Soldiers in the Classroom

Posted By Pamela on Oct 16, 2008 | 20 comments

I think I might have mentioned on this blog a couple of times that one of the classes I  sometimes teach is physics for elementary  education majors. All told, I have probably interacted with 100 different education students across a couple different years. It’s not a lot, but we try and keep the class sizes down.  Working with the students and working with teachers  in general has given me a deep appreciation for how unprepared the average person is for physics and how unprepared they are to teach science.

Tonight, when John McCain said we should send soldiers into the classroom, he scared me on many levels.

Teaching requires preparation. I have a doctorate degree in astronomy, and preparing for class is still hard,  takes time, and requires me to continually learn new techniques to improve the craft while at the same time requiring I keep up with the newest in what has been discovered in the universe. Teaching is hard. It’s hard because you bleed for your students, and what they go through as they struggle to make their dreams reality. Teaching is hard. It’s hard because your knowledge in many ways determines what your students are able to do in the next step. As teachers, we may be the limiting factor in our students’ futures.

I get a lot of amazingly bright students in the classroom who’ve come from high schools where their teacher was trying to teach too many classes all at once without the proper education to teach any of them. These wonderful students have the potential to run anywhere: Caltech or MIT  might have been possible  for some of my engineers. They’re creative, they’re driven, they’re all the things a teacher dreams of having. But they’re small-town kids,  from small-town schools, where it might have been one teacher teaching all the subjects. That teacher is probably doing the best he or she can without the tools he or she may need. An English teacher was never meant to teach physics. And I, as a astronomy/physics teacher, shouldn’t teach literature. To allow our students to be the best they can be we have to give them the best teachers we find and train.

Training is important.

The United States military would never send a soldier into a situation they hadn’t at least tried to train him for.  People aren’t thrown out of planes without learning proper technique, and they certainly aren’t asked to fly those planes.  Our soldiers are trained in how to use their guns, and in how to pack their packs.  Part of the “be all you can be” is giving them all the training our tax dollars can afford. I have to say, many of the students who I have respected the most have come out of the service. The are still working to every day be all they can be.

One of these soldiers who had come home, and who is going to college on the G.I. Bill, was one of my elementary education majors. He was  the only boy in the class of 25, and he took  all the girls teasing with a smile, although on one day when they were particularly giving him shit he brought up what life was like for him in Afghanistan.  He came home from serving in battle and decided to become a early elementary school teacher. And he’s going to be a really good one. And he’s getting a college degree make that happen.

Senator John McCain served in the military, he flew planes, he took the training, he did the time in training. I don’t understand: at what point did he forget that education matters especially for the educators?

I think there’s a lot to be said for taking people who served in the military and who have a passion for children  and training them in college via the G.I. Bill to be a next generation of schoolteachers. If this is what a soldier wants to do, let’s find a way to let them do it. And while we’re at it, let’s find ways for soldiers coming home to get any college degree for free.

Training matters.

For soldiers, for students, for all of us.

Training matters. Period.


  1. Here, here! McCain is set to continue the anti-science thrust of the Bush White House.
    He’s gonna bite the wax tadpole! It’ll be my great pleasure to vote a second time (the first was in the Virginia primary) for President Obama.
    Rich in Charlottesville

  2. Yaaaay! Speaking as an Air Force vet (from before Iraq war) I’ve got to say that unless you got your commission through a degree in education, being in the military doesn’t mean that you can teach.

    During my time in the military I went to a lot of classes. I also trained a lot of other Airmen in the fields in which I held knowledge.

    In my leadership classes I learned about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, and different methods of quality control and quality assurance.

    In my electronics classes I became confident in everything from semiconductor theory to digital logic.

    But as a civilian, when I went back to college, I had to take classes over the same subjects I had already had while enlisted.

    And even though I already understood how to apply Ohm’s law, I learned that there was an unforeseen depth that I hadn’t suspected. Maxwell’s equations nearly broke my brain but after I’d slogged my way through ’em a lot of things made more sense!

    I came to realize that there’s a difference between training and education. Being trained gets the job done, but being educated allows for a deeper understanding.

