FORT MEADE, Md. – About 60 servicemembers preparing to retire or separate from the military got the word loud and clear during a recent Transition Assistance Program workshop here: If Uncle Sam can't have you any more, the public school system would love to have you.
School districts around the country are desperate for the maturity and experience troops have gained through military service, said Robert Henry, who coordinates the Troops to Teachers Program for Maryland and the District of Columbia.
The Defense Department launched the Troops to Teachers program in 1994 to attract departing military members into teaching positions in low-income and underprivileged school districts. Fourteen years later, the program has placed more than 11,000 former troops into public schools nationwide, Henry told the group. Almost half the TTT teachers work in high schools, 30 percent in middle schools and about 20 percent in elementary schools. More than 80 percent of them are men, compared to about 25 percent of traditional teachers.
To qualify for the program, candidates need a bachelor's degree and teacher certification that the Troops to Teachers program can help finance, Henry said.
A retired Navy petty officer first class, Henry called the Troops to Teachers program a great opportunity for former servicemembers who enjoy working with young people and want to continue serving their communities.
He called former troops prime candidates for teaching jobs -- particularly in math, the sciences and special education -- who bring a unique quality to their classrooms.
"They have real-world experience, and they bring a level of maturity, along with good communications skills," he said. "Most have a sense of service and want to continue to give back to the community.
"But beyond that," he continued, "troops bring a sense of commitment to mission accomplishment. For them, failure is not an option. There's a kind of mentality they bring to the job that means they will do whatever they need to do to get something done and to do it right."
Participants in the program say military service gave them the skills they needed for the job: discipline, patience and a readiness to face challenges. They also report a personal satisfaction that comes with working with young people, Henry said.
Seventy-five percent of TTT teachers were still teaching five years after going through the program, Henry said. After 10 years, 60 percent were still involved in education, as teachers or administrators.
Among them is Ernie Jackson, who returned to his hometown of Port Jervis, N.Y., in 2000 to teach fifth grade and special education. Jackson, who retired as an Army infantry officer with the rank of lieutenant colonel, said he found the Troops to Teachers program a good way to transition into the education field.
Jackson said he drew on his 20 years of military experience as he moved into the classroom, tapping into the management skills the Army taught him, along with the ability to work under pressure and deal with people. He said he applied the Army's way of training troops, emphasizing group dynamics and team building -- "skills you need in life, but that you can't get on the Internet or on a cell phone."
Jackson said that as he rose through the education ranks, becoming a vice principal, then a principal, he got the satisfaction from his interactions with his students.
"You change kids' lives," he said. "It's a great opportunity to make a difference in a young person's life. And there's a tremendous amount of gratification that comes with that."
Now a principal who hires teachers, Jackson said he seeks out former servicemembers through the Troops to Teachers program. "Having time in the military gives them a definite edge in my book," he said. "I find there are a lot of parallels between teaching and the military. We need servicemen and women to become teachers."
Jackson isn't alone in praising the Troops to Teachers program. School districts rave about the teachers they recruited through the program, Henry told the Fort Meade troops. Ninety percent of principals report that TTT teachers are more effective than traditional teachers, particularly in classroom management and student discipline. Eight-nine percent of principals said TTT teachers have a greater impact than other teachers with equal teaching experience on student achievement.
"The school districts that have us all want more of us," Henry told students at the Fort Meade transition workshop. "It's a great opportunity to build on the military skills and experience you have built, and to use them in a meaningful way as you begin a new career."