K-12 schools throughout the U.S. began the 2017-2018 academic year facing an ongoing staffing challenge. Teacher shortages are nothing new, but the problem is exacerbated because of the growing number of those leaving the profession and the shrinking number of people entering teacher education programs.
According to a 2016 report by the Learning Policy Institute, enrollment in teacher education programs fell from 691,000 to 451,000 — a 35 percent reduction — between 2009 and 2014, the latest year for which data is available. And attrition levels are high, with nearly 8 percent of the teaching workforce leaving the profession every year — the majority departing before retirement age.
Veterans may be a partial solution to the shortage, says Gail Hardinge, EdD, clinical associate professor in the School of Education at the College of William and Mary and director of the Virginia Center of Troops to Teachers.
Funded by the U.S. Department of Defense, Troops to Teachers (TTT) is an initiative that helps veterans transition to teaching careers in K-12 schools. Grants are awarded to support state or regional programs that provide the services veterans need as they begin new careers after active military service. TTT offers counseling and referral services to help participants meet education and licensing requirements as well as help them secure teaching positions.
[Above: Capt. Laura Cortese of the U.S. Army instructs students as a teacher resident at AMY Northwest Middle School in Philadelphia.]
Although grants are awarded to state agencies — usually departments of education (DOEs) — to support TTT, colleges and universities can be designated as program managers, explains Hardinge. Each state takes a different approach, with some DOEs choosing to oversee the program and some designating a college or university as lead; however, she says William and Mary’s commitment to serving veterans and its long history of outreach to those in all degree programs made TTT a good fit for the school.
William and Mary was one of 10 recipients of a 2017 grant designed to help agencies establish a framework for an ongoing program in their state. Since May, TTT staff at the college have helped more than 700 veterans. Assistance has included meeting with them to review transcripts and guide them through the process of becoming a certified teacher, facilitating programs that provide information about educational and career opportunities for active-duty personnel approaching the end of their service, and collaborating with 17 teacher colleges and the Virginia Community College System to establish a network of schools that they can attend to complete the educational courses necessary for certification.
“We encourage veterans to begin working with the program before they leave active duty,” says Hardinge.
In addition, the Virginia TTT office offers two pilot programs. One allows veterans to shadow teachers as they explore education as a career. Hardinge says these educators’ experience and use of best practices in the classroom position them as excellent ambassadors to demonstrate what being a teacher entails.
The second program also relies on these teachers to serve as mentors to first-year instructors for additional support and advice. “[Those] who mentor veterans in their first year of teaching understand that they need extra support because they may not have the foundation of an undergraduate degree in education and student teaching experience,” says Hardinge.
She says that the skills veterans are lacking as they transition to educational careers are those that are taught in undergraduate-level educational degree programs. Examples include the preparation of lesson plans, co-teaching in special education classrooms, and current legal issues in the field, such as discipline.
While the time it takes to complete the necessary coursework can vary depending on degrees already earned, Hardinge says it typically takes veterans upwards of 14 months. However, teachers in Virginia are able to “work with a provisional license if they are a class or two shy of completing certification requirements,” she adds, “as long as they complete the coursework within three years of beginning their career.”
Skills that Translate
Getting colleges on board to actively recruit veterans or work with those who want to enter the teaching profession is not difficult. “Veterans add to the diversity of a campus in age and life experience, as well as race and gender,” Hardinge says.
Veterans who receive tuition support as a result of grants also help under-resourced or Title I schools address teacher shortages, as they must commit to teaching in a minority or underserved school. Furthermore, the science, math, engineering, and technology (STEM) backgrounds of many former military personnel help position them to meet the critical need for STEM educators — especially in underserved schools.
At Temple University, the Temple Teacher Residency (TTR) provides tuition awards and stipends to students in the university’s intensive one-year MEd program, which prepares veterans and others who have STEM undergraduate degrees to become middle school STEM teachers. Although the residency is open to all students with an undergraduate degree in science or math, each of the program’s three cohorts has included one veteran as a result of active recruitment by Temple through TTT.
TTR is hands-on, with participants working with a teacher-mentor in a school throughout the academic year. “Their … learning begins with observations and understanding the principles of pedagogy and classroom management to slowly work into a co-teaching model,” explains Michele Lee, director of TTR. “This prepares students, especially veterans or other career changers who do not have an undergraduate degree [in education], to teach middle school.”
Lee believes that one benefit K-12 schools gain from hiring veterans is that they bring a sense of mission to their career change. “They tend to commit long term to teaching, which compares to statistics that show 50 percent of all new teachers leave the profession within five years,” she says. “Schools, especially the underserved [ones] in the Philadelphia school system in which TTR graduates are placed, need [this] long-term commitment to provide continuity for their students.”
Additionally, because 86 percent of the students in the Philadelphia school system are minority, the experience with diversity that veterans bring is valuable, says Lee. “The military is a diverse organization, so veterans are accustomed to working with people of all ages, genders, races, and social backgrounds,” she explains. “This translates well to an underserved or minority population in a middle school.”
Beyond facilitating their teacher education and certification, “TTT also helps veterans learn how to apply and interview for a teaching job,” says Hardinge. “We help them put together a résumé that reflects their skills and shows how they apply to teaching, and we teach them interview skills that demonstrate that they are flexible.” Conveying flexibility in an interview, she says, is important to counteract the interviewer’s potential perception that veterans won’t adapt to the school environment, which requires more flexibility than a military structure to meet children’s needs.
Since its inception in 1993, TTT has helped transition more than 20,000 veterans to new careers as K-12 instructors in public, charter, and Bureau of Indian Affairs schools. All current and former members of the U.S. Armed Forces can participate in the program, and those who meet certain requirements may also be eligible for financial assistance of up to $10,000. Requirements vary, but program application within three years after retirement or separation from service is often mandatory.
Peter Leibman, EdD, associate professor and director of student teaching at St. Francis College and New York’s TTT director, believes that colleges and universities that participate in TTT are making a good decision. Even if a university does not want to assume responsibility for obtaining and maintaining a grant, colleges of education can work with TTT to admit veterans who are working toward teacher certification. “There is … a lot of competition for K-12 teachers, [as well as] a lot of competition among colleges for students,” he says. “Veterans not only become good teachers, but they are excellent [college] students.”
Hiring TTT participants as teachers may also help K-12 schools address issues with retention, Leibman says. “Statistics show that 15 percent of new teachers leave the profession in their first year — usually because they accepted the first job offer [they received], and it was not a good fit,” he explains. “TTT works with veterans to make sure that they are placed in the right position and that they receive the support they need to succeed.”●
Sheryl S. Jackson is a contributing writer for INSIGHT Into Diversity. For more information about Troops to Teachers, visit proudtoserveagain.com.