How Serving Those Who Serve Us Made Me a Better Teacher

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Friday cross-country flights. Time zone changes. Long layovers. Short layovers. Unplanned workouts from A3 to F74. Delays. Cancellations (United, I’m looking at you). Airport food. Lack of sleep. Weekends spent without family. No sleeping in on Saturday or Sunday! Work, work, work all day. Long hours. Yet never enough hours. Angry kids. Sad kids. Confused kids. Oppositional kids. Can you blame them? kids. Hasty good-byes. Wondering about those angry kids, sad kids, confused kids. Sunday night flights home. Turn into Monday morning flights home. Have to get to class, work. Exhaustion.

That was my life for two years. Compared to the sacrifices of the servicemen and women and their families, my sacrifices were minuscule. And yet my reward was great, because each weekend I returned home a better person because of it and because of them. While I no longer travel the country to work with military youth, it has shaped me to become a better person and a better teacher.

On this Veteran’s Day, I dedicate this post to the men and women who have served, are currently serving, and will serve in the armed forces to protect my freedom, and their families, and to my own Project YES! family who continually uplift me, challenge me, and who continue to serve those who serve us.

How “Serving Those Who Serve Us” Made Me a Better Teacher

1. Trauma Informed Practice Often our nation’s military youth go undetected in the school system if they are not enrolled in a Department of Defense Dependents School. This demographic of youth have unique strengths and needs that deserve our addressing, but many educators and service providers are simply unaware. Likewise, our civilian youth often bring extra baggage to school that often goes undetected. By being aware of the possibility of trauma and how to deal with it, I better service our nation’s youth by considering what unmet basic needs prevent students from engaging in learning, providing a safe space to learn, and connecting students and families with community resources.

2. Classroom Management As a Staff Intern then Team Lead for Project YES!, I would sometimes oversee as many as 120 youth and 10 Staff Interns. Staff Interns are asked to effectively manage a (sometimes less-than-ideal-sized or set-up) room of dozens of high-energy youth, most who have never even met, right after they’ve been told that a loved one is deploying. For the third time. In their nine years of life. Besides from facilitating meaningful activities, this is a challenge in and of itself. Any Staff Intern becomes a pro at being aware of what is going on in the 360 degrees surrounding us. We’re like owls. In addition to having necks that rotate to unnatural degrees, we know how to group youth and lead them through the stages of group formation. Finally, we know that engagement is key to classroom management.

3. Listening to my Students During debriefs, YES! interns lead students through a series of questions which inform deeper thinking. These questioning techniques scaffold the information for the youth so that they can generalize their new learning to real-world experiences. Though we may have these scaffolds in place, the youth truly control the direction of the conversation. Any teacher knows that improvisation is key in the classroom and that a student-centered classroom celebrates student input. Students will tell you what they need, if only you give them the platform with which to tell you.

4. Creative Problem-Solving Many of the activities facilitated by Project YES! Staff Interns pose specific challenges for youth to overcome through creativity and collaboration. And the same is expected from Staff Interns. Eighty-nine youth show up for an event in which 14 youth registered? No problem. In addition to the two hula hoops, six paper plates, and blue painters tape I packed (essentials for a YES! event), I also have this water bottle, a banana, and some socks. So we’re good. We can make an activity out of that. The best part of welcoming creative problem-solving is that kids are pretty darn creative, if you allow them that flexibility in your agenda. And when you ask them how they’d like to challenge themselves next, they always think of something you never would have thought of and it is often a sincere challenge. In schools today, creativity is often squelched by standardized testing, standards to achieve by the end of the year, etc. However, creativity is a critical 21st Century skill. Time is not wasted by encouraging creativity in the classroom, as it supports other critical problem-solving skills necessary for academic and future success.

5. Resiliency Finally, working with military youth and their families has inspired such immense gratefulness in me. Though the struggles military families face are very very real and are not recognized as much as they ought to be, they remain resilient for the sake of our freedom. They are grateful for the opportunity to serve and that gratefulness spurs their resiliency. I am honored to serve those who serve us and am excited to continue serving our nation’s youth through public education.

What a beautiful thing Project YES! has created. There are people, YES! participants and facilitators, who have now dispersed across the nation that have been bettered because of this experience and who continue to practice what they gained while serving those who serve us. Who ever thought its influence would be so far-reaching?

Thank you, Vets!

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