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Battlefield to classroom

Nearly 10,000 military retirees have used a program to start new careers as teachers.

By JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK
Published May 9, 2007


SPRING HILL - They had just finished lunch, the chattiest part of the day. But this class of first-graders doesn't give a hint, as pupils file silently back into their Westside Elementary classroom.

The children stow their lunch boxes and take their seats without even a word, dutifully taking out materials for their daily math lesson. Today, it's money bingo.

In a world where the classroom experience is often described as "controlled chaos," third-year teacher Marvin Wethington expects - and gets - the control. A former Army drill sergeant, Wethington firmly believes that the same principles that guide leadership in the military create success in the classroom - though he's quick to admit that you have to tone the principles down a bit.

That connection is what drew Wethington, and many soldiers like him, to pursue a job in education after retirement. Many turn to Troops to Teachers, a federal initiative that's about to announce the hiring of its 10,000th client, to help smooth the way.

"It's quite a culture shock coming out of the Army," says Wethington, a burly, tattooed, motorcycle-riding 42-year-old, who joined the service shortly after graduating from Hudson High in 1982. "Retiring from the Army is scary because you've got your comfort zone."

But Pensacola's Troops to Teachers eases the transition - with guidance, contacts and even money for classes, Wethington says.

Florida has 764 teachers from the program in its schools, more than any other state except Texas. Many have gained high marks, including Hillsborough County's 2006 Teacher of the Year James Gibbs III, one of 27 Hillsborough teachers from the program.

Program started in '94

Troops to Teachers launched in 1994, a time when Congress was shutting down military bases across the country. Many men and women in the service had spent their careers teaching recruits. And as their military careers were ending, they saw teaching as a possible new profession.

"They did it as their duty," Peter Peters, assistant chief of the national Troops to Teachers office, said of their military service. "When they looked at retiring ... it's a natural follow through."

Moving from the military to the classroom isn't as simple as just applying for a job though.

"A person coming out of the military after 20 years, many times, doesn't even know the basic questions to ask to become a teacher," Peters observed.

The organization set up regional offices in 37 states and began offering services including guidance on needed college courses and help on understanding certification rules. Mindful of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, the organization also aims to get its teachers to schools serving low-income students.

Many soldiers think, incorrectly, that just getting a master's degree in education will make them qualified teachers, Peters said. "If we can catch them early enough, before they get far along, that's a big success."

Free assistance

The assistance is free. Some of the retirees qualify for stipends as much as $10,000 to help with tuition and other academic expenses.

Wethington used the money to gain certification. So did Arthur "Dave" Hoffman, an engineering technology teacher at Mitchell High in New Port Richey.

"They're pretty much paying for the whole thing for me," said Hoffman, who is earning his teaching credential through an alternative certification program.

Hoffman, who served six years active duty in the Navy and 16 years as a reservist, already had a master's degree in marketing. He needed the "education stuff" though.

"It's a little tough," he said. "The way you teach school these days, discipline is real tough. That's the biggest issue for me, keeping the kids in line."

Jim Papia, who was an Air Force meteorologist for 23 years, sees much the same as a science teacher at Pinellas Park Middle School.

"It's easy to set your expectations a little high," Papia said. "In the military, 'Because I said so' is usually good enough. Here, you have to learn real quick that they're on a different wavelength. It gets better every year."

Papia used a Troops to Teachers stipend to pay for teacher-preparation courses, and the fourth-year teacher is now fully certified.

Wethington considers Troops to Teachers a lifeline for him and others. Many military retirees don't know what to do in the civilian world, he said. Some think they have no skills that translate at all.

Troops to Teachers changed his perspective. Wethington honed his studies at Western Kentucky University, where he earned his education degree as he prepared to retire, so he would be employable.

His Westside Elementary classroom is set up like a military classroom, with the desks in a horseshoe formation to encourage discussion. His students use military hand signals, rather than talking, to move through the hallways.

Students aim high

Wethington pushes the students to aim high - all but two already are reading at a third-grade level, he said. And he has found that, just as in the military, kids respond to fairly and evenly enforced rules, respect and strong leadership.

"I let them know what I feel is right and wrong, because that's what counts, and then I let them make choices," said Wethington, who was Hernando County's Wal-Mart Teacher of the Year in 2005.

Now, lots of his military buddies are retiring to become teachers. He encourages them: "I wouldn't do anything else. ... It's a great second career."

If Troops to Teachers has a problem these days, it's that getting soldiers to sign up for the program is a little more difficult. Many of them don't know how long they'll be overseas, or if they're coming back at all, Peters noted.

As a result, they aren't making long-term plans.

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at solochek@sptimes.com 813 909-4614 or toll-free 1-800-333-7505 ext. 4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.

Fast Facts:

Troops to Teachers

Web site: www.ProudToServeAgain.com.

Established in: 1994 as a Defense Department initiative.

Goal: To recruit military veterans to become teachers in schools that serve low-income students.

You're eligible if: You're a military retiree, on active duty separating with six or more years of service, or a reservist with six or more years toward retirement. You also must have a bachelor's degree, or a year of college plus six or more years of relevant work experience.

Number served: 9,904 veterans.

Florida's rank: 2 (764 teachers, behind only Texas).

Locally: 27 in Hillsborough, 12 in Pinellas, nine in Pasco and seven in Hernando.

Did you know? There's a Spouses to Teachers component of the program too. Visit www.spousestoteachers. com for more information.

Source: Troops to Teachers