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Military Veterans
Proudly Serving Again,
In the Classroom

Bringing unique and tested management skills, flexibility in dealing with others, and the ability to respond appropriately in nearly any situation, former service men and women are joining a new cause -- education. The government-sponsored program Troops to Teachers offers assistance by providing information, employment leads, and stipends that ensure a smooth transition to a second career in teaching. Principals and students rave about the seasoned professionals who are embracing a new challenge. Included: Troops-turned-teachers share some of the rewards and difficulties they have encountered in their new careers.

"When I retired, I was immediately hired as a mid-level manager in the automotive industry," recalls Eric Combs. "The money was great and so were the benefits. But after a year, I realized I was simply working for money. As trite as that may sound, I really couldn't stomach it. The stresses -- without a feeling of greater accomplishment and without a feeling that I made a difference in the bigger spheres of life -- really got to me."

Ninth grade teacher Eric Combs of Fairborn, Ohio, is a 20-year veteran of the Air Force.

It was then that a friend told Combs about an opening for a high school Junior ROTC teacher. He jumped at the opportunity and soon after realized that teaching was for him. With the assistance of Troops to Teachers, a government program that has helped more than 9,500 former military members become public school teachers since 1994, Combs was able to embark on a second career.

"In absolutely every aspect of life, the United States Air Force (USAF) has prepared me to deal with anything, anywhere, and at anytime," Combs told Education World. "I really mean it. Some things that often stress out other teachers are training in technology, dealing with difficult people, and unfunded requests or timelines. Those are everyday issues in the military.

I also think that my many deployments and having to adapt my environment, behavior, or equipment to meet critical needs have been helpful in the classroom."


As a ninth grade social studies teacher at Fairborn (Ohio) High School, Combs frequently adds his firsthand accounts to the students' studies of other lands and cultures. Having traveled to the Middle East and Europe many times, he tells stories, shows photos, and talks about interactions he has had with the people in those regions.

"When we discuss Islam and the Muslim faith, I share with my students the rules and aspects of it that I was exposed to while serving in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia," said Combs. "When we speak of the importance of a global community, I share stories about Germany before and after the fall of the Berlin Wall and about the British forces and how we interacted during the Gulf War."

Troops to Teachers has assisted Combs and others by providing counseling and assistance regarding certification requirements, routes to state certification, and employment leads. The program sometimes offers financial assistance in the form of stipends to pay for certification costs or bonuses to teach in schools with high percentages of students from low-income families.

"While I often feel students in the ninth grade lack a lot of basic social skills in terms of respect and honor, I find them to be very quick learners of behavior," observed Combs. "If properly modeled, they learn that showing respect for one another can open bigger and more successful worlds for them. Most rewarding for me is any moment when students smile and recognize something new, when they discover their own voice and find a place to express it in my classroom."


Thanks to assistance from Troops to Teachers, retired Air Force aeromedical evacuation technician Daniel Leija left military life on a Friday and stood in front of a kindergarten class on the following Monday! He was drawn to education during an assignment as a nursing instructor at the School of Aerospace Medicine at Brooks Air Force Base in Texas and worked full-time while carrying 12 hours per semester to complete his degree. Today Leija teaches fourth grade at Gregorio Esparza Accelerated Elementary in San Antonio.

Daniel Leija, a 22-year veteran of the Air Force, teaches fourth graders in San Antonio, Texas.

Military training has been an asset to Leija in the classroom. As a former combat medic, he has been a "first responder" in medical emergencies and provided care for the injured until the nurse arrived. The management skills that he acquired through years of medical service have helped him function as a team leader at various grade levels and promote excellent behavior among his students.

"In the classroom, my classes function as a team, and the students learn early on that we win as a team and lose as a team," Leija explained. "It drives home the importance of helping each other in order to reach a common goal. My classes stand out as they learn that discipline, respect, and courtesy are necessary ingredients for success in life. I always remind my students that if they can master these life skills, they are going to do extremely well in any job they acquire after graduation."

Leija says that the USAF pillars -- integrity first, service before self, and excellence in all that we do -- have guided his teaching career. Because of his military background, he will not shy away from long hours if they are required to get the job done, and his work days often extend from early morning into evening. That includes working weekends so that his students receive the best lessons possible. Sharing his knowledge of the world has been an exciting part of Leija's teaching.

Veterans Meet
New Challenges

The unexpected challenge Daniel Leija still faces in teaching is parent apathy.

"I have the philosophy that education is like a camera on a tripod, with the student being the camera," Leija explained. "In order to get the clearest picture possible, the student must be supported by the school, the community, and the parents."

Yet some parents seem unwilling to do what it takes to help their children succeed. Leija believes that the difficulty lies in an uneducated public that must scramble to make ends meet.

"With the ever increasing number of Congressional mandates and reforms, tons of accountability for student success has been placed squarely on the teacher's shoulders," he says. "But where is the accountability on the part of the parent? I have received comments such as, 'It's not up to me to make sure he reads at home. You're the teacher. That's why I send him to school.'"

In order to stop the cycle, Leija suggests that education must be made attainable not just for students, but for parents.

