The Trenches of Teaching

I’ve always been fascinated by the two great wars: World Wars 1 and 2, and keep revisiting these unforgettable events in history in cycles.

I’ll never forget the novel ‘Birdsong’ by Sebastian Faulks with its terribly vivid descriptions of the horrors of trench warfare in the First World War. Troops would be stuck for weeks in narrow trenches which became their bedrooms, toilets, recreation rooms, asylums and very, very often graves. One thing I had never thought about until I read Sebastian Faulks’ book is the stench; not just of unwashed bodies, but of rotting corpses and dysentery, that would waft through the air in the lulls between fighting, and the intimacy, vulnerability and bonds of friendship formed between soldiers who shared these conditions. For one who knows about these two wars only third hand, it still fills me with horror when I imagine life during that time, and I feel saddened by the fact that the memory of those times and the unanswered questions and lessons to be learned are fading. You can a watch a video in the link below.

Trench Life in World War 1

Why am I writing this? What have trenches got to do with teaching? Are classrooms a war zone of pointlessness? Not really. Trenches are narrow places, where every sense is bombarded with intimate knowledge. Sometimes classrooms feel like this; where teachers and students work so closely that the intimacy becomes something that they cherish all their lives, or flee from for the rest of their lives.


A World War 1 trench that shows how narrow the space was and how closely soldiers lived and fought.

I’ve never met a teacher who wasn’t tired. When you try to provide the best lessons you can give with dark circles under your eyes, often in resistant or disruptive atmospheres, often with sickness controlled by a quick, popped pill, I know it takes its toll. And that hurts me, and makes me feel that teachers are heroes second only to parents, and the songs of both need to be sung. You can go home after a hard day with the persistent feeling that your intestines are on display like streamers, and the smells and tastes of the classes take days to fade, like the fatigue

that sets
the very bones.

And whether your classroom is a battleground, or a haven of refuge, if you’re a teacher who likes to get their hands dirty, you’ll know all about the

Trenches of Teaching,
those narrow
are up against
students’ faces;
where nothing is secret;
where each sees
the whites of the other’s eyes;
faults, worst moments,
weaknesses and taints, all,
laid out in stark detail.

Where strengths and abilities
sound out now strident, now jarring trumpet blasts,
in the midst of the pipes
of patience, sweetness and compassion,
where acts of legendary heroism
and profound sacrifice
rub shoulders
with acts of unbelievable cowardice
and extraordinary malice;

Where friends stand faithful
and get teachers’ trench foot,
and are marred for life,
when dysentery runs at the mouths
of old and young,
and where one can end up
before a firing squad
for falling asleep on duty
at the playground.

Trenches of Teaching,
where the best and worst
of Students and Teachers,
are laid bare,
and there is no hiding,
no running, no evading
the true colours of who we are.


Yes, those very same
Trenches of Teaching
are the forges
where miracles are wrought,
where the Kingdom of God comes,
where all the colours bleed into one
perfect, bright, white Rainbow,
where spiders turn into butterflies,
and grapes grow on briars;
where Transformation stirs to Life,
where the Lion and the Lamb
lie down beside each other…

If teachers would not give up,
and turn cynical,
bitter and sour-shriveled;
if teachers learned to stoke
and farm their passion;
if teachers did not see
the need to stop being generous;
if teachers loved their students
right to the very end;
if teachers remained learners,
who saw their own lack

and knew when to withdraw
for the Spirit of God
to do His quiet work in the Heart.

I’m in the middle of a week of struggling to find a solution to the constant disruptions in the class, and my efforts seem to have awakened a hornets’ nest. I’m deeply thankful for friends, colleagues and a principal who share these precious trenches with me, who have my back, and who are on their knees alongside me, and who understand the heart of what I’m doing. I was battling with thoughts whether I should have compromised, just let the disruptions carry on and accept them as part of a teacher’s life, but then I came across a post this morning from a man, Stevenson Stockman, whose poetry I love (you’ll find his blog ‘Soul Surmise’ in the list of blogs under those worth reading on the side), and two lines from that post leaped out and wrapped me in a strong, loving embrace, and whispered in my ear, ‘You are there for such an hour as this.’

And so are we all, in all our unique situations.

He longs for those who enter the Kingdom to head further up and further in. He longs that they would grow up again and head out into that Kingdom, to discover the dangerous terrain that God would long to redeem. (Stevenson Stockman)


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