‘You’re in the Classroom Now': Military Retirees Are Joining the Teaching Force

By Daniel Gursky — May 20, 1992 16 min read
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After serving 30 years in the U.S. Navy, Jerome Rudolph probably could have found a civilian job almost anywhere he wanted.

His distinguished military career included stints as a back-up dentist for the White House, the head of operations for the Navy’s worldwide dental corps, and an aide to the U.S. Surgeon General in Washington.

To the bewilderment of some of his friends--and to the delight of the Jacksonville, Fla., public schools--Mr. Rudolph decided to put his vast experience, including two advanced degrees and postgraduate studies in microbiology, to use as a high-school mathematics and science teacher.

“It’s been a tremendous challenge, but I just love it,’' said Mr. Rudolph, who, at age 59, is nearing the end of his first year at Matthew W. Gilbert Middle School. “I couldn’t have picked a better second career.’'

Mr. Rudolph is far from alone. Although no figures exist on the number of military retirees who have made the transition into the classroom, their ranks are growing. And with the Defense Department scheduled to downsize--or “rightsize,’' in the latest lingo--its forces by at least 300,000 troops over the next three years, more and more service members are expected to follow Mr. Rudolph’s lead.

One indication of the increased interest in teaching as a second career is the sheer volume of calls the U.S. Army has logged on its worldwide toll-free hot lines for prospective teachers. Since the lines were hooked up last June in Germany, Korea, Panama, and the United States, some 40,000 soldiers have called, according to John Roddy, a senior policy analyst at the U.S. Education Department who currently is on loan to the Army to help with its New Careers Program.

“It comes in waves,’' Mr. Roddy noted. “When we first put it out, we were deluged with calls.’'

The ringing slowed somewhat after the initial flurry, he said, but it has picked up again lately as the Army has begun holding early-retirement-board hearings that can determine a soldier’s future in the military.

Hot-line callers are mailed literature about teaching, including information on alternative-certification programs and contacts in departments of education in the states where they might want to teach.

No other branch of the military operates such a hot line, but members of all the armed services can get similar information through on-base education centers and from the military’s transition-assistance counselors.

“Our policy is to provide access and information,’' said Lenore Saltman, the assistant director for continuing, adult, and postsecondary education at the Defense Department. “We’re making sure everybody can get information about how to become a teacher.’'

Part of the ‘Peace Dividend’

Mr. Roddy calls the thousands of soon-to-be-former military personnel part of the “peace dividend’’ resulting from the nation’s shrinking defense budget.

“It’s not money,’' he said. “It’s a peace dividend of skilled personnel. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity’’ for schools to recruit large numbers of teachers who bring the distinctive mix of qualifications military service can provide.

Military retirees, particularly officers, have a combination of education, training, and experience that can translate well into the classroom, many observers say. Commissioned officers are all college graduates, and a large percentage of those in the higher ranks have also earned advanced degrees.

Many also possess strong backgrounds in such chronic teacher-shortage areas as mathematics, science, and computers. A graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, for example, typically completes enough math and physics coursework to qualify for dual certification in most states, according to Jay Shotel, an education professor at George Washington University in Washington, who designed one of the oldest and largest teacher-training programs specifically for military retirees.

Unlike 21-year-old undergraduate education majors, Mr. Shotel said, service members gain a working knowledge of their discipline. “That makes a significant difference in how they can relate that content to the kids,’' he argued.

David Dean, a retired Navy commander in his fifth year of teaching world history and German at Foxcroft Academy in Dover-Foxcroft, Me., said he regularly draws on his military experiences in class.

“In world history, I have some firsthand knowledge of a lot of the events we study,’' said Mr. Dean, who ended his military career with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in Germany. “I’ve been to some places and seen some things’’ that can help bring classroom discussions to life, he said.

Like many military officers, Mr. Dean did quite a bit of teaching, both formal and informal, during his years in the service, so becoming a teacher was not a radical transition.

Some observers also believe the discipline and organization inherent in military life can prove helpful in the classroom.

“These people are coming out of an organization that is dedicated to excellence and competitiveness, and an organization that has shown it knows what it’s doing’’ by its performance in the Persian Gulf and elsewhere, said Lieut. Col. Peter Moore of the Army’s department of training and education.

With their ranks made up of disproportionate numbers of males and minorities compared with the general population, military retirees could also help schools diversify their overwhelmingly white, female teaching staffs.

One university-based program, in fact--Benedict College’s Armed Forces Teacher Education for Retirees--is designed primarily to train black males to teach in elementary schools.

“Elementary schools have been absent of male teachers for so long historically that they welcome any male, especially one who has served his country so well,’' said Francena Willingham, who directs the program at the small, historically black college in Columbia, S.C. “These men want to serve as role models.’'

Benedict’s program, which began in January 1991 with the help of a grant from the Coca-Cola Foundation, currently has 15 participants, some of whom will begin their student teaching this fall.

Other programs have been less successful in attracting large numbers of minority candidates. Mr. Shotel at George Washington University estimates that only about two dozen minority candidates have completed the program since 1985. Minority officers, he theorized, still have plenty of other, more lucrative civilian career options.

