it,” says the Burlingame Teachers Association member.
“A few days later I got an email with the itinerary and it hit me that I’m really going. I’m not nervous: I know how to keep students safe, settle squabbles, talk to kids who are lonely, keep everyone engaged and take care of other kids the way I would want my own child taken care of.”
Latham expects it will be a highlight of her career, which has spanned nearly 35 years.
“I firmly believe in learning about the world through travel and learning about life through living it. Taking kids to see history and a different way of life helps them understand the world. I encourage educators to start early in the school year, and consider chaperoning a trip in progress or plan one yourself. I feel very lucky to have been given this opportunity.”
Top photo: Students at Stonehenge; their high school German and French teacher Larry Hooper chaperones student trips to Europe every year.