Today’s bloggers are Stephen P. Gordon and Janis Newby Parham. Their article, “Transitioning From the Military to Teaching: Two Veterans’ Journeys Through the Entry Year,” appears in the latest issue of The Educational Forum.
Many members of our military services leave the military well before retirement age and seek a second career.
One option many of these military veterans choose is teaching.
If we reflect on this trend, it makes sense. Most former members of the military joined because of their desire to serve a cause beyond themselves. Many veterans were instructors and enjoyed the experience. Like others who enter teaching, military veterans who choose this path are committed to helping young people grow and develop.
Former military members have a lot to offer the teaching profession. They are used to finding solutions to challenging problems, have worked closely with different cultural groups, and are dedicated to completing whatever mission they are given. Overall, we have fewer men and people of color in teaching, but high percentages of veterans who enter teaching belong to those groups. These former military members often teach in high-poverty schools and in high-demand disciplines such as science, math, and special education. Research on military veterans who have entered teaching indicates that they are effective teachers, work well with colleagues, and do a good job of keeping parents informed of their students’ progress.
Despite the capabilities that military veterans bring to teaching, they also face special challenges. They are used to following specific policies and procedures in the military and having those policies and procedures explained to them in detail. In contrast, district and school policies and procedures do not provide the level of direction that those in the military do, and schools often have “hidden norms.”
Former members of the military were used to following the orders of superiors; if they were officers, they were used to those they led following their orders. Military veterans new to teaching quickly realize that military-style discipline does not work with students, and therefore student discipline can be a serious problem for military veterans beginning their teaching career.
Many military veterans who choose teaching as a second career generally attend alternative certification programs that focus on pedagogical knowledge in general, and so they may have difficulty teaching specific content because of insufficient content knowledge. This problem is especially difficult if the former military member is assigned to teach courses he or she is not certified to teach.
The military requires close collaboration among peers to complete a mission, and military veterans often are surprised by the independence of their teaching colleagues and the level of “privatism” in teaching. This can lead to feelings of isolation the veteran never experienced in the military. The lack of the detailed policies and procedures they were used to in the military, hidden norms, problems with classroom management and teaching, and feelings of isolation can leave military veterans who have become teachers in a state of “reality shock” that makes them question their decision to enter the profession.
Support and Growth
Our study in this issue of The Educational Forum tracks two military veterans, Bonnie and Chad, through their first year of teaching. The teachers in our study dealt with all of the problems described here during their entry year. The new teachers’ greatest source of support in dealing with their transition into teaching were the mentors who had been assigned to them for the entire entry year and other teachers who had been identified as helpful colleagues.
Although their first year of teaching was challenging, through assistance from other teachers and their own experimentation, reflection, and perseverance, Bonnie and Chad experienced considerable growth by the end of their entry year. Among the many things they learned that first year was that developing relationships with their students was critical to student learning and that it is better to motivate students than to try to control them.
By the end of their first year of teaching, Bonnie and Chad had improved their teaching considerably, discovered how much they loved children, enjoyed teaching—and, most importantly, had decided to remain in teaching.