March 1, 2012  

What DoD can do for academia

Retired officers can continue to serve the nation as teachers

In November’s Armed Forces Journal, Chris Rohlfs, in “What academia can do for DoD,” said the Defense Department would do well to outsource its data mining and analysis mechanisms to academic researchers, an arrangement Rohlfs argued would have mutual benefit.

I would also recommend we pose this question in reverse: What can DoD do for academia? By institutionalizing the model of the warrior-teacher, immeasurable benefits would flow to officers, our military and the country at large.

Today’s Teachers

Certainly, many officers act as teachers-in-uniform at some point in their careers — as a teacher at a university’s ROTC program, at a service academy, as an instructor at a military education school (e.g. the Army Engineer School) or simply teaching the occasional class of peers or troops. According to an informal survey of colleagues who have served as teachers in such environments, good points in a career for these types of assignments seem to include the periods immediately following an officer’s company command or Intermediate Level Education coursework.

But such stops are too often discounted. Even an assignment as an instructor in West Point’s social sciences department, where the instructor roll includes many revered names in the Army pantheon, is often seen as a brief stopover en route to “bigger and better” opportunities. This is unfortunate.

If employed correctly, a teaching assignment can be mutually beneficial to the service and the officer, and allow for many enviable professional growth opportunities:

• The chance to impart hard-earned knowledge to the next generation of military leaders.

• The chance to pursue additional coursework in a particular area of interest.

• The time and academic environment favorable to collecting one’s thoughts in the form of scholarly articles, professional writing and crafting of doctrinal concepts.

• The re-energizing influence of working with young people as they embark on a life of service to their country.

This last point bears special note. In a survey analyzing junior officer retention for the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, researchers found that the nearly 41 percent of respondents identified frustration with military bureaucracy as the top factor in their decision to leave the service. Although the typical career path dotted with the drudgery of staff assignments is unlikely to be fundamentally altered anytime soon, perhaps the military can rethink what it means to be a well-rounded officer. In doing so, it can reach out to the bright but disenfranchised by offering the opportunity to do what we all crave but rarely experience: pass along the accumulated wisdom of life and career to those receptive to hear it.

Finding Greatness

Teaching as a more senior field-grade officer could also be a steppingstone to positions of greater responsibility within an organization like the Army’s Training and Doctrine Command or as a school commandant or assistant commandant.

Army Chief of Staff Gen. George C. Marshall was the single most important influence on the senior officer corps that led the country to victory in World War II. His legendary “black book” of officers who had caught his attention over the course of his career largely formed the roster of division, corps and army commanders during the war. One common thread among them was their shared background as educators.

During his five years as assistant commandant at the Infantry School, Marshall had the opportunity to observe numerous instructors that he would one day place in high command: Gens. Omar Bradley, Joseph Stilwell, Edwin Harding and Morrison Stayer all impressed Marshall with their aptitude as innovators in the classroom and shapers of curricula. Their demonstrated aptitude for mentorship, leadership, communication and analytical thinking at the schoolhouse led directly to their selection for positions of extreme responsibility years later. The Marshall model of talent scouting proved an uncannily accurate predictor of success at the senior officer level and still has merit today.


For officers looking toward retirement, the military should do more to encourage them to consider a second career as civilian teachers. Compared with most other professions, a military career is very nearly ideal preparation to lead a classroom. In the first place, most officers beyond the O-4 paygrade have pursued an advanced degree. In the Air Force, for example, roughly 44 percent of officers hold advanced degrees, far more than the 9 percent of the American public at large that has attained a similar degree. Subtracting the junior officer population, we can determine that the field-grade officer corps is quite well-educated when compared with civilian peers.

Moreover, officership itself is an excellent preparation for the classroom. After 20 years in the service, officers generally have four things more or less in common with one another — and with outstanding teachers:

• They work well with a broad group of people with diverse personalities, backgrounds and strengths.

• They have developed an innate ability to coalesce data into clear terms and to impart the importance and relevance of that data to others.

• They have strong mechanisms to observe, refine and track the overall performance of the organization they are leading so as to improve aggregate performance.

• They can update their understanding of concepts, practices and doctrine to suit current circumstances.

A military career also prepares would-be teachers for the relatively recent effort by the federal government to improve the quality of education nationwide by holding teachers accountable for student performance. In fact, as any company commander preparing for an inspection could tell you, the metrics set forth by “No Child Left Behind” are the type of realistic, quantifiable measures endemic to military culture. With a lifetime of coaching, teaching and mentoring experience to call upon, the professional military officer will undoubtedly relish the opportunity to rise to the challenge of improving performance in the classroom and crafting well-rounded, adaptive young men and women.

Finally, students will have a role model capable of relating a lifetime of experiences amassed around the world under the most trying of circumstances — and of selfless service.

Col. Paul Yingling’s name is likely familiar to most AFJ readers, given his previous authorship in this periodical and his high profile in philosophical matters relating to national strategy and defense. His record of scholarship, command and war-fighting experience echoes the familiar string of assignments common to flag officer biographies. Yingling has been perceived as a current and future star of Army policy and warrior philosophy of the type so valued by the Army leadership as well the soldiers whose role and responsibilities he so carefully considers. In many ways, he has managed to bridge the gap between the proverbial brass and the worker bees, earning the respect of both.

Thus, it came as a surprise to many in early December when Yingling announced that he planned to retire early, minus the full O-6 retirement, to become a teacher and youth baseball coach. By walking away from a bright future in the Army or a lucrative civilian job in the defense industry, Yingling squares the values of the first half of his life — duty, honor, country — with those he seeks to define the second half.

Troops to Teachers

Today, the “Troops to Teachers” program helps qualified military professionals flow into jobs as civilian teachers. In a 2005 survey, nine out of 10 school principals indicated that they felt military retirees were more effective than their nonmilitary peers in the classroom. Though fairly well known, this program is at present largely uncompetitive with the myriad other options open to retiring service members. It also faces challenges as the defense budget prepares to shrink over the next few years. This is unfortunate; the program clearly makes sense when one considers the overall positive impact.

In that spirit, I recommend a pilot program be established to pair retiring military officers interested in teaching with peers currently serving in the “Troops to Teachers” program. By offering this “shadowing” option via the retirement services mechanisms resident within the four services, service members would be able to assess their level of interest and suit-ability for a position in the classroom while the “Troops to Teachers” program would enjoy a larger pool of potential candidates.

This “right seat ride” process is a familiar component to any military career. By actively encouraging retirees to explore the option of post-military teaching in this way, the overall benefit to communities, students and military retirees at large would be immeasurable.

At the twilight of one career and the dawn of another, perhaps an assignment in the classroom would finally represent the type of open-ended, unpack-your-bags commitment those accustomed to the roving existence of military life just might relish. AFJ

CAPT. JOHN D. McRAE is assigned to the National Guard Bureau, where he is the force manager for the Army National Guard’s engineer units. His previous assignment was as the aide-de-camp to the First Army deputy commanding general.