It goes without saying that teachers are vital to school excursions. Without them, such trips could not happen. But, since excursions are run by specialist guides or leaders, the role of the classroom educator is primarily that of supervisor or surrogate parental guardian. While the experts carry the load of the teaching responsibility, particularly when students are visiting WWI battlefields, teachers still have a specific and significant part to play in helping students learn.
Expert guides know the machinery, museums and mausoleums of the battlefields that the school parties will visit, but since it is the teachers who know their own students individually, they are more aware of how to make this content relevant. This is a vital role on WWI educational tours particularly, because the impact of the events on the frontline and in the trenches at Ypres, Verdun and on other battlefields should not be lost on students. Students are more likely to understand this when it is made relevant and personal to their own experiences and the modern world in which they live.
Since the exploration of these battlefields will take place within the context of a WWI course in the curriculum, teachers can prepare their classes before the trip so that students develop the right level of anticipation and interest. Some students may never have heard of WWI, but prepared minds are receptive minds. This is why the majority of a teacher’s work for educational tours happens before the bags are even packed.
Teachers should not deflate their students’ exuberance, but need to carefully help them be ready for the sober tone of the trip by explaining the significance and importance of the battlefields. Educational tours often provoke images of revelry and exaggerated visions of freedom, hence teachers should make sure students have the right attitude to absorb the serious content at the Somme or Ypres, for example. This means encouraging them to be mature and focused before they start the trip.
Back in the classroom, teachers have a chance to make sure that the information students have picked up, both factually and emotionally, will sink into their minds and memory. The work of expert guides may end on the fields of France, but teachers continue their work once the excursion is over.
Simply picking up the artefacts and the old weaponry of the time, engaging in minor role play, and interspersing the most heavy periods of learning with moments of levity, will heighten student interest in educational tours. The teacher’s role is to make sure, knowing their students as they do, that this fun is rightly balanced with the historic gravity of WWI and does not impede their learning. This is a delicate task but it helps students to engage consistently during their time on the now quiet battlefields.