How veterans are helping ease America's teacher shortage

America has a teacher shortage. Veterans are stepping up to help.

A high school class.
(Image credit: iStock)

After a career spent serving their country on the battlefield, some veterans return home to serve in a different way: as teachers, training the young minds of America's future leaders and thinkers.

The skills and experiences veterans acquire during their service are incredibly useful within the classroom. Leadership, flexibility, adaptability, an understanding and appreciation of diversity — all help new teachers excel in their work. At a time when many schools are unable to find qualified educators, veterans are stepping up to fill in the gaps.

"Our experience as leaders also makes us good teachers and, I think, good role models for young men and women," says Lt. Col. Joseph Gross. He teaches world history and geography at Southside High School near San Antonio, Texas, and he says that, while all teachers aim to "reach out to students and prepare them for either college or the job market," he sees an advantage in his military experience.

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"I think having a military background engages the students and often just finding some way of ensuring their interest is the most important element of teaching," he says. "In my case, my various jobs and positions in the military required that I travel most of Europe and Asia [to] places most people would never see. It really helps to engage the class when you are teaching about ancient Rome and you can show photos of yourself on location."

Military-level leadership skills can also prove very useful when you're trying to control a room full of antsy kids. 1st Sgt. Christopher Karayannis, who teaches at Thomas Edison High School in Alexandria, Virginia, says his military service gives him the confidence he needs to teach. "I was already very prepared for the classroom management element," he says. "Having been exposed to multiple cultures, languages, and religions during my many deployments around the world, I was quickly able to establish rapport with my students."

Teaching is an incredibly difficult career. It requires nerves of steel. And America is desperate for good teachers who can handle the pressure. At the start of this school year, every state in the country was scrambling to find teachers; Arizona, Utah, and Oklahoma, in an attempt to fill their classroom vacancies, no longer require any formal teacher training for those entering the profession. During such desperate times, dedicated and disciplined veterans are a potential goldmine for schools in need.

Programs on both the national and state levels have emerged to get vets into classrooms. Troops to Teachers, a Department of Defense program launched in 1993, has led about 20,000 veterans into the classroom. In 2009, Teach for America launched a recruitment effort focused on helping veterans transition into teaching, and has a goal of training 100 former-military teachers per year.

Interestingly, many veterans opt to teach history, as is the case with both Karayannis and Gross. Cpl. Kevin Waterman says that his love of history directly led him to become a teacher. Following his four years in the service, he knew that it was time to go to college and pursue his passion. "I loved history and military history growing up and I wanted to be a part of it," he says. He studied history and now teaches it to 7th- and 8th-grade students at Valley Charter School in Van Nuys, California. "There are not a whole lot of other career opportunities that involve history."

For other veterans, teaching provides the possibility of a stable post-military life. "No more moving every two to three years," says Karayannis. But he also saw it as an opportunity to build on a life-long skill. "I just always felt really good when I was able to share my knowledge or help someone understand something they were struggling with," he says.

America's education system is in peril, and helping improve the situation requires a kind of heroism, one that these veterans see as a continued responsibility. "I believe there are quite a few former military members who decide to go into teaching, many of us for the same reason," says Gross. "We are accustomed to service and believe in a strong nation. The next natural step for us is to help fix what we see as a problem in America."

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