Wednesday, July 11, 2007

How I Manage My Student Tours in the Field


I've been reading several educational blogs concerning effective classroom management and for the most part they have been very good. My experience with managing students on tour was by the 'seat of my pants' and after trial and error and eventual success. I finally feel as if I am in almost complete control of my domain. However, I was always open to learning more about classroom management techniques; there's always room for improvement.

Professional 24-hour tour guides are bright, knowledgeable, and flexible but surprisingly, many do not have college degrees! What they do have is practical experience (which I prize above all else), a deep love and appreciation of history, and excellent social skills. The main mission of guiding is group management and communication. The group must be manageable before there is any communication! One must get their attention, and most importantly, keep their attention.

Some years ago, I had the opportunity to take my first course in education and one that entailed classroom management. The tour company I worked with became the first to become accredited. Because of this accreditation, all the tour guides needed to be ‘certified’ and go through a certification course (4-6 hours) as well as learn new ways to approach educational content and student management.

Unfortunately, the educational ‘professional’ was one who believed in motivating students with candy and promises. I don’t believe that for each correct answer from a student, we should be throwing a Jolly Roger at them as we would throw a fish to a seal. It’s undignified and demeaning. I also don’t believe that we should make promises that we might not be able to keep if we don’t have complete control over the situation i.e. "If you come back to the bus within ten minutes, then I can give you all an extra fifteen minutes swimming", only to find out that the hotel pool is closed that evening! I resent ‘carrots’ that would put the focus on anything other than the learning process. Running back and forth to the bus at the Jefferson Memorial to take a quick photo, without learning anything, in order to get more swimming time at the hotel, is counter to the mission of a true educational trip. That’s sightseeing.

After expressing my displeasure with his theories, and there were so many others I found offensive, I was asked by this trainer how I would reward students. I countered, “Education and knowledge are their own rewards; I believe in praising, but not bribing,”

While I am not a real touchy-feely sort of person, I recognized that my management became easier and facilitated educational goals when the students understood that I both liked and respected them. I do compliment my students and encourage them. Praising students for their curiosity and critical thinking skills bolsters self-esteem and worthiness; it also promotes more of the same. Students need to be praised, they don't get enough of it in their everyday lives, but the praise should be earned.

Occasionally, if I have extra money, I will treat them to ices, buy some pretzels, Krispy Kreams right from the bakery, or a ride on the carousel on the National Mall. Sometimes I have balls and frisbees stashed away in my bag in order to give them a half hour in between museums to 'blow off steam', which is important. If they’ve really put in a good, full day when a lot of demands and rules have been followed, I will return to the hotel early. Why? Because I love them! My rewards are a thank you, rather than a please; they are never announced beforehand.

But I am no pushover; my authority is well-established and I have high expectations for my students and challenge them at every opportunity. And believe me, they in turn, appreciate and respect me.

After listening to drivel for two hours, I had had enough and walked out. I don’t believe he had ever been in charge of a group in his life!

Tour Guide Challenges

While teachers are striving to keep their students seated and quiet in order to be receptive to learning, we have to keep them in lines (for extended periods), cross streets, enter buildings, up and down staircases, and get through security. We also need to monitor their behavior in restaurants, museums, and hotels. We’re on duty 24/7. Our communication efforts are often thwarted by outside noises, crowds, and other influences that we must plan for and deal with.

In many cases we also have to manage overprotective and/or demanding parents who are not accustomed to the schedule and rigors of student travel. Additionally, some parents haven’t cut the umbilical cord and are in the way of their children's growth spurts and chance at some independence and ‘space’. (Sometimes children need to learn to work out their own problems without parental interference.)

My groups can be as large as 57 students and adults, so you can imagine that priority # 1 is safety!

After years of honing my skills, I have come to the conclusion that the secret to getting the best response from the group is to have them understand that the tour guide is in charge (in tandem with the teacher), the tour guide loves and respects each and every student, and the tour guide does everything in the best interest of the group.

We’re supposed to lead; they’re supposed to follow. And it is best that they want to follow1

Establishing One’s Presence and Authority

From the moment I meet the group at baggage claim until the time they go through security to return home, I put myself in a position of authority. (Naturally I defer to the wishes of the teacher/organizer, but by that time we have already spent hours designing the tour together and have talked over how the tour is to be conducted.)

When I first greet them, I am warm and welcoming. I introduce myself, or have the teacher introduce me, which is much better. I answer any questions and it is at that point that I start learning their names. I inquire about their flight. I note that they look tired. I ask if they are hungry (typically we provide a meal after the flight since the airlines are not serving meals anymore) and tell them that we will get to a meal as soon as possible. I mention that they need to remove any cameras, film, jackets, rain gear, medication from their luggage, for once it is under the bus, they will not see their luggage until we arrive at the hotel – because it is difficult on the driver. And most importantly, to get their last ‘chews’ in because from this moment until they get back on the plane, there is no chewing gum allowed. (If you’ve read my post about gum, you’ll understand!) I introduce the driver in advance at baggage claim and have them greet him by name when they first meet him at the bus. So from the get-go I let them know that I am concerned about them and that I am the other person in control.

