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From Iraq to Class: Turning Troops into Teachers

5 minute read
Gilbert Cruz

After 30 years in the military, Roosevelt Dickerson wasn’t looking for a new career challenge. A retired Air Force chief master sergeant, he took some small-time jobs here and there for a few years — nothing too strenuous, nothing too taxing. Then he got a call from his old boss, the Defense Department, asking if he would be interested in trying one of the most strenuous, taxing jobs around: teaching. They wanted to know if he would consider joining the Troops to Teachers (TTT) program, which helps place former military personnel in U.S. classrooms. As Dickerson, 57, recalls, his responses to the offer were, in order, “You gotta be crazy. I can’t be a teacher.” “No!” and “Oh, no, no, no. Are you kidding?”

Yet soon enough, appeals to his patriotism convinced Dickerson, and for the past three years, he has taught special-education classes at Denver’s East High School. He is just one of the thousands of older, second-career military retirees (the average age at first hire is 44) whom the program has channeled into the teaching profession. But as successful as the 15-year-old program has been, supporters say it needs to enlarge its talent pool in order to attract the waves of younger troops returning from hot spots such as Iraq and Afghanistan and making the not-always-easy transition to civilian life. A pair of House members, Connecticut Democrat Joe Courtney and Wisconsin Republican Tom Petri, are getting ready to introduce legislation that would greatly expand the program by opening its doors to tens of thousands of veterans of all ages.

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Established in 1994, just as the U.S. military was drawing down forces after the the Cold War ended, TTT is funded by the Department of Education to the tune of about $14.4 million a year and run by a Defense Department outfit called Defense Activity for Non-Traditional Education Support. Essentially a referral and placement service, TTT provides up to $10,000 for military personnel to obtain their teaching certification; they must be retired or have left their service with at least six years of active duty. Many of the more than 11,000 men and women who have participated in the program are nontraditional first-time teachers, middle-aged former officers, sailors, soldiers and Marines who hope to parlay their skills into a very different kind of service career. And it’s not just their unorthodox experience that distinguishes them from the majority of their new colleagues; compared with the rest of the American teaching pool, TTT participants are more diverse in several important ways.

“They are disproportionately male, disproportionately minority and disproportionately teachers of math, science and special education,” says Petri, who has regularly sung the program’s praises. Those three groups just happen to be the ones most lacking in the teaching profession, and TTT falls at the nexus of former President George W. Bush’s call for more science, technology, engineering and math instructors and President Barack Obama’s embrace of alternative teacher-certification programs.

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Since TTT does not train its teachers — instead simply providing funding for them to be taught in any number of different schools or programs — there is no one pedagogical philosophy that links its teachers other than a military, mission-oriented mind-set. But that common background has translated into effective instruction and classroom management, according to William Owings, a professor of educational leadership at Old Dominion University who has worked on two studies of the program. “Principals and other supervisors have reported that these teachers worked better with problem children, worked better with parents and worked better with colleagues,” he says. On the basis of administrators’ observations, “the TTT people rated higher in exhibiting behaviors that are associated with increases in student achievement.”

It’s exactly that kind of success that needs to be replicated in more schools and by more former soldiers, say observers. As the program stands, participants must teach in a high-need district — one with “a poverty rate of at least 20% or at least 10,000 poor children” — in order to receive the $5,000 cash assistance. And a $5,000 bonus is available to teachers who land in schools where “at least 50% of the students are from low-income families or the school has a large percentage of students who qualify for assistance under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.”

(See pictures of the U.S. troops in Iraq.)

Courtney, a co-sponsor of the tentatively named Post-9/11 Troops to Teachers Enhancement Act, wants to enlarge the bonus pool to include all Title I schools (those where fewer than 40% of students come from low-income families); that would — theoretically, at least — offer additional opportunities to older military retirees, who are generally settled in one location and would be inclined to teach at nearby schools that are not currently eligible. At the same time, in order to appeal to younger members of the military who may be returning from Iraq and Afghanistan with fewer than six years in the service, the bill proposes reducing the requirement to four years. Of course, none of this really matters if no one knows about the program. “We really need to increase awareness,” says Courtney. “When you talk to school administrators and veterans groups about Troops to Teachers, they practically draw a blank. The military is one of the most idealistic, public-spirited segments of this country’s population, so why wouldn’t we want to have more of them in our classrooms?”

See pictures of U.S. soldiers battling in Afghanistan.

See pictures of the war in Afghanistan’s Kunar province.

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