    Of course, when I trained Airmen in the military I had one advantage that you don’t have. They had been ordered to complete all their work – and failure to turn in assignments completed and on time could result in punishment. Anything from push ups to a black mark in your Promotion Fitness folders.

    Wouldn’t you love to be able to tell a student, “You call this complete? You suck! Drop and give me 50! By Friday you’d better be able to complete 30 problems over Hooke’s Law or I’ll have you cleaning bathrooms with a toothbrush all weekend!”

  3. Step one is to admit you have a problem. The US education system has a problem and has had one for many years.

    In the 1980’s I had a Calculus professor who did not speak English. I know for a fact that Calculus is very difficult to learn on your own, because my class had to.

    In the 1990’s I had to teach my Daughter Algebra because the education major assigned to teach the class could not. She knew next to nothing about math. Everyone including the school administration admitted she could not, but other then offering to refer parents to tutors nothing was done.

    In 2000’s one of my son’s favorite teachers was a former police officer, because that was the only class he had were they could study without students disrupting the class.

    Former military in the classroom is not a perfect solution, but doing nothing is not an option either.

  4. Being qualified in a particular subject is no guarantee that you’ll be good at it. As well, it sometimes does not take a doctorate to be able to to be a good eduacator or communicator.

    So what to do? Let anyone do anything? That’s hardly a good solution. We have to have minumum standards for all professions. Just because we all went to school, doesn’t mean we all know what it’s like to teach. Teaching IS hard.

    I have worked hard for over a decade at it, and I still work hard every day to learn and become better at it.

    I agree fully with Pam, that support and training for those that want to learn to teach is necessary. But don’t simply throw unqualified instructors in front of kids. They deserve better. And note that qualified doesn’t always mean good. A better way of determining qualifications and competencies is perhaps in order as well.

  5. As much as I don’t like McCain, I think he may have been referring to programs already in place that equip former military to become teachers. Such programs are also funded (probably by earmarks, but I don’t know) to help former and retired execs and other workers to become teachers as well. I have several friends who have gone through these and they went on to have teaching careers. But, make no mistake — they WERE certified to go into the classroom… which makes McCain’s silly put-down of certification another erratic gaffe.

    He could have phrased it better and coming as it did after a scathing and largely ill-informed indictment of education as a general “boogeyman” to scare people with (and his withering put-down of women’s health issues), it just sounded like he wanted to fling folks coming home from the war right into the classroom… a scary thought for BOTH the soldiers and the kids…

  6. My BS is in Geology, my masters is in science education. As a person who has spent years teaching a lot of different science to a wide range of ages (kindergarten through retirees), the idea of soldiering as qualifying one to teach anything but soldiering is horrifying to me. I agree wholeheartedly with you, Pamela. I think our soldiers should be given every opportunity and support to get training in their chosen field, but anything less than learning how to teach is insufficient for becoming a teacher.

  7. I listened again to McCain’s comment about putting returning soldiers into the classroom, and discovered that he had mentioned the name of a specific program: Troops to Teachers. Here’s their website:

    The home page explicitly mentions that they will help identify “teacher certification requirements” and “programs leading to certification.” It’s also interesting to go through their Eligibility link and to pretend that you’re, say, Retired from Active Duty. An Honorable Discharge plus “the equivalent of 1 year of college” and “6 years of military experience in a vocational/technical field” makes you eligible to register.

    Still, McCain made it sound like he wanted to waive all certification requirements, which would be a horrible idea. Or maybe he misunderstood the program? In any case, he doesn’t have a very good track record for communicating with the public. It honestly makes me wonder why town hall meetings are supposed to be his strong-suit.

  8. Sorry, I messed up my bolding.

  9. Wouldn’t you love to be able to tell a student, “You call this complete? You suck! Drop and give me 50! By Friday you’d better be able to complete 30 problems over Hooke’s Law or I’ll have you cleaning bathrooms with a toothbrush all weekend!”

    Wow… that would be so awesome!

