Nathan Wheeler, Director of Bands at Clinton High School in Clinton, Illinois, first traveled with ETI back in 2002, which was during his second year of teaching.
“Being a new teacher taking a high school band to Florida, I felt so much better knowing I had a team of people helping me make the trip a success,” Wheeler said. “We had a great time in Disney World and at the beach! Our escort at that time had the kids calling her grandma by the end of the trip and she really took care of us like a grandmother would.”
Since that first trip, Wheeler has worked with ETI for seven more trips, venturing with his students to destinations like Florida and Toronto.
“Every time, it’s the same great experience!” he said, noting that even as a veteran traveler with high school groups, unexpected events are bound to take place. “The staff at ETI, from those in the home office to the escorts on the trip, are always willing to pitch in to solve problems and allow me to just focus on the kids and the performances.”
One of Wheeler’s favorite experiences from his many band trips over the years is when his student bands round the corner at Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom and begin marching down Main Street USA while hundreds of people are lining the parade route cheering.
“I get goosebumps every time, even in the sweltering heat!” Wheeler recalled. “This is an experience I have kids come back to me years later and talk about. They love going to Disney World, but they always remember what it felt like to march in a Disney parade.”
For some of Wheeler’s students, this is their first trip to Florida.
“I love being part of students broadening their horizons and seeing the bigger world outside of our community,” he explained. “The biggest lesson I’ve learned from these trips is that you have to be willing to ask for and accept help. There is no way one band director can take care of the needs of 100 students and 25 chaperones every minute of every day of the trip. I have learned to trust my chaperones to do what I expect of them and trust student leaders to help the band. I have found that many people are eager to help, if you ask them.”
Wheeler says this also extends to the ETI staff.
“I don’t hesitate to ask them if we can change an aspect of the itinerary if I think it will help the trip run smoother,” he said. “They really go out of their way to make sure it is a customized experience for our band, not just a cookie cutter itinerary they have cranked out for several groups. They will accommodate any and every need, no matter how small it might seem.”
Wheeler’s biggest piece of advice for other educators looking to embark into the realm of student travel is to get started with your planning early.
“It really takes more than a year to line up where you and your students want to go, decide what type of performance you want to have, promote the trip to the school board and families, and fundraise for the trip,” Wheeler said, suggesting seeking advice from other teachers who have taken trips and especially from your trip coordinator. “I send emails weekly to trip coordinators when another question pops into my head. When we went to Canada, one of my biggest concerns was about documentation to cross the border. My trip coordinator went above and beyond to make sure I had the answers straight from the governments themselves so we were prepared to cross into another country. Planning ahead early, with the help of a seasoned veteran of student travel, will really help you to enjoy more while on the trip.”
It's easy for Wheeler to pinpoint the reason why he returns to ETI time and time again for his student trips. The answer? The people.
“They truly make you feel like family,” Wheeler said, remembering a post-trip follow up call he once received from one of ETI’s trip coordinators. “She had heard we had an issue with the hotel and wanted to make sure she understood the situation and what she could do on her end to make it a better experience in the future.”
After speaking for about 30 minutes on the phone about how things were going in each other’s lives, Wheeler learned the trip coordinator was hosting her son’s graduation party later that day.
“I was so impressed that she took the time on a busy day in her life to check in on our band’s experience,” he said. “In the years that followed, we spent time during our conversations catching up on how her son was doing and how my family was. The people at ETI care. That is the bottom line. They care.”
Though Wheeler—who has now traveled with student groups for 20 years—has had other companies approach him offering the latest apps, websites and fundraising tips claiming to make his trips even easier, he says he doesn’t care about any of it.
“I want to know that there are real, genuine people who are willing to help me create a great experience for my students,” he said. “ETI gets that and they deliver each and every time!”
Courtesy of ETI.