You’re In The Classroom Now

August 01, 1992 5 min read

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, D.C.

To the bewilderment of some of his friends--and the delight of the Jacksonville, Fla., public schools--Rudolph decided to put his vast experience, including two advanced degrees and postgraduate studies in microbiology, to use as a mathematics and science teacher. “It’s been a tremendous challenge, but I just love it,’' says Rudolph, who, at age 59, is nearing the end of his first year at Matthew Gilbert Middle School. “I couldn’t have picked a better second career.’'

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 by at least 300,000 troops over the next three years, more and more service members are expected to follow 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 last June, some 40,000 soldiers have called. “When we first put it out, we were deluged with calls,’' says 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. The ringing slowed somewhat after the initial flurry, but it picked up this spring as the Army began holding early-retirement hearings.

Hot-line callers are mailed literature about teaching, including information on alternativecertification programs and contacts in state departments of education. 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.

Roddy calls the thousands of soon-to-be-former military per- sonnel part of the peace dividend. “It’s not money,’' he says. “It’s a peace dividend of skilled personnel. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity’’ for schools.

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

Many also possess strong backgrounds in such chronic teachershortage areas as mathematics, science, and computers. A graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, for example, typically completes enough math and physics course work to qualify for dual certification in most states. And unlike the typical 21-year-old undergraduate education major, service members have a working knowledge of their discipline. “That makes a significant difference in how they can relate that content to the kids,’' says Jay Shotel, an education professor at George Washington University, who designed one of the oldest and largest teacher training programs specifically for military retirees.

David Dean, a retired Navy commander in his fifth year of teaching world history and German at Foxcroft Academy in Dover-Foxcroft, Me., regularly draws on his military experiences in class. “I have some firsthand knowledge of a lot of the events we study,’' says 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.

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. “We come with a lot of technical training and selfconfidence, but we’re really quite ignorant of school practices and what it takes to be a successful teacher,’' says Al Sganga, who will wind up a 21-year Coast Guard career in August.

Already hired to teach middle school starting this fall in Chesapeake, Va., Sganga is one of some 70 veterans who have completed the Military Career Transition Program at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va., since the program began four years ago. He believes service members need such a program before they are prepared to take over their own classrooms.

While none of the many training programs for service members offers any job guarantees, most program directors report that, so far, their graduates have generally found teaching positions. But Lisa Ray, a consultant with the California Department of Education who has worked with a program in San Francisco, worries that the aggressive recruiting efforts might give military veterans the mistaken impression that the overall demand for teachers is high right now. “We can’t say, ‘Come and we’ll give you a job,’ Ray says. “They have to realize the reality of the job situation for them in this state at this time. 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 of several states to sign a teacher-recruitment agreement with the Army.

But according to Jim Pirius, the director of federal relations for the Florida Department of Education, “the number of teaching jobs we thought might be there haven’t materialized; teachers are staying where they are.’' Still, Pirius believes the state should continue to recruit members of the armed services because more teachers will be needed as the economy improves.

Tight budgets and a dearth of jobs have done nothing to prevent the introduction of federal legislation that would make it easier for military retirees to begin second careers in education. Both the U.S. House and Senate, for example, are considering retirement incentives for service members who become teachers. And in early June, the House approved a bill that would authorize $180 million in 1993 to train laid-off military employees to teach in the nation’s schools. President Bush has also announced a package of military transition initiatives that includes funds to train new teachers.

Meanwhile, the 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,’' says Sganga, the Coast Guard commander who will start teaching full time in the fall.

Dean, the history and German teacher in Maine, says that every day was a surprise during his first six months in the classroom. Between teaching and coaching soccer, 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,’' Dean says, “and I don’t see myself stopping anytime soon.’'--Daniel Gursky

A version of this article appeared in the August 01, 1992 edition of Teacher as You’re In The Classroom Now