Bus Management

If possible, the seats in the back of the bus should be off-limits to students. If there are parents, I put them on the bus first and they sit in the back in what I call the, ‘Coffee Klatch’. I want to establish a classroom setting; after all, this experience is for the students. The teacher and I are up front in separate seats across from one another so we can confer. If there are far fewer students than seats, then I block off a few rows of the bus in the back to bring them closer together in the front. (Whenever students or adults spread out in a bus, the level of engagement drops significantly. When a group is ‘bunched-up’, they are more receptive. This is also true in theatre.)

I introduce the driver and then go over a detailed safety talk about riding in the coach, the do’s and don’ts, the use of the ‘recycling area’ (toilet), the fact that the bus is the driver’s ‘office’ and they should respect it and keep it clean. Before the group de-boards the bus at each stop, they are required to throw the garbage away as they leave the bus. A thorough cleaning before entering the hotel is necessary.

Adults always board and exit the bus first. (No student should be on the bus alone with a driver - for the driver’s protection. No one should stay on the bus that is sick; find another place, go back to the hotel, or get some help. (The driver should not have to be attentive to or responsible for sick people. It can be a dangerous situation when the bus is shut down and becomes either too hot or too cold, or the person gets ‘sick’.) The bus should not be looked upon as a detention center. (Why punish the driver?)

Rotate sides of the bus getting off the bus. Or have boys off first one time, and the girls off next next.

And while I don’t advocate people standing up in the bus, I do walk back and forth to have short conversations with the students to keep in 'touch'.

No cell phones, walkmen, IPODS, MP3’s, or gameboys are allowed on the bus during the tour. (I will allow them on long drives i.e. Williamsburg to DC.) But having to ask them each and every time to remove their electronics is annoying and takes up valuable time during commentary; there is also a bit of resentment on the part of the student when I interrupt a game or a favorite song.

The only thing consumed on the bus will be air and water. No food or candy. (Unless there is an emergency box lunch meal that has to be consumed on the bus because of time or weather.)

It is on the bus that I discuss my ‘catch phrases’ and nomenclature. These phrases and terms (some silly) are like secret code words for the group and bind them together. These phrases and words can relate to the way we line up, attitude, and philosophy. They are instructive and motivational. Sometimes the students add their own and personalize the experience. If there is more than one bus, one can see the difference in attitudes and deportment between and amongst the groups because of these phrases. I also have a set of hand signals in the event we are in an area where I cannot speak to the group i.e. a secured area in a Federal Building or a noisy crowd.

All this is explained in depth so that the students understand why these are necessary.

I always ‘high five’ them as I count them getting off and getting on the bus. The ‘high five’ has become most important and they usually smile while they are doing it.

Management in the Field

I set out a set of challenges and problems one can come across during the course of the tour and ask for suggestions on how we can make things easier. The students then take ownership of many of the rules. Some of them are quite creative and I have used them for all my subsequent tours.

When it is convenient, I also like to include the students in the planning process and give them an idea about logistics. Part of the educational process is learning how to travel and make choices. Teaching about options and flexibility is also important.

I personalize all the people with whom we are going to meet during the tour. I know the names of most of the guards and Capitol Police, managers of restaurants, wait staff, hotel maids etc. I explain to the students how hard their respective jobs are and why. It is our responsibility to help make their jobs easier and their day brighter. When they understand that these are real people trying to do their jobs, the students are far more respectful than if these people were just anonymous authority figures or servants.

It is important to teach the skills of getting around an urban environment. I need to teach the students how to walk on a sidewalk (look at the sidewalk, make an imaginary line down the center and say to the right of it.), go in and out of doors. (The revolving door is the most challenging: single file, to the right, one at a time, push and walk!), up and down staircases (same as walking down a sidewalk), on escalators (In a single line, stand on the right, or walk to the left.), elevators (Let people off first, don’t jump or press all the buttons!), on the metro (my infamous John Wayne imitation – but they don’t know who John Wayne was!).

Common courtesy like holding doors and giving seats to the elderly or physically challenged must also be taught.

I have a hand signal for a ‘huddle’ when I need to speak to them outside and there is a lot of noise.

If possible, I find a secluded place where they can sit in the shade. Students are far more receptive when seated and comfortable.

I break them up into smaller, adult-centered groups to visit memorials and museums etc. No one learns as much in a crowd as in smaller groups. In those cases I talk to them about the site first, tell them what they should look for, and give them a specific time and place to meet. With that system, I have never lost a student at the Lincoln/Korea/Vietnam Memorials, even when it is crowded at night.

I like planning a Hawaiian shirt day. That needs advance notice, so that the students can buy and pack it in their suitcase before traveling. On one of the days, in the middle of the tour when there are no ‘official’ visits, I announce the Hawaiian Shirt Day. This raises the spirits of the students, as well as the onlookers, and it becomes something they look forward to. You can't imagine the effect of the shirts on 57 people walking on the National Mall! (Designing tee shirts for the group is also wonderful, especially on the first and last day. They should be all the same color, preferably bright, so the students can be seen in a crowd.)

