Teacher Appreciation Week: Veterans Can Help Change Lives

Posted April 27, 2016 by Shaun Murphy

Growing up in Brooklyn, low-income conditions and single-parent households shaped my reality. After my father was murdered when I was seven, I was the only male in my house. So for me, Black male role models outside of my home were an essential and necessary aspect of my growth as a young man.

Unfortunately, I didn’t have a Black male teacher until the 5th grade. And years passed without another until I met Frank Mickens, the Principal at my high school, Boys & Girls High school. “Mr. Mickens” was a role model in every sense of the word. He genuinely cared about each and every student. “I saw you down on Marcy Avenue, don’t make me tell your mother,” he would say as I walked passed him in the hallway. He held us accountable for our actions, pushed us to be our best, and never settled for less than extraordinary for his kids.

Mr. Mickens was the one who inspired me to get into education and commit to a life of service. So after serving in the Army for eight years, I thought about my role as a non-commissioned officer and providing purpose, direction and motivation to troops for nearly a decade. I already had the skills to teach and influence people; now I could do it in front of a classroom, instead of a platoon.

I applied to Teach For America and began my career teaching at an all-boys middle school in Delaware. I immediately took the “Mickens approach” with my classroom of predominantly black and brown boys. I spent time with them, learned who they were as individuals and invested in their lives. I needed to know what they were dealing with at home and truly understand their background in order to help them achieve in the classroom. I was focused on cultivating the whole child, beyond the persona I saw in my room for an hour or two each day.

And I always led with my story. It was inspiring to see the look on my students’ faces when aspects of my childhood, obstacles I faced, and goals I set resonated with them. To them, I was no longer just a teacher; I was proof that their dreams were attainable. I had a duty to teach them about a world beyond what they saw from their bedroom windows.

Unfortunately, all children are not afforded the opportunity to learn and excel and many lack examples and role models in their schools. Today, less than 20 percent of teachers are people of color and only 2 percent are Black men. In a world where teacher shortages exist across the country, young boys are being pushed to jail cells instead of college, and headlines of racism, inequity, and violence are the norm for our kids—we can do more to change the numbers and reshape the narrative for children.

As veterans, we have a unique opportunity to share our experiences beyond the walls of a classroom. We’ve seen the world—from lessons of leadership in combat, to diverse cultures—we can speak to a life few have lived. The tenets of selfless service, putting the welfare of others first, and accomplishing the mission that are ingrained in each of us are applicable to the classroom.

Educational inequity affects not just individual children, but our entire nation—we cannot move ahead when we are leaving so many of our own behind. I couldn’t leave behind the sixth grade scholar, who came to my class reading on a fourth grade level, and I couldn’t ignore Illias’ mother when she asked me to help him see the value in his education. This fueled me to ensure my scholar finished the school year reading at grade level, and this is what will make me smile from ear to ear in May when I attend Illias’ graduation.

So, when you think about the next steps in your post-military career consider serving on the frontlines for educational opportunity. We all have a duty to help impact the lives of others, and teaching enables us to do just that. Students need diverse examples of perseverance and dedication. And these examples live in veterans, members of the guard and reserve, and military spouses who have the skills to lead our nation’s highest-need classrooms.

We have the power to change lives.

Shaun Murphy, a former Staff Sergeant in the United States Army, began his career in teaching through Teach For America in Delaware in 2009.