Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Troops Finding New Service as Teachers

This seems like a really promising investment across multiple levels, especially in that it helps to diversify the teacher candidate pool. This is something that we really need to see more of.


Published: December 5, 2009

WASHINGTON — In her last job in the Air Force, Tammie Langley gave prospective pilots and navigators an introduction to aeronautics. Four years later, Ms. Langley is in a different sort of classroom, teaching sixth graders in North Carolina everything from reading to math.

The settings may be radically different, but Ms. Langley said the transition from teaching 22-year-olds to teaching 11- or 12-year-olds had been fairly seamless. “Either way, you still have to kind of wipe their noses a bit and kick them in the behind every now and then,” said Ms. Langley, who is in her second year at Kannapolis Intermediate School, about 25 miles north of Charlotte.

Ms. Langley, 36, became a schoolteacher in large part because of Troops to Teachers, a federal program that, over 15 years, has helped about 12,000 former service members transition into second careers in the classroom. Now, a bipartisan group in Congress is hoping to expand the program to allow more veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan to sign up, while also increasing the number of places in which they could find employment.

Not all of the veterans who enter the classroom with the help of Troops to Teachers, some of whom are up to a generation older than teachers starting right out of college, share Ms. Langley’s background in formal instruction. But the program’s supporters and participants say that military service in general provides the sort of discipline and life experiences that translate well to teaching.

“My very first sergeant said, ‘Practice doesn’t make perfect,’ ” said Moises Perez, 50, a social studies teacher in Clayton County, Ga., who spent nearly 24 years in the Army, including service in Afghanistan. “He said, ‘Perfect practice makes perfect.’ That’s what I want to teach the kids.”

C. Emily Feistritzer, president of the National Center for Education Information, said: “We’re finding that these teachers seem to be able to really manage a classroom from the start, which is the biggest problem a lot of teachers have going in. And they come in thinking all children can learn, without any sort of socioeconomic biases.”

These teachers are also a more diverse group than the general teaching population. Men have accounted for about 80 percent of the program’s participants, while 35 percent or so have been members of minorities. The program, which is run by the Defense Department but financed by the Education Department, also encourages participants to teach math, science and special education, areas in which school districts can have the toughest time filling teaching slots.

William P. McAleer, who runs Troops to Teachers, said teaching math and science was sort of a natural progression for the many veterans who worked highly technical jobs in the service. “They’ve lived this stuff,” he said. “They bring real-life experience to these subjects.”

With all that in mind, supporters on Capitol Hill are pushing to expand the program by letting more service members participate and increasing the number of districts where they can teach. Legislation introduced in the House and Senate in October would allow candidates with four years of service or three months of continuous active duty since the Sept. 11 attacks to participate. As it stands, six years of active duty is needed to sign up.

Two leading sponsors of the House bill — Representatives Tom Petri, Republican of Wisconsin, and Joe Courtney, Democrat of Connecticut — said the program, which was created while the military was downsizing, needed to be updated to account for service members returning from the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. (The Senate version of the bill was introduced by Senators John McCain, Republican of Arizona, and Michael Bennet, Democrat of Colorado.)

“We have a large number of returning vets who don’t fit the model of the original program,” Mr. Courtney said. “These are people who have a lot to offer, but just can’t right now.”

The proposed legislation would also allow participants to teach in a larger number of schools. Right now, veterans who sign up with Troops to Teachers receive a stipend of up to $5,000 to help them obtain a teaching certificate, in exchange for a three-year commitment at high-need schools. Candidates who go to schools with even higher poverty rates receive a maximum of $10,000.

With the health care debate still front and center, it is uncertain how much attention Congress will give a Troops to Teachers expansion. But the House bill has already collected roughly 75 co-sponsors, while the American Legion and the National Education Association have also endorsed expanding the program.

Back in Kannapolis, Ms. Langley is also quick to sing the program’s praises.

“Without it, I would not have been able to make it financially,” said Ms. Langley, who also flew combat missions in Afghanistan in her nine years in the service. “And a three-year commitment is nothing. My kids are some of the best on the planet.”

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