On my first day of substitute teaching, two students sat beside me to explain how the classroom worked. They made coffee for me. When they said it was time for the class to visit another teacher’s room, I led the kids there.
I was thrilled. My fate was in the hands of two fifth-graders, and I got the best lesson a fresh, new substitute teacher could learn. As a career military veteran, I trained soldiers who had to listen because I outranked them. Here, I realized, students often are the subject-matter experts for making the day a good one.
It might sound strange that a retired Army sergeant first class, a veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan with about 135 parachute jumps, has found a place among schoolkids. But my military experience intersects neatly with this new role.
Substitute teaching can suit military veterans for many reasons. The work is flexible; I can accept or decline any jobs offered and its extra income for life’s varied needs.
Most importantly, it’s a chance to stay sharp and play a meaningful role in the lives of kids. It’s another form of service, albeit alongside children as young as first grade or poised to graduate from high school.
I started considering substitute teaching when I was in Germany, staring at retirement after 26 years in the Army. I discovered A+ Teachers online and sent an email. Almost immediately, I was invited to visit as soon as I arrived in Harrisburg. When I brought my family back to the states, A+ drilled me in the basics.
My first assignment was in Harrisburg School District. I was terrified, but the kids were fantastic. Pretty quickly, I developed a routine. When I meet a new class, I invite the students to tell me about themselves, their families, and their aspirations for the future.
The most important thing is getting their respect. If a student is a pickle, I send him or her to the back of the room to “pick cherries” – a technique that worked well in the Army, when I’d order a recalcitrant soldier to pantomime picking cherries for a few minutes. It gets the point across without yelling.
I serve in the Harrisburg and Steelton-Highspire school districts, where many of the kids face multiple challenges at home. They are the students I want to teach. I try to provide a safe place where they can learn and where they know what the rules are.
A lot of my students are thinking about joining the military, and that’s where I feel I’ve had a big impact. This is my chance to put their minds at ease and to set them on a preparatory path. I describe what they can expect – the aptitude tests, the different branches to explore.
The choices they make now could affect their career trajectories for years, so I help them think about the future and how to position themselves for the best possible experience.
As an Army NCO, my job was to get things done. I still have that mindset in the classroom, but now that I’m in the real world, it’s nice to have the support of others, such as staff teachers and administrators. Plus, I absolutely love the folks at A+ Teachers. My A+ supervisor is responsive and supportive, making sure I get the backing I need to do my job.
Substitute teaching is ideal for me, and I definitely plan to continue. It’s a post I recommend for veterans looking to continue their service in a challenging, fun, and fulfilling environment.