Lessons From a Chaperone on a Group Trip to Austria

Youth Orchestras of Essex County conquer an Alp

I first realized that the trip to Austria with 41 members of a youth orchestra wasn't going to be stress-free when my wife, who had spent about a year organizing the excursion, told me I was going to be a chaperone. And I'd have to submit to a background check.

That bit of irony was nothing, however, to the panic I felt as I watched my teenaged charges stream past me and wander off in different directions in London's massive Heathrow Terminal as I was pulled aside for a detailed airport security check.

Another unnerving moment came in Innsbruck on our second night of the trip. In a walk through streets near our hotel, a kid who was distinctly from New Jersey walked past me heading back toward the hotel. What was he doing out here? And how many more were on the loose?

During the 10-day jaunt by the Youth Orchestras of Essex County to Munich, Germany and Innsbruck, Salzburg and Vienna, Austria, there were two lost passports, one missing camera, numerous lost bags, and kids caught jumping out of hotel windows. But to my relief, all the musicians made it back home to New Jersey.

The kid on the street of Innsbruck, I realized later, was one of several out with a chaperone. The window jumping was a lark, although a noisy one, into a hotel's courtyard. And Heathrow was no more challenging to these kids than the Short Hills Mall.

Their concerts were a success. New friendships emerged. Their delights ranged from riding a 40-yard slide in a salt mine to scaling an Alp. They loved Austria.

Since returning, I have done what I should have before the trip: Consult with an expert about tactics. Like the debate over whether you should put tape on students' doors to make sure they stay in their rooms all night.

Jeff Wirtz, the chairman of the music department at Hinsdale Central High School just outside Chicago, has been on so many orchestra trips to Europe that he's lost count. But not his enthusiasm.

Wirtz had two main pieces of advice for parents about to be chaperones.

"Pay attention to your responsibility, but within the framework that the director of the trip is asking," he warned. "Sometimes a parent wants to control things the way you do at home, but all kids aren't raised the same and it doesn't work. Sometimes adults don't understand the complexity, and conflicts can arise."

Wirtz remembered one angry chaperone who told some teenagers they were being sent home on the next plane because they were being too loud in their room. Wirtz had to tell the parent he had overstepped his role, and the kids were not being sent home after their parents had paid $6,000 to send them to Europe.

Being a Chaperone Is Not a Vacation

"Follow the expectations of the group leader," Wirtz advises would-be chaperones.

While some chaperones may be too controlling, others take the job too lightly.

"The one thing I'd drive home to a parent is that being a chaperone is not a vacation. It's a responsibility," he said. Parents can't just go touring on their own, and they may be up much of the night.

"When I get back home, I do nothing but sleep for a week," he said.

There are so many lessons for a rookie chaperone. Here are some tips learned the hard way:

Lost luggage is always a possibility. Because of a missed flight, our group lost nearly half its luggage and one trombone for 48 hours. So keep the meds with you in carry-on luggage. One day's change of underwear and a shirt may also come in handy.

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