Each year our school hosts a Veterans Day assembly and breakfast. After this year’s assembly, a number of students shared how they were surprised and excited to see my military photo during the slideshow tribute. Some were shocked and amused to see a serious looking and clean shaven Master Sergeant Harris instead of their bearded and smiling classroom teacher, Mr. Harris. I suppose the topic of my 22 years of military service and transition to teaching isn’t something I routinely discuss with students.
Teaching is a family tradition for many educators. That’s not my story.
The Idea Is Planted
Teaching was never on my radar while growing up. The idea to teach was planted manyyears ago while working within a school but in a different capacity. I was a military recruiter in my early 20s and regularly visited local high schools in an effort to enlist young men and women into the Air Force. During visits to one school, one of the guidance counselors would always walk past my table and casually say, without stopping, “You should consider teaching.” I’d always laugh and reply, “No thanks” to his back as he waved and kept moving to another task in his building.
Fast forward several years and it seems that guidance counselor’s not-so-subliminal messages worked. After retiring from the Air Force I eventually began the process to become a teacher through the Troops to Teachers program.
The Joys And Challenges
While many assume that structure and discipline are key traits that make teaching a good fit for veterans, the ability to be compassionate and relatable have been vital to my success with military students and families. I’m able to engage military parents in the education process because I’ve been in their position of feeling slightly lost while continually navigating new homes, jobs and school environments. I also understand and adjust when children occasionally act out of character when their mothers and fathers deploy or return from war zones.
I’ve never had a student who lost a parent, but I’ve met many on their first day of school accompanied by a parent with a prosthetic limb or cane due to war-related injuries. While some may stare and silently wonder what happened, I’m eager to engage and have them share about their time in service. It’s a simple way to quickly establish relationships with military parents.
The Veterans Day assembly was a success. Parents enjoyed breakfast, and my students walked around with their heads high and chests out after their presentations. I was proud as well.
Despite the upheavals and occasional uncertainty faced by my military students and their families, they continue to show amazing resilience. I’m proud that I get the opportunity to support those who continue to serve, and I’m extremely proud and honored to play a role in shaping the lives of their most precious treasure. While it would feel odd to thank another vet or active duty person for their service, I never have a problem routinely asking a very simple question….Have you ever considered teaching?
Elmer Harris is a 2017-18 School Ambassador Fellow at the U.S. Department of Education