As a military instructor, Lazaro Ramirez could order his students to do something and they’d jump. It wasn’t so easy with his 3rd graders at Alamo Elementary School in McAllen, Texas, but he stuck with his new job.
“You have to adjust your way of being and acting toward the kids,” said Mr. Ramirez, who is now an assistant principal at a middle school across town. “They’re here because they have to be here, not because they volunteered.”
A former Army sergeant major, Mr. Ramirez, 46, has made a smooth transition to a second career in education through Troops to Teachers. The program, launched by the U.S. Department of Defense in 1994, helps personnel cut loose by the military’s post-Cold War “drawdown” land teaching jobs. In the past four years, some 3,000 people from all branches of the armed services and the Coast Guard have found jobs as teachers, primarily in the 20 states with the most military bases. Districts in California, Florida, Georgia, Texas, and Virginia have hired hundreds of veterans for their classrooms.
With the program scheduled to end next fall, recruitment officers are eager to spread the good word about Troops to Teachers. A study commissioned by the Washington state recruitment office calls it a “rich source” of sought-after teachers: The recruits are much more likely than traditional applicants to be male, members of minority groups, willing to work in hard-to-staff urban and rural schools, and qualified to teach mathematics, science, and special education.
“This is seen as a very effective way to help get the demand for additional teachers met with high-quality individuals,” said C. Emily Feistritzer, the president of the National Center for Education Information, a private research organization in Washington, who conducted the study released this summer. “It would be a real tragedy to just have it not exist any more.”
In a speech last month, U.S. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley praised Troops to Teachers as a “new model” of recruiting teachers, particularly minority candidates and men with strong backgrounds in math and science--the kinds of applicants that are often hard to find.
During the next decade, an estimated 2 million new teachers will be needed in response to a high number of retirements and record-setting enrollments.
The Troops to Teachers offices, housed in 20 state education departments, help military veterans navigate the complexities of becoming licensed to teach and finding jobs where they want to live. Three-fourths of those who have participated are retired from the military, while the rest served between six and 12 years.
When the program started, Congress appropriated $65 million for two years. The funding, which has not been continued, provided $5,000 stipends to help retirees become licensed and incentive grants of up to $50,000 over five years to districts to hire them.
But the money wasn’t the biggest draw for districts, says John R. Gantz, who directs Troops to Teachers for the Defense Activity for Non-Traditional Education Support, or DANTES, agency of the Defense Department in Pensacola, Fla.
“When we asked districts why they were hiring them, the answer loud and clear was because they are very good people,” Mr. Gantz said.
Ms. Feistritzer’s survey, completed over the summer by 1,171 participants in the program, found that 90 percent were male, 29 percent were members of minority groups, and 29 percent were teaching mathematics. One-fourth of the teachers were working in inner-city schools, while another 48 percent were teaching in small towns and rural communities.
Nearly half, or 45 percent, taught at the senior high level, while 35 percent worked in middle or junior high schools and 20 percent taught elementary school.
A review of the records of 1,400 participants employed between 1994 and last year found that 85 percent were still teaching this year.
A 1995 survey conducted by DANTES found administrators rated more than 75 percent of Troops to Teachers recruits as above average or higher. Twenty-two percent said they were “among the best” teachers they had hired.
To Bill Perry, a retired middle school principal who is the Troops to Teachers representative for Virginia, their success is no surprise.
“Military personnel, when they’re not fighting wars, they teach each other,” Mr. Perry said. “That’s the kind of people we’re dealing with--45-year-old people who know how to teach 18- or 19-year-olds coming out of high school.”
Mr. Perry and his Troops to Teachers colleagues review applicants’ transcripts, advise them on becoming licensed, and link them with districts. The program has an Internet site, voled.doded.mil/dantes/ttt, that allows candidates to search for job vacancies and talk to on-line “mentors.”
Military test sites around the world now administer teacher-licensing tests, including the PRAXIS test and the California Basic Education Skills Test.
Sam Swofford, the executive director of the California State Commission on Teacher Credentialing, noted that veterans gain life experience that is invaluable in the classroom."There’s a sense of commitment that’s instilled in them, when they come out, that is part of their internal mechanism for the way they live,” he said. “They make wonderful teachers.”
In California, Troops to Teachers was combined with a state-run program launched in 1994 to place laid-off aerospace and defense workers in teaching positions. Over four years, 734 defense workers and 276 military recruits have taken jobs teaching in the state.
In Texas, where schools have hired 467 Troops to Teachers participants, the state education agency may assume the cost of the effort. The funding involved is relatively modest: The Troops to Teachers office has a budget this year of $118,000, according to Meryl Kettler, the coordinator of the Texas Military Initiative.
Officials in other states are discussing moving the recruitment effort to veterans’ affairs departments.
Three-fourths of the veterans in Texas have earned licenses through “alternate route” programs that involve structured internships and university coursework. Nationwide, Ms. Feistritzer’s survey found, half the Troops to Teachers participants had entered teaching that way, while the rest completed traditional college-based programs.
Mr. Ramirez, the McAllen middle school assistant principal, was licensed through a one-year internship program at the University of Texas at El Paso to teach elementary bilingual education and English as a second language. He went on to earn a master’s in educational administration--and to learn a lot about children.
“You end up realizing a lot of things about the baggage kids bring to school,” he said, “and what you can do to help them out.”