A Different World

While their education and experience may give veterans a head start in the classroom, they soon realize there is a world of difference between the military and the schools.

“The military prepares you for a lot of things,’' said Al Sganga, “but it doesn’t prepare you to control a group of teenagers.’'

Mr. Sganga, who will wind up a 21-year Coast Guard career in August, already has been hired to teach middle school starting this fall in Chesapeake, Va. He is one of some 70 veterans who have completed the Military Career Transition Program at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va.--home to Navy, Army, and Air Force bases--since the program began four years ago.

“We come with a lot of technical training and self-confidence, but we’re really quite ignorant of school practices and what it takes to be a successful teacher,’' Mr. Sganga said. As a result, he added, service members need a program such as Old Dominion’s before they are prepared to take over their own classrooms.

The O.D.U. program is fairly typical of the handful of similar university-based teacher-training efforts around the country designed specifically for retiring military personnel.

Some of the programs are geared for current military personnel, some for men and women who have already left the service; most accommodate a mix of current and former service members.

Aspiring teachers could finish the O.D.U. coursework in about a year if they really pushed themselves, but most take somewhat longer, said Robert McDonald, who directs the program. They can stop after earning enough credits for secondary-school certification or go on to earn a Master of Arts in teaching, as many do.

With about 500 students currently taking classes, Old Dominion’s program is probably the largest in the nation. Service members can attend classes at the university’s off-campus graduate centers or at various naval installations around the Norfolk area.

To ease their transition, Mr. McDonald said, the prospective teachers have as much contact as possible with teachers, students, administrators, and schools; many classes require regular school visits.

James Black, a retired Army lieutenant colonel who received his training through Fayetteville (N.C.) State University’s Teacher Certification Opportunities for Transitioning Soldiers, said more extensive exposure to today’s students might have better prepared him for what he sees as the sheer lack of disrespect they show in class.

"[Soldiers] really need to get into the type of school where they might be teaching and spend some time observing the students they would be dealing with,’' said Mr. Black, a math teacher at Westover Senior High School in Fayetteville. “They’re thinking back to when they were in school 15 or 20 years ago. But schools aren’t the same--they aren’t even close.’'

Most Graduates Find Jobs

Another program that features concentrated doses of fieldwork and classroom observation is the one at George Washington University, which has trained about 200 retired-military teachers since 1985. Those in-school experiences show participants what they are getting into, so they can change their minds about teaching early on, said Mr. Shotel, the program’s founder.

“We give them a heavier dose of classroom management and behavior management because the culture of the military is very different from the culture of schools,’' Mr.Shotel explained. “Students aren’t going to listen to you just because you’re of higher rank.’'

Initial reaction to the program from Washington-area school districts was less than enthusiastic, he recalled. But once the service members successfully completed their student teaching, administrators’ attitudes changed. Now, Mr. Shotel said, the school districts “like them and they look for them.’'

M.S. Jimmie Greek, who directs Jacksonville (Fla.) University’s Second Career as a Teacher program for Navy personnel, has tracked its 18 graduates--including Mr. Rudolph, the dentist--now teaching in the Jacksonville area. All of their principals, he said, have ranked the veterans in the top third of their teaching staffs.

So far, Mr. Greek said, all the program graduates who wanted to teach have found jobs, although that might change for future graduates because of the state’s continuing fiscal problems.

While no training program for service members offers any job guarantees, most other program directors also report that their graduates have generally found teaching positions.

In San Francisco, the city’s school district has agreed to look closely at the five former and active service members finishing up their teacher training at San Francisco State University as part of a joint project with the district, the U.S. Education Department, the state department of education, and the Army and Navy.

Jobs will be easier for the graduates to find because the federal funding for the program stipulates that it train math and science teachers, who are in short supply in San Francisco.

Regional Job Shortages

Lisa Ray, a consultant with the California Department of Education who has worked on the San Francisco project, expressed some concern that aggressive recruiting efforts aimed at military veterans might give them the mistaken impression that the overall demand for teachers is high right now.

“Shortages are regional and subject specific,’' she said. “We can’t say, ‘Come and we’ll give you a job.’''

“They have to realize the reality of the job situation for them in this state at this time,’' she noted. “There just are very few positions open in some curriculum areas.’'

Similarly, fiscal problems in Florida have skewed predictions from a couple of years ago that the state would have 10,000 to 12,000 teaching vacancies a year. When the job market was wide open in 1990, Florida became the first state to sign an agreement with the Army on teacher recruitment. (See Education Week, Aug. 1, 1990.)

As part of second-career transition assistance for people leaving the service in Florida, the Army provides information about teaching careers, and the state tries to help place potential teachers in appropriate training programs.

“The number of teaching jobs we thought might be there haven’t materialized,’' said Jim Pirius, the director of federal relations for the Florida Department of Education. “Teachers are staying where they are.’'

That does not mean the state should stop its efforts to recruit members of the armed services into teaching, however, because more teachers will be hired as the economy improves, Mr. Pirius said.