"During my 22-year career, I was afforded the opportunity to travel the world," stated Leija. "I have been able to share so much of my overseas experiences with the kids -- from what it is like to see the Aurora Borealis to interacting with people from Japan, Korea, and even Pago Pago. We've had lots and lots of conversations about foreign customs and why people do things certain ways."

In math classes, Leija relates exactly why it is important to learn basic skills in reading and math. He shares how those skills correspond to practical real-life tasks such as loading airplanes, reading directions for drug dosages, and mentally calculating drip rates for IV's.

"Last but not least, I am able to explain firsthand why we are so lucky to live in a nation as beautiful as ours, one in which we can travel freely and not worry about things such as making it to school safely," he observed.


Leija encourages his students to "dream big" and do something wonderful with their lives. He believes that the military provides some outstanding opportunities for young people, but he also touts colleges and trade schools. His goal is to inspire the students to seek rewarding careers, whatever they choose.

For himself, Leija admits that, like any teacher, there are days when he wonders if he is truly reaching his students. His inspiration for maintaining his efforts lies in a small note that he received from a student two years ago. She transferred to the school mid-year and was severely lacking in reading and math skills. Leija promised his help as long as she was willing to work.

"I cannot begin to count the extra hours I spent tutoring, encouraging, and remediating," Leija recalled. "But in the end, she turned out to be one of my better students. On the last day of school, she slipped a note on my desk that read, 'Dear Mr. Leija, Thank you for letting me learn and never giving up on me. Because of you, I can now believe in myself, and now my life is better.'"

The note still moves him, and Leija keeps it in his wallet as a constant reminder of why he is needed in the classroom. He is there to make a difference in children's lives.

"I truly feel there is a goldmine of future teachers in the ranks of the military," he added. "Looking back at all of the military instructors I was fortunate enough to work with, I think they would all excel in the classroom. Given the opportunity, I believe they would prove to be any principal's godsend."

From the
Principals Perspective

Principal Melva Matkin encourages fellow school leaders to consider veterans when they have vacancies to fill. "They have a strong work ethic, know how to lead and follow, and have great organizational skills," she said.

"Godsend" is a word principal Melva Matkin might use to describe Leija himself. She credits the teacher with making effective use of his military training in the classroom through excellent organizational skills, leadership qualities, and a "can do" attitude.

"Without a doubt Daniel Leija is an asset to our school," said Matkin. "He has a strong commitment to pursuing excellence as a team leader, a classroom teacher who does whatever it takes to help his kids succeed, and a colleague who is always ready to help a friend."

As evidence of his strong commitment to his students, Matkin reports that Leija shares his home phone and cell phone numbers with parents and students so that he can be contacted at any time. He reaches out to the students in countless ways, taking them to basketball games, museums, and more.

"I would certainly encourage fellow administrators to hire veterans," Matkin advised. "They have a strong work ethic, know how to lead and follow (as appropriate), and have great organizational skills."


"The most rewarding thing I find about teaching is exactly the same thing I found in leading soldiers," Eugene Bradshaw told Education World. "It is such a great feeling for me to help others realize their potential and enhance their self-worth and self-esteem. I truly enjoy the opportunity to be a positive role model, provide direction, build character, and construct meaning in the lives of students. To me there is no greater reward."

In his first year of teaching special needs students in Lakewood, Washington, Eugene Bradshaw calls upon his Army experience.

A retired Army command sergeant, Bradshaw is in his first year of teaching at Lochburn Middle School in Lakewood, Washington. Troops to Teachers served as a springboard for him to pursue education as a second career. Raised in a single-parent home, Bradshaw appreciated and admired the efforts of his teachers to instill morals and provide guidance at challenging points in his school years. By becoming a teacher, he aspires to model their compassion, caring, and love.

"At times during group discussions, I put emphasis on decision-making to help my students understand that circumstances and situations in their lives will lead them to make choices, just as they did for me when I decided to join the military," said Bradshaw. "I advise my students to carefully evaluate every situation, to do what they feel is right for them when the opportunity arrives, and to do their very best once they make their decision.

When they do commit themselves to doing something, I encourage them to accept the challenges and do the task with pride. Only then will they be successful, no matter what occupation they choose."

A Win-Win

An August 2005 report revealed that more than 80 percent of the teachers entering the profession through Troops to Teachers were male, over one-third were persons of color, and nearly half taught sciences and a fourth math. Bringing well-qualified, seasoned professionals into schools that need their services, the program is a win-win for the most important individuals of all, the students.

Bradshaw's military training and background in the medical field make him sensitive to those in need, he says, which is essential in his work with special-needs students. He remains cognizant of their disabilities but does not lose sight of what they can do.

"My perspective toward teaching my special education students is that all students deserve every opportunity to learn, to develop, and be educated in the least restrictive learning environment," Bradshaw shared. "My concern for their education and well-being motivates me to put forth the energy, the time, and extra effort to ensure their success in the classroom."

The hope Bradshaw holds is that school success will translate to independent and productive adult life for these young people. He is thankful to Troops to Teachers for its support and says that he doubts he would be in the classroom today were it not for the program. He added, "I came a long way from nowhere to assume a position in which I can continue to help others."

Article by Cara Bafile
Copyright © 2010 Education World®

Originally published 04/09/2007
Last updated 07/14/2010