Lessons From a Chaperone on a Group Trip to Austria

Youth Orchestras of Essex County conquer an AlpCourtesy Hallie Borstel
Members of the Youth Orchestras of Essex County conquer an Alp during their trip this summer to Austria. The chaperones eventually made it to the top too

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.

Hotels with pools are a great idea for the kids to let off steam at the end of a long day of cathedrals, castles or museums. It cuts down on the amount they will be running the hallways (they will be in the hallways) or sneaking out of the hotel. Pools can be as important to the kids as the hotel bar is for adults.

Unfortunately, most European hotels don't have pools, Wirtz said, and he advises trying to find Americanized hotels.

Wirtz also checks menus before leaving home. "I try to get local food if possible, but in an American way. For instance, we'll have them served sauerbraten, but with French fries."

On our trip, we got a steady diet of chopped up meat in a cream sauce. For those expecting the delights of weinerschnitzel or other foods distinctly Austrian, they were disappointed.

Special diets can cause special problems. Make sure the people who ordered vegetarian or kosher meals get them. When the meals started arriving at our tables with a certain monotony, the vegetarian meals started to get diverted. And the vegetarians were going hungry.

The same issue was occurring for observant Jews when another round of pork in cream sauce was served. Fighting over the meals was probably the most contentious problem we faced.

Find out how ambitious the organized tours are. Our days consistently started between 6 a.m. and 7 a.m. After a morning stop for a rehearsal or performance by the musicians, walking tours as long as five hours were planned. The line of kids looked like a pack of shuffling refugees that collapsed whenever the tour guide stopped to explain something. Avoid the death marches.

Chaperones Should Be Flexible, Give Them Some Freedom

Wirtz asks that his walking tours be limited to two hours.

Set room assignments before leaving. Match the kids according to interests, but we also varied the roommates at each stop in an effort to avoid cliques and help the kids broaden their friendships within the orchestra. To a remarkable degree, it worked.

Now, about that tape on the doors.

"Yeah, the tape does work, but at the same time, what it does to high school kids is it really belittles them," Wirtz said. "It makes them think, 'we are going to find a way to get away with things.'

"I try to put it back in their lap, make it not at all 'what can I get away with,' but 'what are my responsibilities,'" he said.

Wirtz does recommend the tape for junior high school students. And no matter what the age of the students, Wirtz has a bed check, hallway patrols, and stations someone in the lobby so no one slips out at night, particularly in large cities like Rome.

Be flexible and allow the kids some freedom. They want to be treated like adults. While jumping out of windows must be discouraged, it's OK to give them some leeway in exploring nearby neighborhoods, especially in the daytime. And we found that places like Heathrow and the side streets of Innsbruck were a piece of cake for them. It was the adults who panicked. Or got lost.