An Officer And An Educator

By Theresa Johnston — August 17, 2001 3 min read
It is an ideal second job for an educator.

Usually Maj. Teri Coles has no trouble keeping her role as an officer in the U.S. Army Reserve out of her classroom at McLoud High, a rural public school about 15 miles east of Oklahoma City, where she is a math teacher. But on one occasion, the 42-year-old just couldn’t resist pulling rank. “I had one student who was being a pill in class, acting up and not paying attention. So I said, ‘Look, either you can do detention with me, or I can come to your football practice and work you out the way I do privates in the Army.’” He foolishly chose the latter, and after 45 minutes of whistle-driven push-ups, jogging, and rolling in the dirt, “I had his attention,” she drawls sweetly. “From then on he was a dream child.”

Coles, who has almost a quarter- century of part-time military service under her belt (plus two years of full- time, active duty during Desert Storm and Desert Shield), has been combining service to her country with high school teaching ever since she earned her credential in 1986. She’s not alone.

Ms. Coles has almost a quarter-century of part-time military service under her belt (plus two years of full-time, active duty during Desert Storm and Desert Shield)

Although the military does not keep track of exactly how many teachers are in the Reserve, Coles, the spokesperson for the Reserve’s 95th Division, estimates that the number who commit to active duty one weekend a month plus two weeks a year must be in the thousands nationwide. “Usually the required two weeks of training is in the summer, and of course that works beautifully for teachers,” she notes. “It is an ideal second job for an educator.”

Coles’ matter-of-fact attitude toward classroom discipline isn’t the only part of her Army Reserve training that has come in handy at her school. Principal Richard Spencer notes that the major— that’s “ma’am” to her students—has a sense of confidence in front of people that comes through when she’s giving staff development presentations. And the math skills Coles picked up in the military make for some particularly compelling class demonstrations. If students are learning about the distance between points, for instance, “I can talk about that in terms of firing artillery rounds downrange and how that’s programmed into the computer of an artillery piece,” Coles explains. “I show them the points and the hypotenuse and how to find all that using the Pythagorean theorem. It’s so funny. They don’t remember some things, but they do remember those examples.”

One of Coles’ best moments as a teacher came just this past spring, when students in her algebra class were working on a community service project to design a municipal park. Drawing on her military logistics experience, Coles divided the students into squads, each with a leader who reported to a captain with overall responsibility for the project. While students on the “recon” squad went out to evaluate the site, others used their math skills to estimate construction costs and come up with a budget. The final part of the mission, presenting their plans to the town council, took place just after school ended. “They didn’t have to come back to do that; their grades already were turned in,” Coles recalls proudly, “but they showed up looking so sharp, all wearing dresses or slacks, and made a formal presentation.”

Her secret to bringing out the best in kids? “In the Army, I expect my staff to do what I ask them to do, and in the classroom, it’s pretty much the same—but with more compassion,” she says. “These are good kids who want to work hard and succeed in life. They just need someone to show them how.”