In Nerves of Steel, former Southwest Airlines pilot Tammie Jo Shults describes in vivid detail the problem-solving skills she and her crew put into action when their passenger-filled Boeing 737 blew an engine at 32,000 feet on April 17, 2018. A lifetime of learning—how to handle school stress and anxiety as a young kid, managing out-of-control jets as one of the first female pilots in the U.S. Navy, and her Southwest training—were put to the ultimate test that day.
“Good habits become a personal gold mine and should be guarded as such,” Shults writes in her book. “The reverse is also true: Bad habits, which we all have, can become an anchor wrapped around our feet, dragging us down. They will dictate our behavior in a time of crisis because, again, habits become instincts under pressure.”
Shults returned to flying Southwest jets three weeks after the incident and retired from the company two years ago. She recently talked to Education Week Assistant Managing Editor Kevin Bushweller about her experiences growing up and learning to fly and their relevance to teaching and learning for the current generation of K-12 students. (This interview was edited for brevity and clarity.)
During the pandemic, many educators, students, and parents have felt like they’ve lost control of their lives in different ways. You have talked publicly about learning how to manage that feeling and eventually getting back in control. How did that approach help you think clearly and solve the problems in front of you when Southwest flight 1380 blew an engine?
Well, I’ll just rebuild that moment to help us take it apart, and that is climbing peacefully through about 32,600 feet on our way to 38,000 feet, clear, beautiful day, smooth air, and then suddenly we heard an explosion and felt like we’d been hit by a Mack truck on the captain’s side. [My first officer Darren Ellisor] and I, when we compared notes later on the ground, we both thought we’d been hit by another aircraft.
From there on you get to determine, am I going to be frozen in fear or am I going to continue to problem-solve? For us, we were very high altitude, which created problems, but it also gave us a little bit of time to correct some of those and work with it.
So the mantra that Boeing puts on the front of its emergency procedures book—it goes well in life as well. The four points on the front of the emergency book say: maintain aircraft control, analyze the problem, take appropriate action, and maintain situational awareness. Take aircraft out of that, and it is a great life model.
Tell us about your experiences in the Navy as an instructor for the out-of-control flight program. What problem-solving skills did that experience teach you and how do those lessons apply to what students should be learning in school?
For those of you who have ever gotten assigned what no one else wanted and done so rather unfairly, take heart, because that’s exactly how I wound up as an out-of-control flight instructor. The commanding officer that was coming in halfway through my instructor tour was very public and very upset to have inherited a female instructor in his squadron. So he publicly just said, “I will not have a woman teaching guns [fighter jets] in my squadron, in my aircraft, in my Navy.”
The real rodeo of the [out-of-control] flights came when you went into spins. There were a number of ways to go into them. It was very disorienting. Being out of control is never something that anyone looks for. But quite frankly, it’s something that we all need to realize we can recover from, and I think that goes to part of the not being afraid to take some chances. I do understand the whole idea that you never know a subject well until you teach it, because I had gone through a couple of these [out-of-control] flights as a student and thought I knew it well, but you don’t until you teach it. So my hat’s off to teachers out there.
You write in Nerves of Steel about the struggles you had as a kid with school-related anxiety. What caused that anxiety, and at what point in your youth did you begin to turn that anxiety in the opposite direction?
I don’t know all of the pressures that caused it, but I do know that tests at school just really put a thumb on that nerve of anxiety for me as a young kid. Second grade, I believe, is when it just got so bad, being so concerned about doing well on a test, being so wrapped up in being afraid of not knowing what was on that test, and I would get vertigo.
If something was starting to make me so anxious, [my parents] would divert my attention from that temporarily. I always had to finish it, but they would get my mind on something else and get my body in motion. Our minds and our bodies are very connected. So sometimes when we run into a brick wall with our minds, it’s time to get your body moving. They would simply tell me, “I think we’re going to need your help in the barn or out in the field today, and you can catch up with school tomorrow.” And I know this might sound like blasphemy among educators, but it did teach me how to take a problem piece by piece. If you can’t take it head on, then back up and go at it from an angle. But I always went back to school, always took the test, and just learned to put it into perspective.
Being out of control is never something that anyone looks for. But quite frankly, it’s something that we all need to realize we can recover from, and I think that goes to part of the not being afraid to take some chances.
And did you have a teacher who helped you make that personal pivot away from school-related anxiety?
You know what? I will give credit to two teachers. One for causing it. Her screams and whacks on people’s hands could be heard through the hallways, and that was terrifying. Another 2nd grade teacher, same school, was as calm and collected and classy as the other was not. So I would say, teachers, you hold such a sway on people’s lives, and it can be such a wonderful sway.
Why do you think so many kids today struggle with anxiety? How can educators help?
[The 2nd grade teacher] always treated us like she just knew our goal was to be the very best we could be. She always treated us like this is an adventure we’re going to take on together. It wasn’t, “you need to learn this. You need to test well.” It was, “we get to learn about whatever today, and this is going to be fun.”
And I would also say, parents and teachers, one of the things that I can look back and say I think really made a big impression on my life was some of the simplicity that I had in childhood so that I didn’t have so much input in my mind. We didn’t have a television. We didn’t have a telephone. There was no Google. There were no computer games. I’m not saying any of those are evil or bad. I’m just saying that we need to have a little bit of room on our mental canvas to paint ourselves. And if that’s just filled with the busyness of things always coming in, whether it’s texts or calls or emails or shows, whether they’re wonderful, even educational shows, if those are filling our every moment, we have no time to really think for ourselves. And I do think that’s a really important part, not just of childhood. I think that’s an important part of life.
Education Week recently published a story about a high school curriculum that teaches students about the mathematical and engineering concepts of flight as well as career opportunities in the airline industry. It was designed by the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) Foundation. What do you think of those kinds of career prep programs?
I’ve spent the last couple of years on a women’s advisory board to the FAA and just looking at some of the reasons that we don’t have very many women in aviation. AOPA has done this amazing bridge so that anyone can know not only more about aviation, but the practical, logical steps of how do you get into this industry that is a booming industry. They’re in need of technicians, in need of pilots and air traffic controllers, you name it. Business, law, management, all those things go into aviation. If they choose not to go into aviation, they’ve already gotten a crash course in problem solving and looking for the questions that need to be asked whenever you’re going forward to look into what you want to do in life.
And, of course, Education Week has to ask you: What was your favorite subject in high school? And your least favorite?
Well, I loved science. I enjoyed just figuring out how things worked from the cellular level on up, because it all just came together in such a beautiful, miraculous way. And growing up on a farm and being outside just seeing things like sunrises, shooting stars, all the things that you think, OK, how does that happen? But my least favorite would probably only be because I wasn’t very good at it, and that was English. So I’ve always wanted to get a hold of my high school English teacher after the book came out to tell her, see, I did learn a few lessons.
Coverage of STEM, problem solving, and entrepreneurial thinking is supported in part by a grant from The Lemelson Foundation, at www.lemelson.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the May 04, 2022 edition of Education Week as Conquering School Anxiety And Saving Lives: A Courageous Pilot’s Message for Teachers