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Veterans take charge in US classrooms

They use military experience when teaching students

BOISE, Idaho -- Within a year, Luke Miller went from raiding insurgent strongholds in Iraq's volatile Anbar province to preparing math final exams for seventh- and eighth-graders at West Junior High School.

During a pre-algebra class before school broke for the summer, Miller drew on his Iraq experiences to demonstrate the calculation for rate-of-speed, using the example of a soldier lost in the desert who must accelerate his pace to reunite with his platoon.

Miller, a National Guard Marine reservist who served as a tank commander, is one of a growing number of service members returning from combat who are trading the battlefield for the classroom. They are drawn to teaching by a credo they picked up in the military: Help the ones who follow behind.

Many troops enter through a federal program called Troops to Teachers, which places veterans and reservists with college degrees in teacher certification classes. More than 1,500 graduates -- and many more combat veterans unaffiliated with the program, like Miller -- are working in schools across the West, from California to Colorado, said director John Gantz. More than 4,500 are teaching in the South.

And those numbers are expected to climb, Gantz said.

Miller, 26, landed his first teaching job three months before he was deployed to Iraq in 2004. His unit, Alpha Company, First Tank Battalion, Second Marine Division, served 200 days last year in Hit, Iraq, and he was awarded the prestigious Military Vanguard Award and a Bronze Star after rescuing three comrades wounded in a roadside bomb attack.

Combat experience, he said, has bolstered an approach to teaching that draws frequently from lessons learned in war.

``The focus of the military is mission accomplishment and that translates to teaching in so many ways," Miller said, sitting before a classroom wall tacked with pictures of platoon mates in fatigues. ``You climb the ranks and are expected to teach newer guys. So, teaching is a major component of the military."

Nationally, a teacher shortage could befall American schools. According to Department of Education projections, 2 million teachers will be needed to staff mostly urban and rural schools in the next 10 years.

Schools are successfully staving off the shortfall by expanding recruitment efforts beyond the college pipeline. In addition to the thousands of military veterans, many of the vacancies will be plugged by a nontraditional group of mid-career professionals and retirees.

Troops to Teachers, whose mantra is ``proud to serve again," offers a $5,000 stipend, plus another $10,000 if graduates choose to teach in poorer areas. The program was created in 1994, but was dormant for six years until Congress reauthorized spending in 2001 to help lure the type of ``highly qualified" teachers required by the No Child Left Behind Act.

The program has produced 9,000 teachers nationally. More than 75 percent are still teaching -- a rate that far outpaces traditional teacher retention of less than 50 percent, according to a 2002 University of Pennsylvania study cited by the group.

While men and minorities are underrepresented in the national applicant pool of teachers -- only 18 percent male, and 15 percent minority -- military teachers placed by Troops to Teachers are overwhelmingly men; about 37 percent are minorities.

School officials cite maturity and effective discipline techniques as unique skills that veterans bring to the job.

``They've been through a lot more than somebody just out of college," said Phil Wickliff, veterans education coordinator for the Idaho Department of Education. ``If I was a superintendent hiring a teacher, I'd be much likelier to hire ex-military than a young person right out of Boise State [University] who just doesn't have that life experience."

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