There are many ways of seeing the world that don’t have to break the bank. One of those are student exchange programmes accessible to high school learners and university students alike. On a TopDeck tour of Egypt recently I met Rubén Martínez Moreno. Rubén is a Foreign Languages Teacher & Head of European Programmes at Emilio Pérez Piñero High School (Calasparra, Murcia, Spain). In his work with learners Rubén has organised many successful exchange programmes, so I thought he would be an insightful guest blogger to provide his ten tips in making sure your exchange programme goes off without a hitch and produces lasting impact. Let’s listen to Rubén’s advice:
I am not really a vocational teacher; I ended up in this by accident. I was 16 when I joined a student exchange between my high school and one from England. It was the first time I went abroad. The experience of travelling there on my own and living with a new family in a new culture opened my eyes and my world view.
As a result, when I completed my studies, since I wasn’t sure about what to do professionally, the idea of becoming a teacher seemed interesting to me because I could give other students that opportunity of going to a new country and live a totally new experience with them. Ever since my career started, I have been travelling abroad with students in many ways: organising ordinary school trips, developing innovation projects or attending international workshops with teachers and students from all around Europe. We recently won an important competition called Euroscola and we were invited by the European Union to take part on a debate in the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France (visit the blog, and see the video ‘Historia de una Maleta`, which made us win the contest).
However, among all possible ways of travelling with students, in my opinion there is no doubt that the most enriching activity that gives the student more chances to learn, mature, and become more autonomous, are student exchanges.
By means of a student exchange, I take a group of around 20 students to a small town, whether in Germany or in England, where they live with a host family; they must go to school with the host students, participating in their activities and follow their routines. The first days might be difficult for some of them, but after these are gone, the experience turns amazingly enriching. They do not only learn a new language, but they also learn how to adapt and make their way into a different culture. After a few months, they change roles and the host student will travel to Spain and become the guest student.
Here are my top ten tips for organising an exchange:
- Make sure this is not merely a school trip: students don`t join an exchange to drink cheap booze in a hotel room with their classmates and be a zombie in museums for the rest of the day. An exchange is a cultural immersion, not an opportunity to party. For the teacher it turns to be the best activity too, because you see a clear evolution in students from the first until the last day, and since they stay with host families, you get some proper sleep at night!
- Prepare to grow student’s interest: meet with them a few times before the journey and study the area your will visit in order to learn a bit about its traditions, customs, geography, and history. It will make students find the trip more useful and meaningful (see the blog of our students’ research before travelling to Germany)
- Good knowledge of the target culture: the teacher must have a fairly good insight into the culture of the foreign land, due to the fact that he is going to be the mediator between the students and the foreign country and language.
- Trust in your foreign counterparts: a good understanding between teachers from the countries involved is crucial, and it will enable that the whole thing really works and it will solve any conflict or sudden difficulty that might appear. The host teachers always organise the schedule and activities taking place in that country, and these will be balanced by trust and empathy between teachers.
- Good matching of the students: it is important to prepare a good questionnaire to find out students’ personalities, their likes and dislikes, their dietary requirements, if they have pets … Sometimes it is difficult to guess which student will fit with whom, but if the matching is done appropriately, students will get on well from the very beginning and things will go really smoothly.
- Patience: students will complain a lot at the beginning, saying that they don’t like the food, that their families have no Wi-Fi at home, that they don’t talk enough to them, and so on. Some setbacks arise, most of them unimportant and linked to misunderstandings in language.
- Flexibility: plans might be changed because of different reasons and unexpected events will come and go. Be sure to be flexible and adapt to whatever changes you may come across.
- Conflict resolution: even though most students will complain a lot about insignificant stuff, sometimes they may be right. The family they are with might be a little weird, although the probability of this to happen is usually quite low. In such cases it is important to act fast and with determination, and even though taking a student out from his host family is the least desirable thing, you might have to do it.
- Do not plan many activities as the guest school: unlike other trips, the main goal here is not that students get to visit many cities, with their monuments and museums, but to spend time with the host families and get to integrate into a new world. Therefore the main point of an exchange is living together and sharing.
- Lastly, thank families for their effort and support: treat them right, make them be involved and aware of the fact that they are crucial, that they are the most essential part of any exchange. Things will go all right if families try to make the student feel like they are at home.
If you are beyond the fray of student exchange programmes, there are other ways to travel on a budget. Two of the more well known examples are Couchsurfing and AirBnb – both useful ways to see a city through local’s eyes. Now, get out there and explore.