by Pam Murray
I’ve been an interpreter specializing in school programs for almost 20 years, and throughout my career I’ve heard (and, let’s be honest, made) a wide variety of complaints from my coworkers about the difficulties presented by working with teachers in a field trip setting.
About 8 years ago, I pursued an Education degree. Becoming a certified teacher gave me useful insight into a lot of the teacher behaviour I’d previously found mystifying. As it turns out, a lot of ‘problematic’ issues with teachers are really just caused by miscommunication.
Here are some tips that I’ve found useful for improving communication with teachers and working with teachers on field trips.
1) Communicate with teachers before they arrive.
Once the group is on site, teachers will be focused on their students, as will you, and it will be too late to pull the teachers aside to ask questions or request help. So, it’s important to touch base about this well before the visit.
What this looks like will vary. It’s harder to communicate with teachers if someone else handles your bookings, but providing some handouts with field trip expectations that can be shared with teachers at the time of booking is helpful. For longer programs – overnight camps, full day field trips, multiple visits, it’s not unreasonable to offer some kind of orientation session for teachers.
2) Make the arrival process easy
Consider for a moment what it takes to successfully bring an entire elementary school class to your site. Before arriving at your site, Mrs. Jones may have already printed and handed out nametags, tracked down missing permission slips, arranged parent chaperones, escorted students to the washroom, borrowed jackets from the Lost and Found for the kids who arrived unprepared, organized their class onto the bus, and tolerated a bus ride with 24 excited 8 year olds before they even walk in your front door. Greeting them at the door when they arrive, being organized, and perhaps even offering Mrs. Jones a chance to run to the washroom before you get started can really help them feel at ease, and be on your side, for the remainder of the visit. Remember, teachers are visitors too.
3) Learn their first name
When referring to the teacher in front of their class, by all means call them “Mrs. Jones” or whatever their teacher name is. But, if you are just talking one on one - answering a question during a snack break for instance, knowing that Mrs. Jones’ first name is Jessica can really help establish a rapport.
4) Give them permission to help
You know those teachers who hang out at the back of the group and don’t help you control their class? They may just be worried about stepping on your toes. In the school environment classroom teachers often send their classes off to specialty teachers for music, or 2nd language classes, and interrupting those teachers to discipline their class would be considered rude. If you want a teacher to help you manage their class, you often actually have to give them permission to do so. A quick “Hey, Jessica, just so you know I’d love your help managing your class – feel free to intervene if they aren’t behaving up to your expectations” before the field trip starts can make a huge difference in how the teacher works with you.
5) Observe and follow classroom culture
When the group arrives, take a few minutes to observe how the teacher manages their class. How do they line up? Are they in partners? Does the teacher have a specific way of getting her student’s attention? Are they asked to raise their hands, or is shouting out tolerated?
Classroom routines are a very important part of managing a class, and can take a long time to establish. Unless there is some program or site-related reason to change things, following the routines the children are already used to – like lining up in partners rather than single file - can save you a lot of unnecessary frustration.
6) Understand the teacher’s agenda
Why has the teacher booked this trip?
If you don’t know the answer to this question, ask. The group may be at your park because they are specifically interested in learning forest ecology, but it’s also possible that the teacher has some other goal, like giving her class practice interacting with their community, gathering inspiration for a writing project, or just getting her class outdoors for a fun reward. Knowing the teacher’s goals up front means you can help achieve those goals. Yes, this may mean letting go of your own plans, but it also means satisfied teachers who are more likely to book field trips in the future.
7) Be familiar with provincial curriculum
In Canada, educational curriculum is established at the Provincial level, and is easily available online through your relevant government ministry. Knowing curriculum honestly won’t help you much once the group has already arrived, but ensuring that your programs are linked to curriculum will help your programs across the board. And don’t just focus on science or social studies. Sure, your science centre has some obvious science curriculum links, and your historic site links to social studies, but can you also support the class in their math, art, or language arts goals?
8) Respect teachers’ decisions
Teaching is an incredibly difficult job, and the few hours the class is at your site is only a small snapshot of what Mrs. Jones may be dealing with. Sure, it’s annoying if teachers are disengaged, answer their phones during field trips, or fail to keep students in line, but it’s important to keep the big picture in mind. The phone call may be important. Students may have individual learning or behaviour plans in place that you aren’t aware of.
If all else fails, just remember that teaching is an even harder job than interpretation, and communication is key. The more you can establish relationships with teachers who bring their classes to you, the easier the field trips will be... and the more likely they are to return.
Pam Murray is a certified teacher and the current Chair of Interpretation Canada. She has been delivering school programs in nature centres, parks, and currently at Milner Gardens & Woodland on Vancouver Island, for 20 years.