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.

Supporting Students with Military Connections

Faye Snodgress is executive director of Kappa Delta Pi.

Mission Critical mural drawn at the NNSTOY Conference.

*On July 11-12, I had the privilege of participating in the Network of National State Teachers of the Year (NNSTOY) annual conference. The State Teachers of the Year became an affiliate chapter of KDP in 1990 and have been valued partners since that time, generously sharing their expertise and leadership with the KDP community. The conference provided many excellent learning opportunities, which I would like to share with you through a blog series.*

I found the panel discussion at the NNSTOY conference with speakers Danielle Massey, a military spouse and NNSTOY from Virginia, and Eric Combs, a 20-year member of the U.S. Air Force and 2006 NNSTOY from Ohio, extremely insightful. The pair shared recommendations for working with military-connected families and their children.

As more troops come home from Afghanistan and Iraq, teachers need to be aware of students in their classrooms who are part of the 1.2 million military-connected families, which includes service personnel, as well as suppliers, transporters, and others who support and/or serve the military. It is estimated that there is at least one student in every U.S. classroom whose family has military ties of some type.

Students who have a parent stationed abroad may not always share their concerns or lifestyle. Once the family member returns home, an effective way to help both the service person and their student with the adjustment is to invite the service person into the classroom. It is important to clarify the age of the students and what would be appropriate material to discuss. Students love uniforms and soldiers frequently have interesting and compelling experiences to share. It also helps the returning veteran to feel more connected to their child’s classroom and their community.

Most individuals with military service would prefer not to be included in school activities that include the use of balloons as decorations or have large crowds.

Given some of the realities of having a family member serving overseas, teachers may have to give more in working with an emotionally depleted family. If there is a need to reach out to the parent, it is important to contact the parent first by email or a note to let them know that you will be calling. Seeing an incoming phone number that they don’t recognize can create anxiety and fear on the part of the parent.

As teachers, we can offer these students a safe zone or a place where they can go for support and to talk about what they are experiencing.