Every year we hear our colleagues use the phrase, “In the trenches.” “I feel like I am working in the trenches.” “We work in the trenches every day.” “Back to the trenches.” You’ve heard it. You may have even said it a time or too many times to count.
What does that mean? Has anyone thought about that one phrase and what it means in an educational setting?
It sounds grueling. Horrible. Dirty. Exhausting. A place you don’t want to be.
I see it as something different, a more important place than just, the trenches- those long narrow cuts into the ground.
A Perspective from In the Trenches
We are standing alongside those colleagues who are busy working on improving the lives of students who many have come from trauma situations- poverty, drug abuse, verbal abuse, and so on. You know the situations, you’ve heard them all. If you are new to teaching, I am not here to scare you, but you will have your own stories to share very soon after you’ve been, “In the trenches a year.”
We are standing in a place of perspective to see the place to which we wish to lift the students. It’s sometimes a short lift, but many times the distance is quite a far reach. But, we can still see the top rim of the trench and strive for that edge.
Our students don’t always see it as they are looking ahead at their friends and being influenced, but most often these days, looking down at their phones.
In reality, in a trauma-centered environment for them, they cannot see outside their own bodies and see the greatness they could achieve only if they had a way to get to the edge of that trench just above their heads. That’s where we come in!
Sand Serves a Purpose
Little did you all know that you go on vacation to the beaches…YES you do, I’ve seen your pictures on FB and Instagram… to pick up sand- tiny little grains of sand. You need to gather that sand throughout the vacation days in order to help you when you feel you are in the trenches.
Now, here in the desert, we don’t have a lot of places to get to the beach, unless you hang out at the river or head up to one of the lakes in the mountains that take 45 minutes to an hour to get to. We don’t all do that and find time to do that.
We have dust storms for teachers and school staff for those that have difficulty getting to those places. I bet you didn’t know that little phenomenon was for a purpose! You’re welcome!
Let Me Tell You How This Works
You go on vacation- hanging out in the waves at the ocean- rolling in with the waves onto the beach and in that process, you gather sand in all little places on your body that sand should not be and then some more.
I had a student in junior high once, 8th grader who didn’t want to work, definitely chose not to work in any of his junior high classes that I could see. But, I couldn’t give up on him. He couldn’t see the edge of the trench above him. He grew up in a trauma-induced home life. He was coming from a place very different than what I had seen with other students.
Month after month, I worked on building a relationship with him, still with very little class work from him. Until one day, I sat down next to him in class while the other students were working silently and I asked him, “What do you want that I can give you if you do some math work for me?”
In that space of a moment, I quietly thought to myself, “Oh dear God, what did I just commit to?” I was waiting for the answer when he turned to me and said, “I want to sit on those bookshelves,” as he was pointing to built-in bookshelves that were in my classroom.
I must have looked shocked, but what came out of my mouth was, “That’s it?”
He continued to tell me that he was in this classroom as a first-grade student and his dream was to read on the top of the bookshelf. Now, they were only about 4 feet tall, but to a first-grade student, they must have looked massively tall.
Request granted with a bit of a bargain. He had to complete his work for the week, and at the end of the week he could sit on the top of the bookshelf when we did silent reading.
Use Your Sand
This is where your vacation sand or the dust storm sand comes in now. I dropped a piece of sand under him that day and each day that week to lift him up.
On the first week of his work completion, and after many grains of sand dropped under his feet, I lifted him up with that sand to sit on the bookshelf to read. In the trenches together, building up our students, dropping our sand, lifting them up higher to the edge of the trench.
As this young man was sitting there reading- on the top of this bookshelf- sitting criss-cross applesauce style, after a successful week of working in my classroom, the principal decided to pop into my room. Ideally, a student does not usually sit on top of furniture when the principal pops into your room, but I didn’t blink at the fact that was happening.
What made me stop in my tracks was when the principal yelled at my young man to get off the bookshelf and get back in his seat. In a space of 3 seconds, he took his shovel and dug the sand from underneath my student’s feet and dropped him back into the trench with a devastating force.
Can I tell you? I never did get the sand- the relationship that I worked so hard to nurture- built back up between that student and myself at the level it was in that moment he was happily reading on top of that bookshelf.
Throw Away the Shovels!
We are in the trenches, together. All of us. We work with each other to drop sand in great amounts over the year to give students a foundation to reach the edge of that trench. Sometimes, we run out of our own sand and reach to a colleague to share theirs with us. Thankfully, the dust storms are aplenty as well. We restock our supply when we need it the most.
Together, we pile our sand under the feet of our students, filling in that trench grain by grain, to lift them up and out of trauma to jump-start their learning. We give them the foundation of trust, relationships, and love for life and learning.
When we work together and assess all situations, we can see the trauma that needs to be healed and the students that need a little lifting out of the trenches with a few grains of sand.
But, we also know that we must dig into the reserves of our sand from the summer frolic at the beach, those grains leftover in the places you never knew sand could settle and drop them in the trench for students to stand upon.
When we use the term, “In the trenches,” know that it’s good thing; a noble place to be. You are building a foundation below the feet of your students, one grain of sand at a time, through your words, actions, kindness, compassion, empathy, and love — sometimes tough love. But with all those things, little pieces of sand fall and pile up filling in that trench; filling in that hole that seems too deep for those who are in a trauma mindset.
You may not get that one student out of the trench in the year you have them, but boy you sure can do your part to get their fingertips to touch the rim.