Assistant Principal Overcomes PTSD to Teach Again

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Bay Minette, Ala.

Matthew Craig walks through the newly constructed halls of Bay Minette Elementary with apparent ease. He sits in a private office, "Assistant Principal" sign on the door and diplomas from various universities hanging over a surprisingly clean desk for an educator.

His principal swears he'll go far, maybe as far as central office, so it's hard to imagine him anywhere else—much less a war zone.

After more than six years of teaching, three national teaching awards and steady career at Bay Minette Middle School, Craig enlisted in the United States Army in 2011 and was deployed to Afghanistan shortly after. His friends and family were surprised by the decision, but he couldn't ignore the gravity-like pull he felt, he said. In 2010, he couldn't sit through patriotic events without feeling guilt. He said he knew where he was meant to be. And once he made the decision to enlist, he immediately became a leader to younger soldiers and was moved from one teaching role to another.

"There was a part of me who resented that because I was supposed to be a soldier, not a teacher," he said, "But, almost from day one, I remained in a teaching role."

His drive toward success as an award-winning teacher in Bay Minette only intensified in the military, as he fought through basic training in Oklahoma with stress fractures in his foot. In a boot, Craig made his way through training and was named a Distinguished Honor Graduate after Advanced Individual Training, he said. He eventually was stationed in Kansas where his experience and diligence gained him high respect and responsibility as the battery prepared to be deployed. As a specialist, he was given responsibilities normally reserved for higher ranks.

During his time in Afghanistan, he worked in field artillery and eventually became a trainer for the battalion's ASSIST program, a suicide prevention and intervention program. After some time in that position, he became a coordinator for the brigade of 4,000 soldiers. He was eventually promoted to Sergeant. Once he returned home, an injury to his shoulder worsened and after two surgeries Craig was medically discharged from the army. It was a tough pill to swallow, he said because his teaching certificates had lapsed as well. And even if he was going to pursue getting recertified, he was anxious about working around children again.

Craig was diagnosed with anxiety and depression while serving in the Army, but it wasn't until normalcy set in at home that his Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder really reared its head. "We hear about mental health a lot now, but that doesn't mean everyone understands it," he said.

Craig and his wife were walking through a crowded River Market in Kansas when he felt an episode coming on. It was the first time he'd been surprised by a large crowd of children. "What was wrong with me?" he asked himself. "My wife had to hold on to me and help me walk through the crowd."

Large, unexpected groups of children can trigger PTSD episodes because children are sometimes used in bait tactics or suicide missions in war zones, Craig said. This fear hadn't affected Craig overseas, but once he'd let his guard down that day, a rush of fear and anxiety flooded in.

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He wondered if he could go back to the classroom two years after enlisting. Friends and family questioned whether he could ever teach again. "After that experience, there was a lot of shame," he said. "I thought, 'This is who I am. This is what I do.'" Up until his service, children had been his life as a teacher, youth leader and volunteer.

The apprehension of another episode kept him from jumping right back in even though the job he originally vacated at Bay Minette Middle opened up. He took two non-teaching jobs and despite being treated well, he felt the same kind of gravity-like pull back to teaching. "It seemed like every time I turned around, there was another sign to go back." And the signs were black and white. His old job opened every year after coming back to the States and finally, he gave in.

Craig, a young father of two, said he never thought he'd be where he is today, overcoming his disability and finding success at an assistant principal. He started his current job in July 2017, six years after his first days in the Army. After civilian therapy, necessary medications and a supportive community that rallied behind his decision, he was able to work his way to assistant principal. And it was the best decision for his mental health, he said.

"Now, more than ever, we have kids with behavior and mental health issues," he said. "Being someone who has that as part of my life has taught me to understand it better."

Not a single day goes by when he doesn't wish he hadn't experienced what he has, but he said his PTSD "doesn't define who he is, but refines" who he is.

Every day he gets to watch a student experience the rush of excitement that comes from learning something new or getting to the point of understanding. Every day he gets to help the kids that seem to always have hard days and work toward giving them hope. The transition from war zone to recess was a "wild ride," but Craig said he's got big aspirations.

"I think what almost took me out—literally and figuratively—has become one of my greatest strengths and one of the things that have helped me be a better educator," he said.

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