Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)

Students Feel the Impact When Their Teacher Is Deployed

When teachers are suddenly called up for military service, their students struggle to carry on.

March 23, 2005
Credit: Thomas Reis

There's little that Janet Haley, principal of St. Johnsbury School, in St. Johnsbury, Vermont, hasn't done to help the students in Room 207 overcome their loss. When she learned that Matthew McLean, their beloved teacher, would be deployed to the Middle East with the Vermont Army National Guard, she assembled what she calls a "crisis team" of guidance counselors who sat in on the class while the news was announced.

McLean's replacement has encouraged the fifth graders to express their feelings, orally or on paper, which they continue to do. Every day. Their ongoing sadness makes it clear that McLean's departure has altered their lives significantly.

"I feel like a chunk of my life is gone," wrote Cody, one of McLean's students, sounding like a kid who feels at fault for his parents' divorce. "I feel that I let him down."

"I'm just scared and upset," wrote Samantha, another Room 207 classmate. "I've been trying to get over it, but I keep thinking about it."

"He was our teacher, and now he's . . . gone," wrote Zack, who illustrated his essay with a drawing of a boy crying and the caption "Bye."

Since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, more than 412,000 members of the U.S. Army National Guard and the reserves of the various branches of the U.S. military have been called to duty. Many of the reservists the Pentagon mobilized were weekend warriors who believed they had already completed their active tours, and most National Guard members assumed they would be called up only to deal with domestic emergencies.

Often, they had settled into a postmilitary civilian life, complete with a home, spouse, kid, and steady job. The last thing they expected was to be recalled for active duty. (Forty-eight percent of troops now serving in Iraq have come from the National Guard and the reserves; the military has been straining to supply the 650,000 soldiers needed worldwide.)

No one, it appears, officially keeps track of how such a massive deployment of soldiers affects schools. Not even the U.S. Department of Education collects statistics on educators recalled to duty.

Yet the call-up of a single teacher can alter the lives of a classroom full of students in ways few have imagined. For the 17 students at St. Johnsbury, as well as other elementary school and middle school students across the nation whose teachers have been deployed to the Middle East, someone has left who not only taught them but also bonded with them.

Hidden Injuries

This is new territory for several reasons. During the Vietnam War, when the draft was still in effect, many teachers were exempt. In addition, most reservists and National Guard members who are sent to the Middle East are men, and, particularly in inner-city schools, a male teacher may be the most influential man in a child's life. So young students are dealing with loss and, like McLean's fifth graders, are letting their dismay be known.

"It shows me that kids are smarter than adults," says David Spiegel, associate chair of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Stanford University School of Medicine. "They don't carry on as if life is normal when it isn't. In a sense, they have been traumatized."

"This is about the hidden injuries of war," adds Gil Noam, director of the Laboratory of Developmental Psychology at McLean Hospital, in Belmont, Massachusetts, and an associate professor at Harvard Medical School. "There are the archetypal images of soldiers embracing their wives and children. There are the new images of mothers in uniforms hugging their children and leaving. But we don't have a lot of images of teachers hugging their students and going off to war."

At first glance, St. Johnsbury fits the Vermont stereotype of snowdrifts, rolling hills, and apple-cheeked kids. The town is known for its maple syrup, but it has earned another reputation, too, as a waypoint from Canada on the heroin line, the school's principal says. Around 65 percent of the students at St. Johnsbury fall below the poverty line and come from single-parent homes.

"This is not your Ozzie-and-Harriet world," Haley adds. "For some of these kids, Mr. McLean was the first positive male influence."

This year was McLean's first as a teacher. He'd read everything he could about first-year teachers, and he'd written to each of his students before school began. He enjoyed spending 30 minutes before class talking to the kids. He ate lunch with them, too.

"I took on a serious male role in every one of their lives from the first day of school," he wrote shortly before shipping out to the Middle East. "The first two months, I spent every waking moment preparing for the next day's lesson. I worked much harder than I ever worked in the marines."

When, in the last week of November, he learned he would be deployed, he was, he wrote, "devastated." He knew, too, that his students would be crushed.

After the kids were informed of McLean's impending departure, they went back to learning, or trying to. Fifteen minutes into a math lesson, a student named Hawkk called out, "This sucks!" The classroom fell silent; suck was not an acceptable word in McLean's class. Hawkk went on, "You are the best teacher, and it isn't fair."

And that's how it was for a while. McLean would try to teach until, he says, "someone would start crying." Then lessons would take a back seat to answering questions about why McLean had to go, and how to deal with the change.

Although the kids were liberal with their hugs, many resented the fact that, in their view, their teacher had chosen the war over them.

On his final day at school, McLean's kids formed what he calls a "circle of courage" and sang Lee Greenwood's "I'm Proud to Be an American," then offered a Microsoft PowerPoint presentation called "This Is Your Life, Mr. McLean." At the party afterward, McLean recalls, most of the kids were too sad to dig into the cake and ice cream.

"When a teacher is really engaged and has relationships with his students, a separation of this kind is made worse by the fact that the teacher is going to war," says the McLean Hospital's Gil Noam. "It's almost like a father or mother leaving."