I like pointing out how other students (Student Tourists or STs, the lowest form of life on earth) act and are disrespectful as opposed to my ‘enlightened ‘AIT’s’ (Adults in Training). My students are respectful after seeing these ‘STs’ in action and normally report some bizarre or foolish behavior they witnessed.

Anything that I ask them to do, I follow myself. If they can’t have gum, I will not chew gum. If they cannot sit, then I will not sit. And I do tell them that I will not ask them to do anything that I’m not prepared to do myself.

Don’t forget the assessment! If you ask them to find out about something, you must allow some time for a discussion concerning their discoveries, opinions, and feelings.

And count, count, count! (See my posting on that)

Management in Restaurants

I like to have some upgraded meals and the students usually respond well to a charming French restaurant or something exotic. I do go over good manners and ask that they thank their servers and use ‘please’ or ‘no thank you’. Compliments go a long way. I also teach them the words, ‘ma’am’ and ‘sir’. In fact, I address my students as Miss or Mister on tour and as a group I refer to them as ladies and gentlemen or my AITs. The students respond much better to being termed as ladies and gentlemen than boys and girls. This is something that I would suggest in any classroom.

I usually call ahead to find out the table configurations and have them in table groups before they reach the restaurant. Adults always are seated and served first. (I tell my AIT’s that it is because they’re older and slower, which is the real reason; we do take longer to eat.)

Normally their table manners are atrocious and I don’t have time to teach them how to hold a fork or how to cut meat. I’m concerned with keeping the table clean and not having them play with the salt and pepper shakers, sugar, etc.

I always go around to inquire at each table how the food is etc.

They need to be mindful that there are other people dining there as well.

Management in Hotels


This is a real problem area.

It is not their home or personal room; it is on loan to them and belongs to the hotel.

They need to share beds (even the guys –one above the covers, one below.)

They need to be respectful of the furniture etc.

There are other people in the hotel who are trying to sleep, at all hours of the day and night.

They need to be dressed properly with shoes when outside the room.

I establish a room captain who holds the keys and assign specific tasks for the room group each night and morning to clean the room. (It is imperative to give them real specific tasks i.e. folding the wet towels over the bathtub, putting all the trash in the bin, keeping your clothes either in the closet or in your suitcase, which should remain closed during the day.)

There is a curfew and lights out time. (This must be respected by the adults who should neither disturb the students, nor try to have secret pizza parties after hours with their son/daughter’s room.)

Always have security guard on duty to protect the students.

There are no room-to-room calls except to the teacher in case of a problem or emergency.

They need to know what to do in case of fire and where to meet up with the group.

I don’t advocate the ‘taping ' of rooms’ doors anymore; it has tipped off pedophiles as to which rooms contain students.

Girls and boys rooms need to be separated and no connecting doors between student rooms.

They need to set their own alarms and room clocks in addition to the wake-up call that is arranged for the entire group. (No excuse for being late!)

They need to place their name tags on the inside handle of the room door, so they wont forget it (on the task list).

But more importantly, they need some time to relax, but not enough to get into trouble. I advocate a journal or workbook where they can record the events of the day. Nothing very demanding, but something to get them focused. I hardly ever have problems with noise or deportment etc. when students have a little bit of work to do. Breakfast is a good time to check this over.

Management of Time

Knowing how much time to spend in a place or on one's commentary is essential. Knowing when to stop. Knowing how long it takes from one site to another ,with and without traffic, is also important In touring; the effective use of time is the hallmark of a good guiding. A good guide factors in the time it takes to get on and off the bus, which is about fifteen minutes per for a large group, how much time it takes to get to places (standing in line, going up stairs, going through security etc.) And always work on worse case scenario; most of the time you'll be pleasantly surprise, but don't count on it!

Being strict about meeting times is important. Students need to understand about logistics and appointments. They also need to understand how to plan for the unforeseen. Five minutes, literally, can make a difference in Washington, DC between making or missing an appointment. It is always better to be a bit early. Time and tide wait on no man!


Full service tour guides have to do all of the above. Most of my colleagues are accustomed to teachers who just want to sit back and let the guide do everything. All of my current teachers are repeat and we have everything down to a system. Naturally, seasoned teachers can be of great service by preparing the students beforehand by having the students make out reports (see Teaching to the Trip) , organizing afterschool meetings to discuss the sights and logistics, and sharing some of the responsibility in the field. Many of my teachers have the students sign behavior contracts before the students can come on the trip. But most of the new teachers I have conducted don’t have a clue how to motivate and move large crowds of students.

As a rule, it only takes me a couple of hours the first day to convey all of this to the students in a fun and engaging way. The lessons stay with them for a lifetime. A Principal who tours with me in the autumn tells me that my management on tour positively affects his classroom management for the rest of the year. Several of my teachers have borrowed my catch phrases and nomenclature. And I, in turn, learn from my teachers and administrators, at least they have bona fide experience in the classroom!

But most of all, one needs to exhibit the essential leadership qualities of compassion, honesty, courage, and consistency. Everything else follows.

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