From Lieutenant Colonel to Teacher

July 09, 2008 5 min read
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William Howey

William Howey, author of Hard Knocks and Straight Talk: From The Jungle to the American Classroom , took an unconventional route to becoming the 1999 Educator of the Year for Berks and Montgomery Counties, Penn. After serving 32 years in the Marine Corps, including 3 years in Vietnam, he left a desk job at the Pentagon to become a high school teacher, yearbook advisor, and assistant athletic director at Boyertown Area Senior High in central Penn. Howey drew on his military experience and held his social studies students accountable for more than the textbook. His students learned in two ways about the U.S. government: “what the text said about how things should work and what I added about how it really worked.” Howey’s popularity grew over the course of his 15-year career, as the superintendent, parents, teachers, and students from study halls began to sit in on his classes.

We recently spoke with Howey via e-mail about his book, his military career, classroom experience and advice for new teachers.

To what extent did the military shape your decision to become a teacher?

The military did not shape my decision, but it trained me extremely well to handle anything the system could throw at me. My decision was made after retirement from the Marine Corps when I was offered high paying jobs in the Washington D.C-intelligence arena. I was worn out doing intelligence work and decided that I was extremely lucky to have survived so much in Vietnam and I wanted to give something back to society. When I looked into teaching I learned I would receive a starting salary of $26,000 a year, with a master’s degree. This was one quarter less than the D.C. offerings, but I thought it would be wonderful to teach kids the experiences I had accumulated over the previous 32 years. I took the offer of 26k and went on to have the time of my life as a teacher, yearbook advisor, and assistant athletic director simultaneously.

You write that the “vast majority of teachers come from teacher factories” but lack “real life experiences,” and that graduates from teacher schools may not be well prepared for the classroom either. What is your opinion of alternative certification programs like Teach for America or fellowships where new teachers are thrust into the classroom, often after making a career change? Do you see these as being effective?

For More Information

For more information on teacher licensure programs check out Teach for America, Troops to Teachers, and Soldiers to Scholars.

Teach for America is new to me. However, it sounds like what I advocate. I think the entire issue [alternative certification programs comes down] to how much the “new” teacher has to offer. To me, anyone who has put 20 or more years in the U.S. military, or a profession that can relate to high school math, science, social studies, and athletic programs has something to contribute. They have obtained years of experience dealing with the real world, while obviously knowing what they are talking about related to the subjects I mentioned. This is a package that can’t be compared with someone graduating from high school and going to a teacher factory where all they learn is out of a book.

Do you think that serving in the military would give someone an advantage over an individual coming from another profession?

The advantage I see is discipline! Military personnel know how to use personal discipline as well as group discipline. When you have a disciplined classroom of 30 students you are educating, it only takes one individual to disrupt the other 29. I believe it would be second nature for retired, older military men and women to handle the problems.

Teachers MUST have discipline themselves. On many occasions parents commented that they loved the environment their kids perceived about my classroom. It was a learning environment that contained some kidding around, a free exchange of ideas, and no nonsense.

Many parents seem to “pass on their job of parenting to the teachers,” as you describe it. What advice can you give to new teachers for handling the pressure and expectations of being a new teacher?

I don’t believe in trying to be a parent to 120 students a year; it’s impossible. I learned who the students were that were doing their best and simply educated them. To the handful of problem children I used real world motivation to convince them [that] they would go nowhere without staying in school and doing the best they could. I cite myself as the example of a poor high school education. It was my fault, not the teachers, and I related how hard it was to work all day and go to college at night or on weekends to get ahead. I can’t tell how many general students came to me, and to this day they send me e-mails telling me they wanted to drop out, but didn’t because of how I talked to them and encouraged them to stick it out.

What advice would you give to professionals making the career switch to teaching?

I would encourage people with the skills to communicate to consider the classroom. I would also say try it for two years, because no two classes seemed to be identical. If after two years you don’t feel you’re making a difference, give it up. On the other hand, if you know you are making a difference, I’d encourage [you] to continue. I knew I was making a difference after one year when parents were doing everything possible to get their children into my classes.

Given the nation’s current involvement with the war in Iraq, many military personnel return from Iraq in search of a career. What advice would you give to Iraqi veterans looking for a job after wartime service? Should they consider teaching as a career?

This the most difficult question so far, it’s like a double edged sword, but here goes. Not everyone in the military has the ability to teach. If I were a principal I would want an older military person because they have the education, experience, discipline, loyalty, discretion, hopefully morals, and character to do the best job possible with the kids. The younger military personnel are too much like the teacher factory graduates—they seem to want to be liked and [to be] one of the guys. Additionally, they lack the experiences older people have accumulated over time, and it is the experience that makes a big difference.

-Rachel Gang

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