By Evan Bleier —
Baghdad, Chicago, Kabul, Baltimore, Fallujah, Detroit, and New Orleans: The terrain may be different, but these cities are all battlegrounds of sorts.
Thanks to an initiative launched by Teach For America, members of the United States military now have the opportunity to serve in every city on the list.
Launched in 2012, “You Served For America, Now Teach For America” strives to bring military veterans into the highest-need classrooms in the United States. By targeting veterans and their spouses, the program aims to help individuals who want to teach circumvent some of the red tape that is associated with becoming a teacher and get into a classroom ASAP.
Military values like teamwork, camaraderie and leadership are all valuable tools in the classroom and having the ability to multi-task and remain ultra-organized in a chaotic environment is the calling card of a highly-effective soldier—and a great teacher.
“The foundational skill sets and attitudes developed by the military translate very well to the classroom,” said Sidney Ellington, a 20-year Navy veteran who currently heads the YSNT initiative. “Regardless of the branch of service, the structure and dedication is a great foundation.”
The program started out with about 60 veterans and has grown each year. In 2014, there were roughly 250 YSNT members. Ellington wants to recruit another 250 for 2015 with a goal of 800 veterans and spouses by 2016. Applicants undergo an intense five-week training program and are then assigned to a regional placement office for assignment to a school. Teachers serve out a two-year contract and are expected to earn their teaching certification during that time.
Ellington earned his certification in half that time while working in the New Orleans system. He took night classes and did “a lot of homework” to get his speedy certification. He didn’t serve in Iraq and Afghanistan but he recruits former soldiers who did. One of those recruits, seventh grade science teacher Brett Chappell, never pictured himself as a teacher. Chappell enlisted after the invasion of Iraq in 1991 and ended up graduating from the top of his Navy SEALS class after undergoing Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL (BUD/S) training. He currently teaches at Challenger Middle School in Tucson, Arizona, and credits the training he received in his old platoon with preparing him to find success in his new one.
“I have done a lot of things in my life and teaching is only second to the challenges I faced in the military,” Chappell said.
Another veteran, Adam Lenzmeier, shares similar sentiments.
Lenzmeier helped train Iraqi Army officers to take over from American forces. He earned his TOA stripes in Louisiana before taking over as the founding principal of Atlas Preparatory High School in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
“In the military you are relying on your superiors to do so much, but in teaching there isn’t that chain of command,” Lenzmeier said. “The responsibility for becoming better is on you. There’s no backup coming.”
He found that out firsthand while working with an unruly sixth grader during his early days at Atlas. “It was like a military operation,” Lenzmeier said. Lenzmeier gave it his all and the young man is now a freshman in the honors program at Atlas Prep High. “When he graduates, I will call Gonzaga [Lenzmeier’s alma mater] and their ROTC program and tell them to take a chance on him,” Lenzmeier said. “I’ll personally make that call.”
That was a victory, but the war wages on for Lenzmeier and the rest of the YSNT vets. Instead of a tangible enemy, they are now battling against adversaries like poverty, education inequity and apathy.
“Teaching isn’t a job to me. It is a war that is being fought for the outcomes of this country’s youth,” Chappell said. “With today’s competitive global economy our youth must be prepared to compete. If they aren’t, our position in the world is at risk.”