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Former Warriors Go to the Head of the Class

A growing number of troops returning from combat are becoming teachers. Many say the military inspired them to help others.

July 09, 2006|Jesse Harlan Alderman | Associated Press Writer

BOISE, Idaho — Within a year, Luke Miller went from raiding insurgent strongholds in Iraq's volatile Al Anbar province to preparing math final exams for seventh- and eighth-graders at West Junior High School.

During a pre-algebra class before school broke for the summer, Miller drew from an Iraq-inspired scenario to show his students the calculation for rate of speed. He used the example of a soldier lost in the desert who must accelerate his pace to reunite with his platoon.

Miller, a Marine reservist who served as a tank commander, is one of a growing number of troops returning from combat who are trading the battlefield for the classroom. They are drawn to teaching by a credo they picked up in the military: Help the ones who follow behind.

Many troops enter through a federal program called Troops to Teachers, which places veterans and reservists with college degrees in teacher-certification classes. More than 1,500 graduates -- and many more combat veterans unaffiliated with the program, like Miller -- are working in schools across the West, said director John Gantz. More than 4,500 are teaching in the South.

And those numbers are expected to climb, Gantz said.

Miller, 26, landed his first teaching job three months before he was deployed to Iraq in 2004. His unit, Alpha Company, 1st Tank Battalion, 2nd Marine Division, served 200 days last year in Hit, Iraq. He was awarded the prestigious Military Vanguard Award and a Bronze Star after rescuing three comrades wounded in a roadside bomb attack.

Combat experience, he said, has bolstered an approach to teaching that draws frequently from lessons learned in war.

"The focus of the military is mission accomplishment, and that translates to teaching in so many ways," Miller said, sitting before a classroom wall tacked with pictures of platoon mates in fatigues. "You climb the ranks and are expected to teach newer guys. So, teaching is a major component of the military."

Nationally, a looming teacher shortage could befall American schools. According to Department of Education projections, 2 million teachers will be needed to staff mostly inner-city and rural schools in the next 10 years.

Schools are successfully staving off the shortfall by expanding recruitment efforts beyond the college pipeline. In addition to the thousands of military veterans, many of the vacancies will be plugged by a nontraditional group of mid-career professionals and retirees.

There is a deep reservoir to tap. Since 2001, some 240,000 veterans with college degrees have left the armed forces.

Daniel Lieja, for instance, received a college degree months before leaving a 22-year career in the Air Force. He was certified through Troops to Teachers and started work two days after military retirement. Today, his charges are sixth-graders at the inner-city Gregorio Esparza Elementary School in San Antonio, where three other military veterans are among his colleagues.

"If you come to Esparza at 6 a.m., there's going to be four of us there and it's the ex-military," said Lieja. who last year won the White House's American Star Teaching Award, representing Texas. "We're used to being up early and preparing. It's about the mission and getting the job done for us."

Troops to Teachers, whose mantra is "proud to serve again," offers a $5,000 stipend, plus another $10,000 if graduates choose to teach in impoverished areas. The program was created in 1994 but was dormant for six years, until Congress reauthorized spending in 2001 to help lure the type of highly qualified teachers required by the No Child Left Behind Act.

The program has produced 9,000 teachers nationally. More than 75% are still teaching -- a rate that far outpaces traditional teacher retention of less than 50%, according to a 2002 University of Pennsylvania study cited by the group.

Although men and minorities are underrepresented in the national applicant pool of teachers -- 18% male and 15% minority -- teachers placed by Troops to Teachers are overwhelmingly men, and about 37% are minorities.

School officials cite maturity and effective discipline as skills that veterans bring to the job.

"They've been through a lot more than somebody just out of college," said Phil Wickliff, veterans education coordinator for the Idaho Department of Education. "If I was a superintendent hiring a teacher, I'd be much likelier to hire ex-military than a young person right out of Boise State [University] who just doesn't have that life experience."

Eric Combs, who also was certified through Troops to Teachers, won Ohio's 2006 Teacher of the Year Award. He teaches social studies at Fairborn High School near Dayton, engaging students by speaking in dialects he learned while stationed with the Air Force in Kuwait, North Africa, South Korea and other far-flung places. He recently bought a Soviet Union military outfit on EBay for a lesson about the Cold War, and he recounts stories about some of his experiences in the first Gulf War.

"You get in the mode after serving 20 years in the military of seeing a greater cause. I couldn't go day by day serving the almighty dollar," Combs said.

LeRoy Gaub, a regional representative for Troops to Teachers in Bozeman, Mont., said many troops serving overseas were already taking online classes in hopes of qualifying for the program.

Peter Koehler entered teaching with help from the program after a 21-year Army career.

Less than 10 years after retiring as a lieutenant colonel, Koehler, a veteran of the Persian Gulf War, is principal at Central Elementary School in Nampa, Idaho, where more than 80% of the pupils qualify for free or reduced-price lunches under federal guidelines.

"You come out of a place like Iraq with a realization that there are things we need to do to help people," Koehler said. "You gain a vision of how to help society, and you bring that back to your community."

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