Leading overseas expeditions


Running an overseas expedition as a teacher can be immensely challenging, but also incredibly rewarding. Brett Court discusses the professional benefits of running such trips and offers some advice to others.

Every other August you will find me half-way up a mountain or trekking across the jungle somewhere in the world with a group of teenagers completely out of their comfort zone both physically and mentally. It is not every teacher’s idea of a great summer holiday, but for me these experiences have made me a better teacher.

I first got involved in school expeditions as an enthusiastic young teacher, having had an opportunity to travel on a World Challenge expedition supporting the teacher leading the trip. As teachers, we were there for the pastoral support, helping the kids to get the most out of the expedition, and these experiences have been invaluable as I have progressed in my profession.

There are three main reasons why I have continued to be involved in running overseas expeditions: what I see the students get from the experience, my own professional development, and simply the experience itself.

It is this final point that I think draws many teachers – but my advice is to think carefully if this is what you are doing it for. This is not the same as travelling with a group of friends. When I took a group to Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, before setting off I told myself that I wouldn’t get to the top and that I would have to come back on my own time to achieve that goal. That way when you are on the mountain and things aren’t going right, your judgement won’t be clouded by your own agenda or motivations.

It is the benefit I see students gaining from these kinds of experiences that really motivates me. You do have to work to manage expectations before you set off because no matter how much research they do, nothing can really prepare students for the reality of the expedition. But, I have probably taken close to 70 students on expedition in my career and I would say that only one or two didn’t get absolutely everything they could out of the extra-curricular experience.

Professional development

It is not just the kids that benefit from getting involved in something so life-changing. It has also helped my professional development. As I mentioned, the key role of the teacher on the trip is in a pastoral capacity and having these experiences has helped me to develop the softer, interpersonal skills that are vital in a pastoral role back in school.

More significantly, however, I think it has helped me to become a better leader. Within six years of qualifying as a teacher I became a subject leader and in that role there are many lessons that I learnt out on expedition which I have been able to apply in school.

There will be times on expedition where things aren’t going as planned, you are physically and mentally drained, but people are looking at you to come up with a solution. In these situations you really need to dig deep and find your leadership skills. You learn how to manage people’s emotions and anxieties in stressful situations and learn to value an interpersonal approach to leadership.

Making difficult decisions in high pressured situations is also a common feature in school life, particularly as you take on more senior roles. Sometimes there is simply no good or easy option, you just need to use the support system you have around you and think calmly and logically to come up with a solution. 

For example, during a school day – for any number of reasons – staff, students and parents can all confront your decision-making. As a leader in the school or in the classroom, you have to maintain clarity of thought and remove the emotion from the situation. By approaching the situation calmly, bringing evidence and offering viable solutions you can end up with a decision that benefits everyone without rushing into knee-jerk reactions.

The expeditions have also taught me how to let go and to lead through people. It helped me to understand that not everyone will be working at my pace or to my expectations, but that doesn’t mean that the job isn’t going to get done.

On expedition you need to learn to sit back and let the students make the decisions, even if it is spending hours trying to decide which of five equally suitable restaurants the group should eat at that evening!

Advice for others

One tip I would give to teachers running overseas expeditions is to look at how you can bring that experience back into school to have an impact on the rest of the students. 

Only a small group will end up going on a trip each year, but there are valuable lessons you can bring back. For example, I have started running whole-school enterprise days where we break from curriculum for each year group and have a mini-World Challenge day.

This year we did one about water aid inspired by a trip we had taken to Uganda. We were doing a building project at a school (pictured above) that was based at the top of a mountain and to get any water for cement, washing, drinking etc you needed to walk down a half-mile, steep slope through the trees to reach a spring in the rock face – and then obviously back up again.

It really made me question how much water we really needed and I wanted a way of getting that lesson across back home. So, we made it real for the students. 

First they were tasked with doing research projects about the issue of water around the world, then we set up an activity out on the school field in which the students had to work in groups to collectively carry 50 litres of water across an obstacle course. The response was really positive and this challenge day is something we will continue to do to bring the benefits of expedition to as many students as possible.

The right support

When you are getting involved with a trip like this you need to work with an external organisation that has the right expertise. You will find that they take a lot of the hard work away from the teachers in the planning stages – they will chase outstanding payments, do the relevant risk-assessments, find local projects and organisations to join up with in the country, etc. 

One thing I would advise is not to do something like this every year. It takes away four weeks from your summer break and you do need to come up for air at some point. Many schools have two leadership groups so that teachers can be involved in expeditions on alternate years.

Think it through

I think the most important thing to do, if you have not done something like this before, is make sure you take the time to think about why you want to do it and what you want to get out of it. Do your research and make an informed decision; talk to schools that have done it, talk to colleagues that you trust. It is not for everyone, but similarly anyone can get involved. It was not something I had ever done before, but now I can’t imagine not going on expedition.

It is not easy, and it can be harder for staff because there are only two of you out there (dependent on ratio numbers) while the students have a group for support, but if you give it a go you won’t regret it. 

The changes you can make to the travelling students are unforgettable. You literally see them become adults and functioning as part of a team over the course of the trip. They won’t forget it and neither will you!

  • Brett Court is a PE teacher and director of teaching and learning at Amersham School in Buckinghamshire. He has been involved in five World Challenge expeditions spanning 10 years. Visit www.world-challenge.co.uk

CAPTION: New horizons: Gabugoto Primary School in Uganda where Brett’s World Challenge team helped to build a new classroom (above); an adventure to Huayna Picchu in Peru (top)


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