Course Leader Training and the Importance of Education Outside the Classroom

I spent the past weekend on a training course for my new job as a Course Leader for a student tour company. This job will primarily have me leading student groups around the Washington D.C. area. These tours are meant to be both fun and educational for the students and this is one of the reasons I was attracted to this particular company; they emphasize the importance of education outside of the classroom. The significance of access to this type of education goes beyond school-aged children, however. This training weekend was a great example of how hands-on training benefits professional development in ways independent study and research cannot.

Ever since I was given my first assignment, I have been diligently familiarizing myself with the itinerary and researching the sites we are scheduled to visit. I had recently taken a familiarization tour of Washington D.C., so I was acquainted with many of the sites already. However, in order to prepare for this particular assignment, I had to figure out how to be a teacher as well as a guide. I chose this new profession because I wanted to combine my passion for travel with my love of education. However, when I originally pictured myself as a Tour Director, I visualized leading adult tours. I still think it’s important to educate adult travelers while on tour, but unlike with students, there is no school-based curriculum to follow. Students coming to Washington D.C. have invested many hours of classroom study on American history, and their teachers have arranged this trip because they want to bring some of that information to life. It’s the same idea of having a lab component accompany science courses; this trip was designed to allow students the opportunity to apply what they learned in the classroom. Teachers want to show students the place where Lincoln was assassinated, let them walk through Arlington Cemetery and the grounds of Mount Vernon, and have them understand the human cost behind war by reading the 58,286 names on the Vietnam Memorial wall.  The sites on our itinerary honor the people and events that students have only ever experienced through text and pictures in their schoolbooks; and while we can never meet these people or relive these events, we can introduce students to their legacies.  These legacies are preserved in buildings, honored in memorials, and acknowledged in ceremony. This is why schools plan these types of educational trips and why I want to do this job…

The idea of becoming this teacher/tour director seemed a little overwhelming at first, but the aforementioned two-day training course helped to clarify my role as a Course Leader. Our instructor was a senior Course Leader who has been with the company for many years and he generously shared his personal commentary, tips of the trade, and activities for engaging students. Each of us was also given an assignment that required us to give commentary and come up with a ‘discovery’ activity. This not only forced us to become active participants, but also allowed us to observe a dozen other styles of presenting and teaching. This helped me recognize the type of Course Leader I want to be, forced me to realize the expectations of this particular job, and allowed me the opportunity to learn in an interactive environment.

I was also scheduled on a ride along the day after our training. This ride along offered me a chance to observe the intricate details of not only the educational expectations, but also the logistical components of leading a student tour. What I took away from this experience is that we as Course Leaders need to learn to interpret our written itineraries to suit our group. Yes, we have some appointments that we must be on time for, but otherwise we must listen to our clients and plan accordingly, taking into account tangibles such as the weather and speed of the group. The most important thing I learned this weekend was that this job is all about rigid flexibility! Once I had accepted that concept, my anxiety about the logistics subsided. I know I am good under pressure and have the ability to make decisions when necessary. So that’s just what I will do with this job; get to know my clients and then make decisions about the itinerary that will make their individual experience in Washington D.C. the best it can possibly be.

The other thing I learned about myself on this ride along is that I have a low tolerance for disrespect. I understand that kids have to be kids, and that their attention spans are not all that long. However, I do expect them to show respect at memorials, in restaurants that we are sharing with the general public, and to the rest of the group by being on time. Chaperones are the disciplinarians of the group and I know I’m going to have to work on relinquishing control to them when dealing with this issue of respect. I am after all, only an intermediary; I cannot control the values that were instilled in them before they came, or be responsible for any repercussions that may result from their misbehavior.

This past weekend reinforced to me how important learning outside of the classroom, or now in my case outside of my living room, is to the educational process. What I hope for my students on tour is that this travel experience allows them to engage with history in a way that no book can. That while history is the study of our past, that past is still alive and can be experienced in places like Washington D.C. I hope my tours of Washington D.C. open their eyes to the benefits of life-long learning and how travel can play an important role in their quest for education through exploration.