Stephen Harrington is proud of his school, and rightfully so. Holly Grove Middle School is a gleaming facility, with well-manicured sports fields; clean, bright hallways, and even tidy lockers.
Harrington is an Assistant Principal here, and assistant principals - as anyone in education will tell you - are the unheralded heroes of any school. They have a wide variety of tasks, from recruiting teachers to running an efficient car line to helping kids who are having discipline problems.
That last one is a largely thankless task, but one Harrington feels uniquely qualified to do, as both a former special education teacher and a 17-year veteran of the Air Force.
“Folks look at me and say ‘oh, he’s retired military, he’s going to be a crabby, cranky, guy,’” says Harrington. “I’m kind of a big teddy bear. But I know where to draw the line. The kids today, you have to earn their respect. They have to know that you respect them but that they have to see you’re going to give them help, give them respect, but that you’re also going to draw a bright line.”
After a successful career flying in the Air Force, Harrington could have made a lot more money had he taken the well-worn path to becoming a commercial airline pilot. He instead chose to teach, mainly for personal reasons.
“I’d already missed about 40 percent of my time with my family,” she says. “And it’s compelling when they tell you ‘we don’t want you to go fly for the airlines.’”
With a career path chosen, Harrington still needed some help navigating the academic and licensing challenges. That’s where Troops To Teachers came in.
“At the beginning unless you have that kind of support, it’s kind of like drinking out of a fire hydrant,” says Harrington. “You’re trying to figure out what’s going on and it’s coming at you pretty quick.”
Troops to Teachers is a federal program with state-based offices that has been around for 20 years. North Carolina’s is one of the five largest, thanks to the number of military bases here and the population growth.
Thousands of potential teaching candidates come out of the armed forces every year, but getting them onto the right path to becoming an educator – and managing the myriad of education options and licensing programs - is a challenge.
“That’s a big part of the conversation, if someone is interested in becoming a teacher but they’re not sure even where to start,” says Doug Taggart, the director of Troops To Teachers in North Carolina. “A lot of our counseling is around their particular work background and education level, and determining what path options are appropriate for them.”
A lot of military members fall off the path pretty quickly. While many may express interest, only dozens each year follow through on the commitment. The new GI Bill helps, as does the $5,000 and $10,000 stipends Troops To Teachers offers to those who teach in high-needs subjects and schools.
Once they get the classes and licenses they need, former military personnel become invaluable members of the educator workforce, staying in the profession longer than their peers. But as the troops-turned-teachers embark on their careers, many are now looking outside the state.
“When I’m having an objective conversation with these folks, and they’re looking at other states as well, we’re not as competitive on the teacher pay piece as other states,” says Taggart. “That’s a challenge to get our guys to stay in North Carolina as teachers.”
It’s a challenge that is becoming even more critical. The Pentagon is planning to reduce the size of the armed forces to pre-World War Two levels. That means tens of thousands of people will be leaving the military and looking for a career - just as educators here predict a looming teacher shortage.
These reports are part of American Graduate-Let’s Make it Happen!- a public media initiative to address the drop out crisis, supported by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.