By Kevin Shannahan
At 23, I was an Air Force officer assigned to a missile wing in North Dakota. At 32, I was a seventh grade teacher in rural north Louisiana in the Troops to Teachers Program. On the surface, the two jobs could not have been more different. Fundamentally, they were not. The next generation of our country is at least as important to our nation as the missiles under the Midwestern prairies.
The differences in the experiences of Lieutenant Shannahan and Mr. Shannahan in training, preparation, expectation, accountability and a host of other factors are telling. Oceans of ink have been spilled bemoaning our nation’s educational woes and their causes. As a 32-year-old ex-officer starting out as a teacher, I was to get an up close and personal view of much of what is wrong in what our society allows to happen in its classrooms.
The stark differences are shameful. The students in my first classroom and their fellow students across the nation are at least as important to our country’s existence as the warheads in my old ICBM wing. As an Air Force Officer, I was carefully vetted, trained and held to a harsh and unforgiving standard before I was allowed anywhere near a launch control center. As a schoolteacher, I was handed a battered seventh grade social studies text book at the end of a pro forma interview and told classes started in a few days.
I have never been convicted of a crime, nor have I ever been arrested. The Air Force knew that rather rudimentary fact as I held a Top Secret clearance which included a thorough background check – that had to be repeated every few years. By contrast, my new employer knew I had never been arrested in the state of Louisiana, not surprising as I had lived in the state less than a week at the time. A check confined to the state was free, while a nationwide check was not. For all my school district knew, I could have walked out the door of the Washington State Penitentiary and driven down to my new job. The incomplete checks came to light when one of my more hot tempered colleagues was arrested at a basketball game and found to have two similar convictions in Texas.
The Strategic Air Command of my young adulthood was not always a pleasant place to work. It suffered the usual inefficiencies of a large bureaucracy. My three North Dakota winters are not something I’d care to experience again. There was constant testing and training. The pressure was unrelenting, but there was a reason for the pressure. We had important jobs and the American people had a right to expect us to know what we were doing. The mission was worthy of our best efforts.
Teaching is no less worthy. It is an important job that deserves our best efforts. The American people likewise have a right to expect competence from their children’s schools. Many things in my new life as a teacher were to tell me, and sadly the children, otherwise.
My rather casual hiring and less than comprehensive background check sent an unmistakable message as did the crooked and error ridden employment application I filled out (spelling and grammatical errors were to prove ubiquitous in almost every piece of written correspondence I was to come across).
The school building itself sent another message to the students. The library was a tattered collection of hand me downs. I’ll never forget the 1959 encyclopedia or the globe that was so old Africa still had colonies. Everything was old and indifferently maintained. Open flame gas heaters warmed the room. The window unit air conditioners continually iced over and stopped. The rusty flagpole with the broken chain had not held a flag in years.
My school was over 85 percent African-American and virtually 100 percent poor. A former district superintendent once told me that he thought the parish’s residents were, on average, a standard deviation below average in IQ and that there was not too much to be done about that. Everything in that school, from the ramshackle buildings to the quality of too many of their teachers, gave the students a consistent message. You are a begrudged after thought, deserving of no more than the least we can get away with in providing you. Leadership and a sense of mission matters!