Putting the past within reach: a veteran teaches history

After joining the British Army at 19 years old, Ash served in the Royal Army Medical Corps for 13 years. She travelled all over the world, including six months in Afghanistan. In 2021, Ash left the military and trained to teach history. 

4 mins

5/13/2024 2:48:38 PM
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I had a really varied career in the Army and feel incredibly lucky to have done what I did.

.I worked with so many different people, from the Italian Airborne Division to the Afghan National Army. But after 13 years of going here, there, and everywhere, I was looking for a bit of stability.  

Sometimes I pull that persona out in the classroom – but not often, thankfully! 

Why teach?

Towards the end of my army career, I took on a variety of instructor roles, from being a chemical warfare instructor to training recruits. I was the “scary” person taking civilians and making them into soldiers within three months as part of the Common Military Syllabus or basic training

It was these roles that made me think teaching should be my next move. As well as instructing my recruits, I was looking after them pastorally too. I felt a huge responsibility towards them, to make sure that not only were they good soldiers, but good people too.

I would get emotional at their final pass off parades; they’d be in their smartest uniforms, introducing me to their parents and talking about what I’d taught them.

I think I fell in love with teaching there and then. I realised it was my vocation.  

You can touch the past 

For me, it was always going to be history. I’ve loved it since I was a little girl - I come from a family that debates the merits of the Spitfire vs the Hurricane at Christmas!

I joined the Army as almost my own ethnographic study in what it means to experience war and combat. I wanted to experience what my grandad experienced, or his father before him.

I love bringing history to the kids I teach now, especially when it’s history of war. There’s understandably a big disconnect between the reality of the battlefield and what’s shown in films and computer games. I try to introduce some realism into the classroom - I’ll tell them a story from my army career if they get their work done on time!

I’m also very much a props person! I wore a helmet and army tunic for the first part of a lesson on Dunkirk, ordering the kids around as if I was their platoon sergeant and them soldiers on the beaches! I brought in a gas mask when we were looking at medicine in the trenches and told them about when I had to wear one for two days – a really awful time!

I think my students feel a real connection with history because I’ve experienced war. They feel like they can touch the past a little bit.

And that’s my absolute favourite thing, if I can help them connect to the past, then I’m doing my job as a historian. 

A “why” behind the “do” 

In the British Army, you live by the Army’s core values; Moral and Physical Courage, Discipline, Respect, Integrity, Loyalty and Selfless Commitment. I’d never be able to forget them to be honest, they were drilled into me.

One I share with my students is Respect. I set the expectation at the start of the year that we’re on a learning journey together, I might be the leader, but we’re on the same team.

On that journey, we have some core values that we all need to stick to. I don’t think I would have done that if I hadn’t been in the Army. But it’s so helpful in managing behaviour. Suddenly, it’s not me saying “don’t talk!”, it’s me pointing out that we’re breaking the values that we agreed on together.

My students like that there’s a “why” behind the “do”.  

I’ve been drawing on my army experience when it comes to careers too. I did a big presentation on what it’s like to have a healthcare career in the British Army. We looked at all the different jobs you can do, nurse, doctor, medic, radiographer – all sorts of clinical roles.

Before the session, most of the students had no idea that these jobs existed outside of hospitals, so it went down well. Really, anything you can do in the NHS, you can do in the Army. And they definitely need you.

I think it’s so useful for schools to have someone with a bit of insider knowledge when it comes to careers; there are so many jobs out there, it can be impossible to explain them all to your students.  

A blending of two halves: historian and veteran 

Something I love about working in schools is that if you have a historical speciality, as lots of us do, your school will lean into it. It makes you feel really involved in school life and valued.

One thing I was missing about the Army was the traditional ceremonial side. Then on Remembrance Day, my school asked me to lead assemblies. I wore my uniform for the day, and it just blew the kids minds. It was a really special day for me too. 

After the war in Ukraine began, I volunteered to run some assemblies explaining the situation. When I was in Afghanistan, I worked for NATO and so I understand it’s formation and purpose. I drew on that and looked at the history between Ukraine and Russia, the geography, and the reasons for animosity.

For me, it was a blending of my two halves, historian and veteran. I had to bring them together to try and help the kids understand the situation, as like everyone, they were worried.

They were also seeing a lot of misinformation on TikTok, so we spent the second half of the assembly thinking about information critically.

It was challenging, and I had to work on it for a few days - It’s a lot of information to distil into a short space of time! It was so worth it though, it’s important to me to teach my students to be critical and analytical – and this is also skill of a good historian. 

Using your experience in school

If you have an idea for something just suggest it to your school. Look at what you love, what you enjoy, what you’re passionate about, and you’ll find something. There’ll be a club somewhere you can join or start and a school that will support you.

Once you start it, the momentum will keep you going, and you can keep building on those early foundations. If it’s going to develop the kids and you have a good reason for doing it, I think any school would say “yeah let's try it”.

I would add though, that you need to be disciplined. I have to check with my mentor that I can do certain things, make sure my marking is done, and be quite diligent with my time. There’s so much you could do, it’s important to know when to say no.  

I’ve found schools to be so good at being creative and real “yes” environments, they want to develop you and to support you.

While I am proud to have served my country, teaching has allowed me to blossom. 


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