From camouflage to classroom - troops to teachers by George Vlachonikolis

In 2013, the UK government introduced the Troops to Teachers scheme to facilitate ex-military service personnel to re-train as teachers. Over the following 5 years, some 363 ex-service personnel had been recruited (with 65 leaving before graduation), receiving PGCE tuition at the University of Brighton.

Dr Mark Price, course tutor, Troops to Teachers, wrote, ‘It was the DfE’s assertion that soldiers would bring with them transferable skills, expertise and values into teaching, combined with the potential to inspire and motivate young people … since its inception, however, the programme has courted criticism. Smith, (2012), Chadderton (2014) and Tipping (2016), among others, questioned the strategy which appeared to legitimise the view that a solution to a pervasive unruly underclass in schools is to champion traditional values of discipline, modelled by ex-forces staff.’

From Camouflage to Classroom by George VlachonikolisSo, what of it?  Is there any more value in recruiting an ex-serviceman as a teacher, above any other former career?  As a soldier who became a teacher myself, I have some skin in the game here.  

I joined the British Army at 23 and stayed until I was 30. I did not have a typical military career though. After a year of leadership training at Sandhurst, I commissioned in 2006 into the Educational and Training Services (ETS), where I studied for my PGCE. However, I quickly pursued attachments with other units to broaden my experience and I ended up on two operational tours to Afghanistan as part of infantry battle groups. In 2007 I deployed with the Worcestershire and Sherwood Foresters Regiment, and then three years later, I deployed with the Scots Guards and continued with the 2nd Battalion, Scots Regiment when they rotated in the theatre.

Has all that experience helped me be a teacher?  Undoubtedly, yes.  I think teaching is a very challenging profession.  There are high stakes objectives at the end of the year.  It is an emotionally, physically and intellectually draining journey to get there.  And, every September, it starts all over again.  So, absolutely yes, being in the Army has helped me function more effectively in the classroom. So much so, in fact, that I wrote a book about it. 

From Camouflage to Classroom, published by John Catt Educational, is my attempt to distil everything I learned from my time in the British Army in Afghanistan and brought to my classroom teaching. The book’s aim is to make a positive contribution to real teachers in real schools, teaching real students – and as such, it is meant to be something different from the usual fodder. Instead of relying on academia to justify my conclusions, I use lived military experiences to actually cut through a great many of the fads and bogus theories around teaching. 

So, what of discipline? Is it true that I’m ‘better at discipline’ than someone else simply because I was once in the Army?  If this was the real purpose of the Troops to Teacher scheme then I think they got it wrong.  When you watch shows about the Army on TV it just looks like people shouting at each other. I’m sure everyone can recall the opening scene from Full Metal Jacket and the nasty sweary sergeant.  It’s the classic arc of the military story: a ragtag bunch of cadets get shouted at and sent through a muddy obstacle course that usually involves leopard-crawling under barb wire. After a quick montage, a cohesive fighting unit emerges. Cut to a war-fighting scene where the all-conquering unit now takes on all-comers, beating the odds and hoisting the flag on top of some dead enemy’s corpse.

I would suggest that shouting at your students in school until they form a cohesive unit is a bad idea. This isn’t really the way it goes.  The thing that no-one seems to understand from the outside is that all the shouting is done with a purpose in mind. The sergeant wants to get the cadets somewhere. From A to B. From zero to hero. There is a purpose, and if it’s done professionally, it’s done with love. That particular word might sound weird but I chose it on purpose.  I don’t mean love with a big red heart and googly eyes.  I mean love as in ‘care’.  I think it would be true to say that every platoon commander should care deeply about the soldiers they lead.  And I hope that all teachers care about their students in this way too; that you care about their success.

George Vlachonikolis Author of From Camouflage to Classroom

The idea that ex-soldiers might be more likely to instil traditional models of discipline in the classroom, completely misses the point about strong leader-subordinate relationships.  These relationships are not built on some sort of shouty alpha-omega hierarchy, far from it.    

If you’re at the gates of your poorly fortified patrol base in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, walking up and down the platoon line inspecting your soldier’s fighting order as they vomit on their boots with anxiety … you had better love them. More to the point, you had better hope that they know it as well. It takes a lot of courage to walk head-first into a mine-sodden area with easy ambush points and poor visibility. Nobody is going to run that gauntlet if they don’t think there’s someone with them who’s got their back. Shouting to be assertive is not what is needed.  And although I recognise that the classroom is not a battlefield, the principle still holds.  As an ex-serviceman, my version of ‘discipline’ doesn’t rest on some artificial need to be assertive and show everybody how tough I am.  Instead, it’s all about building mutual-trust and care.

When Dr Mark Price finished writing his impact statement on the Troops to Teachers programme, he concluded that the participants themselves saw a distinction between being self-disciplined and being able to engender discipline as a teacher as a result of military service experience. In fact, several participants identified maintaining discipline as an anticipated challenge – an idea that almost runs counter to the governmental aspiration of the programme.  Well, this ex-serviceman isn’t terribly surprised.

If you are thinking of employing an ex-serviceman to be part of your teaching staff then please do so based on the multitude of transferable skills they do bring: time-management, clear articulation, presence, organisation, sense of professionalism etc …  But don’t do so in the hope that they will somehow sort out all your discipline issues.  That’s not how we were trained.

To learn more about ‘From Camouflage to Classroom’ by George Vlachonikolis, priced at just £15 please click here.

George Vlachonikolis is the Head of Economics at Headington School, Oxford and is the PGCE Lead for Economics at the University of Buckingham.