I was 23 when I got the travel bug. I graduated from UC Santa Barbara, and my roommate Heather and I hit the road for six weeks in Europe on the adventure of a lifetime. We started on the busy streets of London, made our way to the Champs Elysee, and saw the beaches of the French Riviera. We stayed up for two days to experience the running of the bulls in Pamplona, Spain. I saw classic sites, met people from around the globe, and collected a lifetime of memories in that summer. The lessons I learned and confidence I gained lasted a lifetime.
When I became a high school teacher, it was an adventure I wanted to share with my students. Now as I return and reflect on my second trip with students it reminded me why I adore spending my vacations traveling with them. I learn as much from interacting with them on the trip as they get out of the trip itself.
This year’s tour theme was World War II and Western Front through @EF_Tours. As the school year unfolded and I we got to know each other as a group, I found the students traveling with me this year was more reserved and not quite as assertive as my previous travel group. Some of them I had as students in class all year, yet they had barely said more than a few sentences to me. It would be an interesting adventure.
We landed in London where we would join two other groups from Sarasota, FL and Winston-Salem, NC. I’ll be honest, I was anxious. Our group, not being the most extroverted, would we get along? Or would we segregate ourselves by school the entire trip? What would it be like moving so many people from point A to point B? First lesson from my students, patience and kindness should come first, even before jetlag.
For the generation who is constantly being accused of not being able to carry on a conversation without their phones, my humble students made a great effort to get to know each other and mingle. When we landed we waited two hours for the first group to join us. We all had minimal sleep on an airplane for approximately 24 hours. The kids took it in stride. They were fascinated with what was “British” about the airport. They enjoyed each others’ company. They did not complain once, which helped me relax, and we were able to greet our new travel partners with smiles even if it were mixed with delirious sleeplessness.
Within a short few days as a group we fast became friends and soon WWII became real. We found ourselves on the shores of Normandy where so many boys, not much older than the boys on our trip, fell 75 years before. Two of my boys decided to change into bathing suits and go swimming in the ocean. At first glance, I thought it was disrespectful to the men who fought and died there, but again, through their actions those students taught me a valuable lesson. Those soldiers were fighting for those boys’ to run in the waves without the Germans flying bullets over their heads. They would be proud they did not die in vain for the great-grandchildren who can enjoy the beach they so valiantly fought for.
I often wondered whether students were affected by the story of WWII. My mind shifts to a picture I took of them after we toured the Dachau Concentration Camp in Munich, Germany. The entire group was sitting together, when normally they would be sitting in three small groups. No one was saying a word to each other, and each was wearing a sullen face. It was the most solemn I had seen any of them, and at that moment I knew the history was sinking in. When I visited the camp 25 years earlier it was one of the most difficult days I still remember. They taught me another valuable lesson, heavy thoughts can be left heavy for so long before they must be lifted off our shoulders, just like at the beach.
They are only 17, and taking in something as daunting as a concentration camp needed to be balanced by something lighter. If the trip had been a begrudging remembrance of the war the entire trip, it would have been a heavy burden for these teens. We needed a balance and in Munich this meant cultural distractions in the Marienplatz with its dancing marionettes, busy shoppers and snacks. It meant balancing the most horrific with something fun and uplifting even if it meant shopping therapy.
The lessons which were most important were the ones where I saw personal growth. Some students had not left home since sixth-grade camp, never leaving the County of San Diego much less the continent. Some students had to be peeled away from Mom and Dad when we left. Now here we were on an adventure where they would be safe, but I was by no means going to hold their hand; it was sink or swim in plenty of situations.
From the moment they walked off the plane, students had to navigate money exchange, (and find out the airport is the worst place to exchange dollars). By day two, students were on the tube riding public transportation, when many of them hadn’t ridden out of their parent’s cars or school buses in their lives. Something as simple as trying new foods, was a steep learning curve, two students had severe food allergies. Some students were such introverts; taking group photos was a painstaking task for them as we embarked. They would often find a student to hide behind.
Human adaptation is a funny thing. In three short days, it seemed like we had known nothing but traveling and the people we were traveling with. By the tenth day we had to say good-bye to what seemed like childhood friends. Even the most reticent students had paired off, surprising me how social they could be. All they needed was the space and means and the friendships and summer romances could begin. We had grown close enough to the two groups, I got myself up early to see our Florida and North Carolina friends off to the airport. What I was surprised to find was quite a few of our students had also risen at 5 am to have breakfast and say good-bye as well. It turned out to be an unexpected emotional morning send off.
When we were in a small group again, the final blossoming came during the final three-days of the tour in Germany and Austria. The group was left with our formidable tour guide @JamesHarrisNow who also does a stand-up bit in London. It is here they came together in solidarity They relied on each other and I saw one last flowering of personalities and personal growth. Those introverts were smiling and confident for pictures rather than trying to hide behind the closest barrier. Rather than keeping away from the other adults and myself they would happily join us for meals and shopping. They went from unsure Juniors to confident young adults ready to tackle the world when they got home from our 1,800 mile, two week long journey.
They stood tall as I returned them to their parents safe and sound, Why do I like traveling with students now? I see a year’s worth of transformation happen in a student in less than two weeks on these trips and it is quite the experience.
Students continually remind me it isn’t always about hard facts in learning. The personal confidence, world perspective and friendships built will be as much a part of their trip as the theme they signed up for. They continue to teach me sometimes learning looks like play, even a day at the beach. They continue to teach me at the end of the day, they are teens who do need to do teen stuff. As much as I want them to learn the academics of the trip, some of it was pretty solemn and needed to be balanced with fun.
The real reason I will continue to organize these trips as long as they will let me is the unexpected. It warmed my heart the unexpected morning my students got up early to say good-bye to their new friends. It made me proud to watch students gain an enormous amount of confidence in a short amount of time. It made me smile when students who were hiding from the adults at the beginning of the trip, join the ‘adult table’ to say hello by the end. Just like in the classroom, it is the little things which will make up the big memories and gain the most impact in both my students and myself.
Debra Hake (@MsHake418) has been a teacher with Sweetwater Union High School District since 1996 where she currently teaches AP U.S. History and U.S. History 11. She lives in the San Diego area with her children Cameron (16), Megan (13) Brady (6) and partner Andrew. Her experience in the classroom has left her with the firm belief that attitude is everything.