Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Why I am a Group Leader

In last week's post I shared my excitement about leading my fourth group tour to Europe. I have help, of course, by teaming up with EF Tours, which specializes in organizing student trips to a variety of countries throughout the world.

This week I thought I would share why I do this.

Sure, I love to travel, but quite frankly, being a tour leader is not a personal vacation. I take the responsibility quite seriously, and then there's the inevitable interpersonal drama that takes place when traveling in close quarters, 24-hours a day, with a variety of personality types.

So what are the pros and cons of leading such a tour?

I'm not sure there are any cons, if you are truly invested in the experience ... but the responsibilities are worth noting.

Chaperones for 2015 trip
One pro is that the tour leader travels for free (although free is a misnomer... she earns her trip, believe me). In fact, EF puts student safety at the top of their priority list. So for every six travelers, one free chaperon spot is earned. The tour leader is ultimately responsible for all activity on the trip, but chaperons help keep track of travelers, take care of the aforementioned interpersonal drama, and act as an extra set of eyes and hands when needed.

One of the major responsibilities is to count heads. I can't tell you how often I will count to 38 over the twelve day tour. By the end of the trip, I'm sure I'll be counting in my sleep. I verify everyone is on the bus before we leave the hotel (there is always the inevitable straggler who forgot to set an alarm) ... everyone is off the bus... everyone is in line for tours... everyone is together before free time ... after free time... before dinner... after dinner... and on the bus to return to the hotel for the evening.

And then there is the issue of ensuring we are all together while walking the streets. Life in metropolitan cities never slows down. Commuters are in a rush to get to work; business people are busy with appointments, lunch dates, and returning home. They walk at a faster pace than tourists, who stop and stare at every major landmark, double-decker bus, or shop window. Natives cut in-and-out of pedestrian traffic, and it is my job to ensure that our pedestrians remain together. This is why I typically pull up the rear and keep my eyes pealed at all times.

"My kids" ... many of them I had in class for 5+ years
Another pro, however, is to form lasting friendships with students (and parents) whom I would not otherwise know on such a personal level. I am able to see the students as themselves and not just the persona they choose to share in the classroom. And they too have an opportunity to know Mrs. Totoro on a personal level. They (hopefully) realize I have other interests besides grammar, spelling, and literary analysis (although I really do enjoy those things). I have a sense of humor (albeit a little quirky), I enjoy photography, and I adore a good loaf of bread with a bit of cheese.

Another responsibility is that I must balance building excitement with managing expectations. The scope of this trip is to introduce students to the world of travel; it is not a comprehensive tour. While it is impossible to see every major attraction in 48 hours, I do try to provide a variety of options of things to see and do - such as high tea in London or Monet's Water Lilies at the l'Orangerie in Paris. Once travelers are aware of the possibilities, they must then prioritize what they want to see in the allotted time. This trip should whet their appetite for a lifelong desire to travel and see the world. What they do not see this time will serve as a starting point for a travel bucket list.

Public transportation is a novelty for some students
In addition, I need to manage expectations for accommodations. While EF does a great job of finding clean, functional hotels (with a private bath in each room) ... these are not five star establishments. Rooms will be smaller - beds will be smaller (and perhaps a bit more lumpy) - "free" wifi will be spotty. Bathrooms can be tight, and hot water is sometimes lukewarm.

Meals are often of inconsistent quality. Continental breakfast at one hotel can mean rolls/butter, and lukewarm coffee or water, while at another it might include a variety of pastries, lunch meats, and fruit. Dinners are always a fixed menu, and some entrees are better than others. I always advise travelers to bring a few extra granola bars to have on hand... just in case.

Subways are efficient, the Eurostar is way cool (travel by train under the English Channel), but the sleep car from Paris to Florence is not at all glamorous. In fact, some from the last tour might argue it was the worst part of the trip.

While I guarantee a wonderful tour, I do not want to oversell its features. I don't like negative surprises, and I try to offer that same courtesy to my fellow travelers.

The magic of La Tour Eiffel
The primary reason I do this, however, is because I consider it an honor and a privilege to introduce students to the world of international travel. Many of them have not ventured outside the Midwest; several have never visited a city larger than St. Louis; their definition of public transportation is an Uber.

I experience indescribable joy when they first see the Changing of the Guard, or the Eiffel Tower, or the Roman Colosseum. These are places they thought only existed in a textbook, and now history literally comes alive in front of their eyes - and they are forever changed.

One of my favorite blessings occurred on the last trip. We were all walking along the Seine toward the Bateaux Mouches around 6:45pm. It was twilight, and the students could barely see the silhouette of the Eiffel Tower. They were chatting quietly with one another, as we snaked our way closer.

All of a sudden, the Tower lights came on and began to twinkle. While this is a regular occurrence every night at the top of the hour, the students had no idea. It was as if fairy dust was sprinkled over the Tower just for them. They were giddy with excitement.

They whipped phones out of their pockets and began snapping pictures, selfies, and videos. And this excitement continued long after the five minute light show ended. It was truly a magical moment - and I was able to share the experience with them.

That pro overshadows any possible con. And I am fortunate enough to have the opportunity to share in it again.

* * *

This is the second article in my Leading a Student Group Tour to Europe series.

Next week I will discuss How to Make the Most of Your Free Time.


  1. Being a group leader sounds like a lot of work and responsibility, but it's nice to see that the benefits outweigh the cons and how much you enjoy it.

  2. I've been on an international trip and know how much work keeping track of teenagers can be so I know you're taking on a lot of work and responsibility. But those moments like the Eiffel Tower must make it all worth it - and getting to see things through new eyes again and again.

    1. I just learned yesterday that one of the students has never been on a plane before! I will love watching the world come alive before her eyes :)


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