Leading from the Front: Transitioning from the Army to the Classroom

Posted October 6, 2014

By Sarah Staab

Sarah Staab is a West Point graduate, former U.S. Army Captain, and TFA-Nashville alumnus

Leaving the Army was an incredibly difficult decision, but when I was accepted as a 2012 Teach For America Corps Member, I knew I would be able to continue my service to the country in a meaningful, albeit different, way.

In retrospect, I had no idea what I was getting myself into – it turns out that teaching is one of the most challenging jobs I’ve ever taken on – but the lessons I learned in the military helped carry me through.

From the first day I started teaching at Institute in Mississippi, to my classroom in Nashville, right up to my current job as an Operations Manager for LEAD Public Schools, I’ve leaned heavily on my military experience to guide me. I’ve made more mistakes than I care to admit, but I’ve also learned some valuable lessons along the way.

I’d like to share how two of those lessons helped me as a teacher.

In the Army, I found that, without the trust and respect of my Soldiers and NCOs orders were just that – orders. When given orders, people tend to work towards a minimum standard, doing just enough to get the job done. I worked hard to build strong relationships with my Soldiers, with a foundation of trust and mutual respect.

Instead of giving orders, I could give guidance and empower my Soldiers to excel. My Soldiers knew, and I hope still know, how deeply I care about them. That trust gave us confidence in one another, and gave us each the power to succeed. As a result, the teams I was a part of completed work above and beyond expectations, and we took a great deal of pride in our missions and even our daily responsibilities.

The same rules apply in the classroom. While serving as a Teach For America-Nashville corps member, many of my students came into my room years behind where they needed to be. This had nothing to do with their inherent ability, and everything to do with the previous educational opportunities they had access to. Unfortunately, it is still too often the case that the zip code a child is born into determines the quality of education they receive.

As teachers, we worked hard to catch them up. And we also asked them to work harder than they ever had, read more, think more, and explore more. Without a strong relationship, it is unlikely that students would have listened to my requests to cite evidence, explain their thinking, or problem solve with partners. It takes a lot of time and effort, but when our students finally believe that we respect them, trust them, and have full confidence in their ability to succeed, they start to do amazing things – just like Soldiers, above and beyond our expectations.

Jasmin* was in my homeroom class, and I was her science teacher in fifth and sixth grade. At the beginning of my first year, I called her family almost every day to tell them the good, and the bad. Eventually, I wrote Jasmin a note explaining that no matter what she did, I would still believe in her and be there to help her. I tried to convey that I knew, behind her rough exterior, there was a bright and talented young lady, and that her bad behavior wasn’t fooling me. I told Jasmin, nothing she could do would change my mind.

Things didn’t change overnight, I had to follow through on my words with actions. But the next year my family shared Thanksgiving with her family. I don’t teach Jasmin anymore, but I regularly check on her grades, her behavior and remind her that I believe in her. I’m happy to report that thanks to the hard work of her family, our faculty and a few special people in the community, she continues to improve in all aspects of her life, and these days, seems to believe in herself almost as much as I do.

When kids know you care, they are willing to become the people you already know they are. And if they fail, and they will, there is great comfort in knowing that a person they trust will be there to pick them up again, a person they trust to help them start again, and a person they trust cheering them on (willing them even) as they continue to succeed in school and in life.

Another, well known, Army lesson is to lead from the front. At West Point and in Officer training courses, you hear it all the time. As a young leader in the Army, sometimes this means getting to work especially early, putting in longer hours, or just getting down to work and doing the heavy lifting. Regardless of the context, it is leading by example.

The work of Soldiers is rarely as glamorous as Hollywood makes it look, and if I wasn’t willing to complete a task, or I refused to lend a hand, how could I ask my Soldiers…give them orders…to complete that task? I couldn’t, not in good conscience. So, we did the hard and dirty work together. It built character, it built camaraderie, and my Soldiers trusted that I would never ask them to do something I wasn’t willing to do myself.

In the classroom, I discovered that my students lead very different lives than I did as a child. Some of my kids have pretty hefty back stories, emotionally and educationally. Day in and day out, here we are as educators, asking them to do homework, to work well in groups, to participate in class, and on and on and on. How can we expect them to do all of this when they may not get a good meal at home? Or they have football until six, have to watch their baby brother until nine, and then still help with work around the house. Or they just don’t know what to expect upon going home…if they have a home. We can expect this of them, without pity and without hesitation, by leading from the front.

Teachers lives are by no means easy. The salary won’t make you rich, and hours are long – especially with grading papers. Yet, we get up each morning to greet our students with a smile and a hug. We spend our paychecks on supplies for yet another science experiment. We stay late and tutor a child, or coach a team, or meet with a parent. We go to games to show support, and make fools of ourselves in student-faculty games, and continue to put stickers on papers, because even if they won’t admit it, no kid is too cool for stickers. All of these little, unseen things matter deeply, because truly, they aren’t unseen nor unnoticed. Your students notice them, my students noticed them, and there’s a little more grit left in them when they know their teachers are willing to work just as hard for them.

Last year, one of our students, Daija,* transferred to a different school because of a serious family situation. She was temporarily placed with a foster family in another county and had to leave us. We could have breathed a collective sigh of relief, because Daija was a very difficult student, but we didn’t. Our staff hated to see her go; we’d put in a lot of hard work to help her the last two years. This year, after school one day, I heard her familiar voice in the hall. She was yelling gleefully upon seeing our School Director, and giving out hugs to the staff she knew. I later overheard Daija speaking with another student about how glad she was to be back (she probably wouldn’t admit this), and that, while being gone, she realized how hard the teachers at our school worked and how much we cared for her. Our unseen efforts were not unnoticed. While Daija still struggles, she works harder than ever to stay on a better path, and I’m convinced it’s because she knows that her teachers are always working just as hard on her behalf.

I’m an Operations Manager now, helping multiple campuses with logistics, facilities, maintenance, and safety – but these are lessons I remind myself of daily. I remind myself that my job is to do everything I can to ensure that teachers can focus on teaching – because teaching, really teaching, means so much more than standing in front of a room of kids. It’s about building relationships, leading from the front, and serving our kids and our country in one of the most noble ways that any person can.