  10. I agree that teaching needs “stricter” requirements, but they should also be “loose” enough so that the qualified teachers can actually get in. In any case, I know what it means to be taught by an unqualified teacher: not pleasant.

  11. These variables are not dichotomous: one can be a “soldier” and be an educator; though clearly one does not imply the mastery of the other.

    I have been in the Navy 21 years, have a Master’s Degree and teach at the University Master’s and Bachelor’s level. I have taught, in one way or another, since before I entered. The Navy spent a lot of time and money teaching me how to teach, develop curricula, and think. Why waste that investment?

    The military has its share of bad teachers, as does CIVLANT. Rank/experience does not equate to teaching ability any more than being a good educator makes you a great Dean or administrator.

    We need to focus on clear teaching competencies and ensure all meet them. The military has equivalencies for in service experience and classes for their civilian classroom counterpart. This is an outcomes-oriented effort

    The challenge, in my not so humble opinion, is retooling the now civilian educators for the Web 2.0 multi-tasked, socially networked you-tube generation they will be teaching. A population much different than they left and without the supports they enoyed on active duty.

    As with many ideas–it is not the concept that is scary, but the details of its implementation.

  12. Oh. I wrote a very lengthy response and it seems to have been deleted… what happened?

  13. I’m so sorry Kylie, I really don’t know. Can the back button help? Caching?

  14. Thanks, Pamela – no can do! I’ll keep it brief, instead! 🙂

    Essentially, I agree with ‘Freiddie’, ‘Colin J’ and Lockwood’ to some extent – qualifications and background knowledge are key. Confidence in the classroom comes from knowing your stuff and having a solid base to teach concepts from. It also allows those who graduate to first get a B.A, B.Sc, etc, before getting an additional teaching accreditation.

    This allows the option to take another career path if they might discover that teaching is not for them. This is also true if they do what many beginning teachers do and drop out of teaching on an average of three years, because of many other factors – discouraged and disillusioned teachers who had their passion for teaching destroyed cannot be left without other options to work, which is true whatever your background may be.

    I also agree with quite a few others in terms of how teaching is not ‘easy’, nor is it particularly understood as a discipline by many. That is reflected in low pay, low tertiary-entrance scores to enter into teaching courses and general lack of regard for teachers in society. Some of this is reflected in the WA Twoomey report – which I linked to originally, here:

    That was something I referenced in passing at Dragon*Con, much to the horror of many who couldn’t believe that ‘teaching could be ill-regarded as a career choice’! 🙂

    In short [this is short?? 😉 ] – yes, I’m certain that the military is an excellent source for disciplined, engaging and keen teachers. But to have no back-up plan for people who might then leave teaching as a profession is unwise.

  15. Well Put!!
    And why do we want to send the message to kids in the classroom that soldiers and war are the solutions to our problems.

  16. Umm, I don’t get it. How does letting veterans be teachers “send the message to kids in the classroom that soldiers and war are the solutions”. Should veterans just be banned from public life altogether so nobody thinks “war is good”?

  17. This is nothing new. My sister was a mechanical engineer in aerospace during the early 90’s. When the massive layoff started to occur, the government offered retraining opportunities in teaching. They didn’t just have her show up to school one day, it was several years of getting her credentials.

    With that said, many many teachers in Los Angeles are not credentialed, they get an “emergency credential” that allows them to start teaching right away because there lacks so many qualified people.

    Either way, don’t blow a statement like that out of proportion. I’m quite sure that Obama will offer much the same program to help our vets retrain for civilian life. I’m currently working with some vets to retrain in the high tech field. If McCain would have said lets get vets in high tech, I wouldn’t have assumed there just going to through soldiers in data centers.

    The reality is that we have thousands of people coming home, who have sacrificed their lives for us, and need something new to do.

  18. I agree with EdF. Soldiers can go to school and get certified like anyone else. Some of the best teachers I had in high school were ones who were millitary veterans or businesspeople who went into teaching as a second career.

  19. Heh! I have a degree in education, was never in the military (although plenty in my family are serving (and have served)) and I would have loved to have been able to tell irascible students to drop and give me 50!


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