South Carolina, Texas, and, most recently, Mississippi, have signed similar pacts with the Army. In Texas, for example, the Army has sent state education officials the names of thousands of people qualified to teach under the state’s extensive alternative-certification program.

Federal Incentives

Tight budgets also have done nothing to prevent the recent introduction of federal legislation that would make it easier for military retirees to become teachers.

For example, Senator Sam Nunn, Democrat of Georgia, has proposed changes in military retirement benefits for people who take jobs in critical-needs areas, including education. For each year of such service, the retiree’s credit for military-pension benefits would increase by one year, up to total of 20 years.

Mr. Nunn has also argued that former service members should not be limited to serving just as teachers. “I can’t think of anything that would increase the productivity of our American teachers more,’' he told the Atlanta Constitution, “than having a drill instructor from Parris Island available as an assistant principal to patrol the halls in some of these schools.’'

In the House, Representative Jim Kolbe, an Arizona Republican, has also introduced legislation proposing retirement incentives for service members who become teachers. And Representative Robert K. Dornan, Republican of California, wants to use federal money to pay stipends for service members while they pursue elementary and secondary teacher certification; recipients would have to agree to teach at least two of the first five years after they were certified.

Some of these proposals are designed to ease the financial strain military retirees may encounter in trying to get certified. Veterans’ benefits pay for a portion of their education, but student teaching can be a particular hardship.

Once they find teaching jobs, however, retirees’ combined salary and military pension usually provide a comfortable income.

Help With Dropout Prevention

A national nonprofit organization, meanwhile, is hoping this summer to begin recruiting exiting soldiers interested in helping with its dropout-prevention programs. Information on job prospects with Cities in Schools, which runs dropout-prevention projects in 122 communities, will be included in the Army’s program of employment and other transition assistance.

Working in partnership with local chambers of commerce and other community-based organizations, military retirees could help set up and direct Cities in Schools programs in new locations, said Peter Bankson, a special assistant to the organization’s president. Or they could work as project directors, who oversee the day-to-day operations of school-based projects.

“We have a need for the same kind of leadership skills that the Army is heavy on,’' Mr. Bankson said. "[Soldiers] can identify with kids and have a lot of positive things to say to them.’'

He anticipates that Cities in Schools may hire and train as many as 200 people a year from the ranks of the Army.

Mr. Bankson said his organization will welcome noncommissioned officers, many of whom do not have bachelor’s degrees, as well as commissioned officers.

Targeting ‘Noncoms’

Efforts aimed at recruiting classroom teachers, on the other hand, have largely bypassed career enlisted personnel because most of them lack bachelor’s degrees.

“Programs for officers are wonderful,’' said Vicki Harding. “They’re doing a great job. But they’re taking the cream off the top of the [potential teacher] population.’'

Ms. Harding is trying to change that through the Servicemembers Opportunity Colleges, a network of higher-education institutions sponsored by the American Association of State Colleges and Universities.

Member institutions offer credit courses leading to two- and four-year degrees at more than 500 military installations in the United States and abroad, but until this year, education classes were not among the offerings. Ms. Harding, the network’s education project manager, has arranged for almost 40 schools to offer seven basic courses, such as introduction to education, educational psychology, and teaching strategies, that virtually every teacher needs for certification.

When the service members leave the military after taking those classes, they will have to complete only a few specialized courses and their student teaching to earn a license. Eventually, Ms. Harding said, she hopes military personnel will be able to earn education degrees while still in the service so they can go right out and teach after they retire.

One obstacle to her efforts, Ms. Harding explained, has been the reluctance of some education schools to be flexible in order to accommodate the needs of military personnel. “They’re just beginning to wake up to the fact that there’s a whole new client population out there.’'

Ms. Harding and the Servicemembers Opportunity Colleges have an outspoken and distinguished supporter in the historian Jack Hexter, a professor emeritus and founder of the Center for the History of Freedom at Washington University in St. Louis.

Noncommissioned officers, Mr. Hexter argues, have survived an intensely competitive process to advance to positions such as sergeant major, and they are the ones who can really relate to students, especially in disadvantaged schools.

“These guys radiate successful adulthood,’' he said. “That’s what these kids never see in a man.’'

“If you could persuade a significant portion of them to head for public education and go into disadvantaged schools,’' Mr. Hexter added, “you could make a hell of a difference. To lose them would be a terrible mistake and a moral disaster.’'

‘I Love What I’m Doing’

Military veterans who have made the successful transition into teaching say the experience has been both exhausting and exhilarating.

“I never worked harder than I did when I was student teaching, and I never enjoyed an avocation more,’' said Al Sganga, the Coast Guard commander who will start teaching full time in the fall.

David Dean, the history and German teacher in Maine, said every day was a surprise his first six months in the classroom. Between teaching and coaching soccer, he recalled, his days ran from 5 A.M. until almost midnight.

With a few years of experience behind him, he finds the job easier now, but no less enjoyable.

“I love what I’m doing,’' Mr. Dean said, “and I don’t see myself stopping anytime soon.’'


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