From the Military to Teaching: Challenges of the Entry Year

Steve Gordon

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.

Jan Parham

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.

Reality Shock

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.

KDP is proud to partner with Routledge to share an essay from The Educational Forum with the education community. Access the article at Taylor and Francis Online, free through May 31, 2019.

Three Reasons Teaching is More Satisfying for Career Changers

Luis PentonTeacher shortage and high teacher turnover rate are two of the most challenging realities that the public school system in the United States faces today.

Low morale among teachers, lack of respect and appreciation, excessive paperwork, and continuous funding cuts continue to be the most profound reasons as to why many professionals in the teaching field decide to switch careers and have a fresh start. These eye-opening statistics for teacher desertion and shortage continue to be the focus on the news. However, little attention is paid to a lesser-known group of individuals who are successful professionals in other fields and, knowing the challenges the American public education system faces today, decide to become teaching professionals.

For this article I interviewed three professionals–a former dentist, a former lawyer, and a former political science major student–who switched careers to become educators. The purpose of these interviews was to better understand the reasons behind their choices of becoming schoolteachers and how the feel about their decision. From these interviews, there were three main reasons that seemed to be prevalent in these professionals’ decision on becoming educators and in how they feel today about the choice they made many years ago. These reasons are:

  1. Calling. Some would say that teaching is an art and a science, and only those who understand the balance between these two can truly educate. This statement is very relatable to the three teachers interviewed, as they believe they always knew teaching was their vocation. They were aware of all the challenges and extra hours of work the teaching field required prior to switching to education, but that did not stop them. As a calling, they feel fulfilled in front of the classroom and they state, that above all, teaching is the driving force for them personally and professionally.
  2. Impacting students’ lives. Impacting the younger generations is of upmost importance for most individuals in the teaching field. All interviewees agreed that they decided to move from their original field of study because they could not directly impact lives in a way that was personally meaningful to them as individuals. Particularly, one educator stated that when he became a teacher, he experienced that the relationship with his students was symbiotic and he felt fulfilled by affecting the learning and growth of his students while his students seemed to truly benefit from his instruction.
  3. Their children’s education. Having children is a powerful reason for wanting to be involved and learn more about the public education system. For our interviewees, becoming an educator was just an innate part of being a parent. One of the interviewees stated that the main reason why she became a teacher was because she did not like how her children were being taught and the information they were being taught. For this reason, she became a schoolteacher, with a hope of better understanding the information their children were being exposed to and with a vision of bettering the public education system from the inside out.

When we think about educators, we think about individuals who value, above all, the impact they have in their students’ present and future lives. For the career switchers interviewed in this article, their students are the number one priority and teaching has become an opportunity for them to become more actively involved within their community and help shape the new generation of thinkers. Even though there are some aspects of public education that they do not agree with, such as excessive standardized testing, teacher disempowerment, low pay, and lack of appreciation, they have found that teaching is where they belong and they do not plan to leave any time soon.

These seasoned professionals have found that staying humble and focusing on their students have been the most important lessons learned throughout their lives as educators and they would not change that for the world.

Currently, KDP is spending time collecting (and will soon be sharing) stories from around the globe about how teachers are making a difference and changing the world. Share yours today!

Luis J. Pentón Herrera is an English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher at Prince George County Public Schools in Maryland. He is currently pursuing his Ph.D. in Leadership: Reading, Language, and Literacy at Concordia University Chicago. His research interests include language acquisition, bilingual education, teacher education, and immigrant education.