There's a perception among school administrators that military personnel are too rigid for teaching. Conversely, I’ve found that many of the benefits of military training and experience apply to teaching, such as the ability to adapt to changing circumstances.
In the armed services, each day presents a different set of challenges that need to be addressed within an ethical code and with the mission in mind. Teaching requires a similar dedication to principle and mission.
In the classroom, our goal as educators is to equip students with intellectual skills and steer them toward achieving their full potential. In a very real sense, our mission is to ensure that no child is left behind. No one understands the importance of that adage more so than members of the armed services.
The Value of Training
Yet teaching cannot be done without content. One of the biggest challenges in teaching is to know what you’re talking about, whether it’s technology, social studies or math. Most military people understand the value of training and mastering content. That’s another strength instilled by military training.
In the military, soldiers continually train. It’s a great morale booster and it also enables adaptability. When you’re well-trained and understand the content, you can adapt to the unfamiliar and extraordinary extremes of combat.
When teaching students, you may be prepared to implement one method of presentation that may not necessarily succeed. If it doesn’t, you must be prepared to backtrack and try alternate approaches.
That’s one thing that former military personnel understand well. They understand the value of preparation and how to take what they know and share it with others, while underscoring the importance of team work and collective success.
The military sets high standards. Most educators also set high standards for their students and themselves. It’s our job to provide the right tools and environment for success. When it comes to homework, for example, I explain to my students that that is their job. If it’s not done correctly or completely, they haven’t done their job—and I grade them accordingly.
Both the military and teaching also provide a sense of duty and fulfillment in accomplishing the mission. My reward is working with a student who has failed and helping him or her succeed, or having a student say thank you or ask for help with an assignment.
In the military, it’s hard to support failure, so you find a way to make a sailor or soldier successful. The same is true of education, because no student is a lost cause.
Growing up, I always wanted to become a naval officer. Fresh out of high school in 1968, I looked at my draft number and realized that I probably would be drafted. So, I joined the Navy at the age of 18 and was assigned to a special operations ship out of Pearl Harbor as a deck seaman. I was ultimately accepted for training as a medic and completed my enlisted service during Vietnam as a navy hospital corpsman.
After completing that tour of duty, I left the military, got married, started a family and completed a bachelor’s degree in geology. But my desire to serve as a naval officer hadn’t been fulfilled, so I re-enlisted.
During this second tour of duty, I managed information technology systems and served as second-in-command on several vessels. In IT, my duties included managing the operation of the electrical distribution systems, missile and gun fire control systems, tactical data systems and shipboard mainframe integration systems.
I served as second-in-command onboard the U.S.S. Miller and U.S.S. Samuel B. Roberts. Prior to that, I was a member of the Commander 2nd Fleet/Commander Striking Fleet Atlantic staff during Desert Storm. Our role was to train and prepare battle groups for deployment to the Persian Gulf. While a member of the C2F/CSF staff, I was appointed to serve on the Secretary of the Navy's Naval Research Advisory Committee, which was charged with examining the impact of emerging technologies on “at sea” naval exercise reconstruction.
I retired from the Navy in 1994 and went to work in private industry.
The Next Generation
In 1994, I was one of those parents who complained about the quality of our public education system, but I didn’t really understand the challenges that educators face. After retiring from the Navy, and completing a project to transform production at a manufacturing company, I decided to find out first hand about those challenges.
Thinking back, it’s no surprise that I served in the military and as an educator. My dad fought in World War II, and he was also a teacher. Trying to reach all the kids was one of my main goals—and my biggest fear—when I first entered a classroom. Being an educator is not just about teaching; it’s about showing students how to be learners.
I became technology director for Lee Public Schools in Lee, Mass., in 2001. However, Ibegan my career in education in 1995 at Southern Berkshire Regional School District, in Sheffield, Mass. I started out at the middle school level, primarily teaching students with special needs. Of the 24 computers in the school’s computer labs, only two worked. I went home that night and wrote a lesson plan that would walk the students through the computer repair process. By the time we were done, 20 computers worked.
That helped launch our program of teaching computer skills to our students. During that time we saved Southern Berkshire School District large amounts of money, but, more importantly, we gave our kids an opportunity to explore and learn. Kids are naturally inquisitive and a lot smarter than we give them credit for, especially when it comes to computers and technology. In 2000, for instance, my students refurbished 272 two-year-old PCs, and seven out of 12 students passed the A+ hardware and software certification exam. That success stemmed from one classroom rule: If you break the computer, you fix it. The kids really took to this.
I could retire tomorrow and live comfortably, but I would not have the sense of accomplishment that serving as an educator provides. The job of helping our next generation of students succeed means a great deal to me. The reward comes when we steer students toward success and see them smile when they realize they can do it.
Besides, I’m having too much fun.
Charles B. Flynn is the technology coordinator at Lee Public Schools in Lee, Mass. Flynn served as a Navy medic during the Vietnam War and as a naval officer as part of the NATO Strike Fleet in the Persian Gulf and in Operation Desert Storm. He retired from the Navy in 1994, worked in private industry for a time and then became a teacher.