The third graders at Stafford Elementary School, in Stafford, Virginia, just outside Washington, DC, had weathered the emotional upheavals of the Pentagon attack of September 11 and the two snipers who stalked the school's surrounding neighborhood in October 2002. They got used to having an armed police officer on the school's roof every day, and repeated threats threw the school into lockdown. So the deployment to Iraq of one of their favorite teachers, U.S. Army Reserve sergeant Aric Miller, in February 2003 came as yet another, more personal, blow.

"They're so innocent," says Miller, a patriotic man who refers to his students as his "stars and stripes." He couldn't bear to tell them where he would be deployed. He purposely kept it vague, saying, "I assure you, I am coming back."

In some ways, his students were luckier than those in Vermont. Miller's full-time replacement, Suzi Ludwig, had already been in the class for several hours a day as a volunteer. To ease the transition, Ludwig followed Miller's routines. And after he left, Miller became a virtual team teacher, an omnipresent authority hovering over the classroom.

Regularly, Ludwig emailed how the students were faring, even sending Miller their report cards. His emails were projected on a big overhead screen. Praise was public; Ludwig delivered Miller's admonishments in private. If his kids didn't behave, there was the sense that "there would be consequences," says Miller. Students grew accustomed to hearing a refrain unique to their classroom: "What would Mr. Miller do?"

Reality Bites

The daily emails helped Miller, too, by taking him out of the war zone mentally, if only for a few minutes. "It was a sense of home," he says.

Miller's students learned to cope without him. But as his substitute discovered, the students who had had him the entire year before were more affected by his absence. Ludwig's own son, Jeffrey, traumatized by September 11 and the sniper ordeal, reacted to his favorite teacher's departure with sudden stomachaches and an aversion to school.

"He had nightmares, he needed a light on at night, and he wanted to stay home all the time," Ludwig recalls. Miller's leaving made him feel unsafe.

Of course, the intrusion of reality -- such as the daily body counts transmitted on the evening news -- hasn't helped. As Jake, one of McLean's students, puts it, "I'm really sad because when I hear that a U.S. soldier got killed, I fear he was the soldier."

"Kids say things much more directly than adults," says Noam. "'Maybe he'll get shot' is something many adults will not allow themselves to think or say."

In these elementary school and middle school classrooms, war has never been a big part of the curriculum. Substitutes might use the teacher's departure to teach geography or, as Ludwig did, to discuss which animals live in the desert. But for the most part, the political, historical, and philosophical questions of the war have been left alone. Yet, though elementary school administrators minimize the impact of a teacher's departure, high school staff seize on a teacher's deployment to make the war in Iraq more real to their students.

"I don't think the kids really made the connection with the war until we did the Veterans Day program," says Paul Argyle, principal of West Jordan High School, in West Jordan, Utah. When biology teacher Ed Willis, a U.S. Army Reserve colonel at the end of his military career, was sent to Iraq, he emailed the school that the experience was, for him, "surreal." To keep Willis connected, Argyle regularly sends him a "wellness report." And if answers are slow in coming back, Argyle will write, "I haven't heard from you. Pop me a note."

The school continued the annual Veterans Day events that Willis had started years earlier but added something new: a videoconference call from Willis and a few fathers of students who were stationed in Tillil, Iraq. "This was a reality check," says Argyle. "It reminded the kids that freedom wasn't free, that what you enjoy in our country comes at a price, that there are people who are willing to go and take care of that for you. It brought it into their neighborhood."

Technology, like email and videoconferencing, are useful connective tools, but they don't soothe the sorrow of seeing a teacher go to war. Administrators agree that children today are experiencing something unusual for an American classroom. Their feelings are not comparable to those of students whose teacher, for instance, goes on maternity leave.

Linda Purvis, principal of Wooldridge Elementary School, in Austin, Texas, says the students of a teacher who left this year for personal and professional reasons reacted differently from those of special education teacher Matthew Wester, who joined the military after September 11.

Wester had helped 19 children with learning difficulties, some for as long as three years. Before he left, the kids were cooperative and respectful. Once Wester was gone, Purvis says, his students, especially the boys, seemed to become really angry.

"They're mad at the new teacher, at their parents, and at us," Wester says. "We have had to do a lot of counseling. We were expecting some of it, but not at the level it's been. It's as if they're mourning."

The students are not the only ones who change. As with all soldiers who go to war, the teachers are affected by what they experience in wartime. After returning, Aric Miller began teaching again, but with changed priorities.

"State tests are important," he says, but he now believes there's something even more crucial: "How much is that child learning, and how can I reach him in other ways?"

Ed Willis also has changed his classroom philosophy. Upon his return, he says, he'll emphasize "basic skills," such as how to communicate, assess, plan, and solve problems. "I have seen leaders and units succeed or fail based on competency in these areas," he says.

For school administrators, coping with teachers' leaving for war will continue to be a problem as long as the Iraq conflict requires U.S. troops -- and there's no telling how long that will be.

"A good teacher reaches the heart and soul of the kids," says St. Johnsbury principal Janet Haley. "And because of that bonding, the students here still grieve."

No doubt expressing the views of other students elsewhere, Meghan, one of McLean's students in Vermont, wrote, "Just thinking about him makes me want to cry. I try not to show it, but deep in my heart, it hurts."

Carol Pogash is a former writer for the San Francisco Examiner and Forbes ASAP whose stories frequently appear in the New York Times.

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