Turning Troops Into Teachers
Rosalind S. Helderman
Physics teacher John Paulson likes to introduce the concept of acceleration in his Woodbridge Senior High School classroom with a little real-world example: a video clip of a nuclear-powered submarine firing a ballistic missile during training exercises off the Florida coast.
"We can look at the acceleration of that missile and how, when it hits the surface of the water, it almost stops," Paulson tells his students. "We can follow the missile up and up and then to a target 4,000 miles away."
Just to make it a little more real for them, Paulson notes that he's in the video, too, hard at work in the bowels of the USS Alabama as the submarine's executive officer, second in command.
Paulson, 55, became a rookie teacher last year, after 22 years in the Navy. He found his second career through an increasingly popular program called Troops to Teachers, which gives military personnel stipends to obtain their teaching certificates and cash bonuses if they agree to work in schools in low-income areas.
The new job was a natural transition from a career spent training young men and women for war. "I wanted to keep working with youth. I wanted to teach them what they need to know to be successful," Paulson said.
More and more former military personnel are participating in the program. In Virginia, 17 men and women joined between July 2002 and July 2003, and since then, nearly three times that many have signed on. Those numbers reflect rising interest nationwide, said Peter E. Peters, assistant director of the program.
"Afghanistan has settled down. We've got Saddam. People are beginning to think about getting out and making some plans," Peters said. In the program's 10 years, 6,048 teachers have been hired, and an additional 5,900 are in training or seeking jobs.
Anyone who has served in the military for at least six years qualifies for help finding jobs in education. Those who add at least three years in the reserves, and those who, like Paulson, retire after a 20-year military career qualify for a stipend of up to $5,000 for certification classes plus the bonus, making the total amount available as much as $10,000. A network of state offices helps put military personnel in touch with colleges and teacher certification programs.
Service men and women make particularly good teachers, Peters said, because they offer knowledge from outside the classroom and a bearing that makes them unlikely to be intimidated, even by the most unruly middle school students.
"These are mature, seasoned leaders. They're not just young people coming out of college who have little experience doing anything," Peters said. "Normally, they've been around the world at least once. Normally, they've already been teaching young recruits in the military."
Troops to Teachers was started in 1994 to ease the transition to civilian life for people laid off from soldiering during the military downsizing. In 2001, money was included in the federal No Child Left Behind law to expand the program and convert it to a recruiting tool for low-income schools, where the law is concentrating its efforts to improve students' performance. The program's budget -- $18 million this year -- was shifted from the Defense Department to the Department of Education.
"There used to be momentum for people in the military to think this was a kind of entitlement program," Peters said, adding that it is now less about helping military personnel and more about filling dire needs in education. "This is about recruiting people to go into teaching as a second career."
Surveys by the American Association for Employment in Education show chronic teacher shortages in math, science and special education teachers. National Education Association numbers show that 10 percent of the nation's 3 million teachers are minorities, and 21 percent are men, a 40-year low for the profession.
By contrast, 40 percent of the Troops to Teachers participants go into math, science or special education. More than 85 percent of participants are men, and one-third are minorities.
"Certainly males and minorities in education in virtually every field are highly sought after. This is an avenue that helps us tap into those targeted areas," said John Smeallie, Maryland's assistant superintendent for certification and accreditation and the program's director in the state. "Every school system in every state is anxious to attract a spectrum of folks with strong content knowledge and diverse experiences."
George Hartman, a former gunnery sergeant in the Marine Corps, said Virginia school districts are practically fighting over new teachers. He went through a career-switchers program in Spotsylvania County but accepted a better job teaching business education in Stafford at the start of the school year. He said colleges cannot keep up with the demand for teachers. "There's a lot of encouragement for people to step up," he said.
Participants who choose jobs in low-income neighborhoods see themselves as particular role models. Karen Adams left the Army Reserve as a major and starting teaching in Queens, N.Y., in 1996. Now the Capitol Hill resident teaches middle school students at the Friendship Edison Public Charter School's Blow Pierce campus in Northeast Washington.
"I wanted to teach in my neighborhood," she said. "I see them at school, but I also see them on the street . . . or on the buses or in the library."
No Child Left Behind requires a "highly qualified" teacher in every classroom by the end of the 2005-06 school year and has increased pressure on school districts to find teachers who can demonstrate knowledge of the subjects they teach, usually through a college major or by passing a test in their field. Peters said Troops to Teachers participants have experience putting their knowledge to work.
"You have nuclear engineers going in to teach math. You don't get that from people coming out of college," he said.
Not all troops-turned-teachers are made for the job. But about 75 percent of the people who have participated in the program are still teachers or have become school administrators after five years, exceeding retention figures for the general teaching population.
John Gantz, national director of the program, said a few former military personnel feel isolated in teaching jobs after years spent in a clear and supportive chain of command, and others are offered higher-paying jobs. But most stick with it, he said, because they go in "with a very clear understanding of what the job is, what the pay is, the good and the bad."
Such teachers also can make good ambassadors for the military. When Hartman took over his business education classroom from a former Navy man, he put in a call to his local Marine recruiter. "I said, 'I want calendars. I want pens. I want all this Navy stuff out of my classroom, and I want to put Marine junk in here,' " he said.
Paulson tells stories about life underwater, including the time his crew had been at sea so long that it auctioned off the last precious jar of peanut butter. Physics student Joe Yamada, 17, who plans to join the Navy, said he appreciates Paulson's second opinion on what he hears from his recruiter. Classmate Preston Simmons, 17, said Paulson doesn't dwell on his military service -- and "very clearly knows his physics."
Chrystal Puryear, 33, a Head Start teacher at Davis Elementary in Southeast Washington, tends to talk about the military less with her students than with their parents, who are "still very, very young," she said. "They don't think they have any options, and I tell them the military is always an option. They will teach you what you are capable of."
One of the mothers she spoke to is now serving in Germany. "She was so glad to have the opportunity to have a job and support her family," Puryear said.
Rosalind S. Helderman
INDEX OF MILITARIZATION OF OUR SCHOOLS