Preparing Teachers to Serve Military-Connected Students: Progress and Promise

I had the honor of attending a half-day conference at the White House last month celebrating the Operation Educate the Educators program, a joint initiative of AACTE and the Military Child Education Coalition (MCEC) to better prepare school personnel to meet the needs of military-connected children.

The April 13 event marked not only the Month of the Military Child but also the 5-year anniversary of Joining Forces, a critical initiative launched by First Lady Michelle Obama and Second Lady Dr. Jill Biden to support military families’ health, education, and employment. Operation Educate the Educators is a key player in the education component, comprising an impressive array of programming at more than 100 AACTE member institutions and others across the country. Biden also spoke on a related panel earlier in the week at the American Educational Research Association conference.

The White House event, “Operation Educate the Educators: Sharing Successes and Setting Sights for the Future,” opened with a panel of teacher educators from four of the “pioneer” institutions to sign on to the initiative. Ron Avi Astor of the University of Southern California (who also helped organize the event), John Nunnery of Old Dominion University (VA), Sandy Risberg of Kansas State University, and Mark Ginsberg of George Mason University (VA) shared their work in a session moderated by MCEC President and CEO Mary M. Keller.

Operate Educate the Educators at the White House
MCEC President and CEO Mary M. Keller and leaders from four educator preparation institutions discuss Operate Educate the Educators at the White House April 13.

Witnessing this work was both inspirational and eye-opening for many of us in the room. From innovating in a single school to enhancing services across a community and enriching the broader research base for the field, each participating institution is making an important contribution to a very real need in our nation’s schools.

For breadth of impact, look first to what Astor and his colleagues have achieved in the San Diego area and beyond. They are contributing to the evidence base through research partnerships with local school districts, which serve Camp Pendleton and other San Diego bases, to create supportive infrastructures through data-driven models, tools to ease students’ transitions, and other “welcoming practices.” The many resources they have developed include a set of guide books for school administrators, teachers, counselors and social workers, and parents that are now available from Teachers College Press. (See also Astor’s recent Huffington Post article celebrating and drawing recommendations from last month’s events.)

Ginsberg, who is dean of George Mason’s College of Education and Human Development, spoke about his institution’s experience developing and implementing an online learning module that is now included in the required course Human Growth and Development. The module, “Supporting Our Military-Connected Children in School Settings: Moving Them from Risk to Resilience,” explores the unique experiences and challenges of military-connected children and introduces strategies to support military families. Mason’s work in this area has been led by Assistant Professor Jennifer Drake-Patrick and undertaken in collaboration with school divisions in the Northern Virginia region and other organizations focused on military personnel and veterans.

“When we think of school readiness, it’s not just about getting kids ready for school, but also getting schools ready for kids,” Ginsberg said. “Readiness is an important concept in defense circles, and what we’re trying to do is extend this theme to the schools by preparing educators to better nurture, support, and develop the learning of this special group of students.” Mason’s new module teaches educators about helping military-connected students leverage their unique experiences, Ginsberg said. “We’ve worked hard not to pathologize the experiences of these kids.”

Another coalition-led effort based at Old Dominion University’s Darden College of Education seeks to transform schools into “military-conscious” organizations, which differ from “military-friendly” ones in that they proactively seek to address the range of educational needs of children with military ties, including family support, social-emotional support for children, and targeted academic improvement in mathematics and literacy. This collaborative partnership known as “TEAMS”—Teaching, Education, and Advocacy for Military-Connected Students—offers a graduate certificate in military child and families education, professional development programs for in-service teachers, a special assessment tool for schools and districts, and technical assistance for math instructional coaches.

“Military-connected children represent a diverse cross section of America, and in the end they are just kids like other kids, but their parents have very special jobs with predictable impacts—high mobility, serial separation, and a small but very real risk of sudden loss,” said Nunnery, who is executive director of the university’s Center for Educational Partnerships. “By learning how to better serve them in school, we improve education for all children who confront these same challenges.”

At the College of Education at Kansas State University, instructor Sandy Risberg has led curriculum and instruction faculty on tours of schools and communities around nearby Fort Riley to help them prepare preservice teachers to serve military-connected children (and connect better with preservice teachers who themselves are military-connected). She also leads professional development for the teachers in area schools to share cultural insights and strategies to build students’ resiliency, and she has presented the work at a variety of local and national events. The College of Education developed a noncredit class for preservice teachers wanting deeper knowledge about the needs of military-connected learners and a documentary about military life through the eyes of families to help future teachers better understand the needs of military-connected students.

To close the White House event, U.S. Secretary of Education John B. King and Dr. Biden called on institutions to make or renew their commitment to the cause (see video). Biden praised participants for focusing on resilience and other strengths of military-connected children, rather than viewing the students with a deficit mentality. She also thanked Risberg’s program in particular, which she had visited a week earlier. “Fort Riley represents what I hope all schools do for our military families: a community effort—one in which Kansas State University has invested heavily in educating their teachers—to better serve the needs of military service,” Biden said. “The work that you are doing—that your student teachers are doing in the classroom—is so important.”

Is your institution on the list of signatories supporting the Operation Educate the Educators guiding principles? The principles include fostering awareness of military-connected students among your faculty members, encouraging related research, and partnering with school districts to better respond to the needs of students and families with military ties.

Please contact AACTE for more information. I hope you will join us!

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Sharon Robinson

President and CEO, AACTE