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Should I Stay or Should I Go?

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In today’s environment of budget cuts and ever increasing demands on teacher time, this song from The Clash seems like an appropriate anthem for music programs across the country. For decades, performance travel has been a cornerstone of the school music experience. The benefits for students are undeniable, but are they justifiable in the current climate?

While students can learn plenty in the classroom and at school performances, the education they receive on the road is priceless and simply cannot be duplicated. Most educators are likely already well aware of the benefits students and teachers alike receive from performance-based travel, but may be uncertain where to begin when planning a trip, or how to justify the undertaking to parents and administrators in today’s economy. By getting an early start and carefully considering all aspects of the trip, making the case for bringing students on a once-in-a-lifetime experience should be no trouble at all.

With A Little Help from My Friends

The first decision to make once it has been determined that a trip is right for your students is whether to go it alone or bring in a tour operator to help plan the details. It’s important to fully understand all the elements that go into planning a trip before making this decision, as it will greatly impact the amount of work and time commitment required in order to ensure the trip’s success.

With the plethora of travel websites that have cropped up in the past decade or so, it is easier today than ever before to go online and book many components of the trip, including travel, hotel and restaurant reservations. However, those are just a handful of the considerations that go into planning a trip. Other plans that need to be coordinated include on site transportation, arrangements for safe loading and unloading of students’ instruments, ensuring appropriate security at the hotel, managing and tracking student payments, creating rooming lists, and developing a detailed itinerary that includes not just the performance/competition elements the group will be attending, but also keeps the students occupied during down time. Additionally, it’s important to have a plan in place to cover the “what ifs,” such as a student who gets sick, a flight that gets cancelled, or a bus that breaks down.

While many music directors do decide to take on planning these elements on their own, for others the simplification of working with a tour operator is worth what is usually some additional expense. A good tour operator will handle the bulk of the logistical issues noted above, which become more nuanced as groups become larger. Having the history and experience of planning multiple trips, tour operators often can negotiate better deals from vendors, such as hotels and restaurants. They should also be able to anticipate anything that may not go according to plan and be ready to address issues with alternative plans, on-site support, and liability insurance. In addition, some tour operators offer opportunities and experiences that wouldn’t be available to a teacher trying to plan on his or her own.

Right Where I Belong

Once the decision has been made whether to use a tour operator or go it alone, the next step is the fun part of planning: figuring out where to go and what to do once you get there. There are a multitude of destinations to choose from, from Disneyland to New York City, and everything in between, and a variety of experiences for students, including performances, competitions, and workshops, as well as museums and other cultural sites. But how do you choose what’s right for your students?

While there is no single answer or resource that can make this decision for you, there are several factors that, when taken into account, can narrow down the options. Size of the group, goals for the students, budget, and the school’s location may all impact where the best place to go might be. Once these elements have been decided, other teachers are often some of the best sources for recommendations and information on trips. There are numerous online forums, such as those at MENC.org, where teachers are discussing travel and can help educators better understand the pros and cons of various locations. Alternately, if for those who choose to work with a tour operator, most travel companies can provide custom options for trips that address a group’s specific needs.

Let Me Go

Once the decisions of where to go and how to plan the trip have been decided, there is still one more critical step before you can offer a trip to your students securing buy in from administration. While each district is unique, concerns from administrators typically include cost to students and the school, district liability, and student time out of the classroom. And while many schools have specific paperwork that needs to be filled out to secure approval, often the best course for addressing these concerns is to develop a proposal for travel that can be presented to the administration. This should include:

#149; Who is planning and taking responsibility for the trip?
#149; How will liabilities be handled is it the district’s responsibility, or will someone else cover liability?
#149; Destination, trip length and itinerary.
#149; Anticipated number of students participating.
#149; Where will chaperones be secured (will it be parents or other teachers) and how many will there be?
#149; Educational benefits (or how the trip addresses specific curriculum requirements if appropriate).
#149; Cost (to students and the school) and how costs will be covered (e.g. fundraisers).

By providing these details to the district, they will be able to better understand all the elements of the trip and your commitment to it, making it easier and faster for them to provide approval.

Ain’t Got a Lot of Money

Many great school music programs aren’t in particularly wealthy districts, and even with the full district’s support, typically students will need to cover much of the cost for their trip. But in today’s economy, it can be harder than ever to ask parents to cover the full cost of travel for their students. However, there are many opportunities for raising money, ranging from bake sales and soliciting donations from local business to selling products like candy, wrapping paper, or pizza. A good resource for information on a variety of fundraising options is www.brightsparktravel.com/fundraising.

These activities will not only enable students to participate, but provide valuable lessons to students and build your program’s community even beyond what would organically happen on the trip. When students work to raise money to achieve a goal, they are able to understand the benefits of hard work and how working as a group can bring about a desired result, skills that will remain valuable well into adulthood. Students also gain a better understanding of the value of their money, and saving in order to get what they want.

Jim Gibbons has been a music instructor for the last 19 years and is currently the director of bands at Oxford High School in Oxford, Mich. Jim has continued Oxford’s tradition of travel for the past 13 years, having taken his bands to the Mackinaw Islands, Mich., New York City, and Disney World in Orlando, Fla.

Dean McDowell is a tour consultant with Brightspark Travel (formerly New Horizons Tour and Travel) and has planned hundreds of cultural and performance tours, as well as more than 60 Bowl Game and Holiday Parade tours, during his 20-year tenure with the company. Dean left teaching in 1986 after 11 years at Fort Jennings Public Schools and Ada Public Schools, where his concert and marching bands consistently received superior ratings at the local and state level, to pursue a career in travel after traveling with his own students for many years.

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