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Troops to Teachers brings service members to Arizona classrooms

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PHOENIX – Frank Contreras realized he had a knack for teaching when he volunteered to coach an elementary school girls’ basketball team during his time off from the Arizona National Guard.

As a sergeant in the Guard, he trained soldiers along the border on communications technology.

“After getting used to standing in front of 500 to 1,000 people teaching training classes, I realized, ‘I kind of like doing this,’ ” he said.

After seeing a flier posted at the Guard, he decided to reach out to Troops to Teachers, a program that helps transition military service members to second careers in the classroom and relieve teacher shortages in low-income areas.

For the past five years, Contreras, now 33, has taught computer technology and physical education at Western Valley Middle School in Phoenix.

“I found out through Troops to Teachers that I was basically able to use all of my military experience from teaching communications training to contribute to a teaching certification in career and technical education,” Contreras said.

Launched in 1994, Troops to Teachers is a federal program operated by the Department of Defense. To be eligible, participants must have served in the military for at least six years and are then assigned to a counselor who guides them through the steps necessary to become a teacher.

Troops to Teachers continued working with Contreras after he left the Guard, helping him connect college courses he had taken previously with his military and civilian work experience to earn a vocational teaching certificate.

After becoming certified as a teacher, Contreras finished his degree in information technology with the University of Phoenix.

He said the program also helped him prepare for employment as a teacher.

“I had to completely redo my resume, so they helped me with that, as well as practicing mock interviews and helping me get in touch with school districts that needed teachers,” Contreras said.

Out of 5,400 veterans who have gone through the program and are teaching nationally, 105 work in Arizona, according to Troops to Teachers.

According to Meghan Stidd, the Mountain Pacific associate regional director for Troops to Teachers, the program has placed more than 500 veterans into teaching roles in Arizona through the years.

“Due to its strong veteran population, Arizona is one of the top six states in the nation of veterans participating in Troops to Teachers,” she said.

Lt. Gen. Benjamin Freakley, special adviser to the president for leadership initiatives at Arizona State University, said veterans are already familiar with leadership roles from being in the military.

“How would you like to have a teacher who is a former sergeant or captain from Afghanistan with multiple years of experience in the military besides their degree?” Freakley said. “You get a lot of platform opportunity in the military, whether it’s instructing a young soldier or teaching a class.”

C. Emily Feistritzer, president of the National Center for Education Information, said military service members tend to bring maturity, discipline and life experiences that translate well into teaching.

“They bring a set of skills that enables them to get young people – even disruptive young people – to really sort of sit up straight and pay attention and engage in learning,” Feistritzer said.

Contreras said he thinks his experiences and management skills honed in the military have helped him get through to kids in a classroom setting.

“Classroom management is important, especially for middle school kids,” he said. “You have that military discipline to get them focused, so I think it’s a little easier for me to redirect their attention.”

Feistritzer said she hopes more veterans will consider participating in the program and becoming teachers.

“Even though it has been growing over time, I think the program could be turning out a whole lot more teachers, but it has been constrained by finances,” she said. “Now that the military is drawing down from Afghanistan and other places, I hope more resources can be put into the program.”

Joe Morgan, the Mountain Pacific regional director for Troops to Teachers, said he hopes to make the program more like Teach for America, which recruits recent college graduates to teach in low-income communities.

“What we really want to do is become a 501(c)(3) organization,” he said. “We’d like to consider with the Department of Defense the possibility of a private-public arrangement that’s similar to what Teach for America has with the Department of Education.”

Contreras, who is now a Troops to Teachers mentor for veterans interested in starting careers in education, said teaching isn’t just a career but a rewarding experience.

“Just a few weeks ago, an old student came back and asked me about getting into the military and said, ‘Hey, you were one of the reasons I changed my life,’” Contreras said. “It’s that satisfaction in knowing that I’m affecting the lives of children and their futures.”