PHOENIX – Frank Contreras, a 12-year Army veteran who retired as a sergeant, ran a team of five troops who worked in the communications department. But he recently decided on a career he said is just as heroic – and one he believes will have a lasting impact: teaching.
“The future of our nation rests in the education of our children,” Contreras said. “So, this is actually the battlefield of today…this is my service now.”
Contreras is part of a program that aims to bring veterans into the classroom – as teachers.
The Department of Defense recently gave a $735,513 grant to Arizona’s Department of Education for the Troops to Teachers program. The grant will provide the department of education a dedicated staff position and overhead for the program over the next five years.
“The future of our nation rests in the education of our children. So, this is actually the battlefield of today…this is my service now.”
Diane Douglas, Arizona’s Superintendent of Public Instruction, said this gives them an opportunity to allow military personnel to transition “from one very proud career to another very proud career.”
“I couldn’t be happier with it,” Douglas said. “I think the opportunities…the leadership that these people, our former military will bring as they go into the classroom and help our students…they will help them, I think, see the bigger picture—what does it mean to serve your country, what does it meant to be so proud.”
Troops to Teachers has already placed over 21,000 veteran teachers in classrooms since it was started in 1993, according to the Department of Defense.
Contreras was on a completely different career path in IT but saw a Troops to Teachers presentation while serving in the National Guard that changed the course of his career.
“I would’ve never guessed I would’ve been a teacher,” Contreras said. “I started out my first degree program, computer science, wanted to work in computers, worked at Wells Fargo for eight years. In that time, during my service in the National Guard, I was put on the border mission in 2006. That’s when I started working a lot with the students at an elementary school and it just kind of touched me. It made me realize that here I am serving the country but there’s other ways that I can serve the country, as well, and serve the community.”
Troops to Teachers helped Contreras get a teaching job by using his military background to get his teaching certification.
Contreras said military personnel and veterans can bring the morals they learned in the military to the classroom, including teaching selfless service and respect, along with bringing discipline and motivation.
“You can probably ask any of my past students and they’ll say my No. 1 rule is respect in my classroom because it covers everything,” Contreras said. “Selfless service, we’re always talking about community service and doing things for the community, not just ourselves. So, I try to push everything that was instilled in the military to my students, so it’ll help them not only in the classroom but later on in life.”
Arizona officials hope the program also helps address a teacher shortage in the state and across the country.
The U.S. Department of Education reports that during the 2017-18 school year, most states were still experiencing difficulty hiring qualified teachers in multiple fields. A majority of states identified shortages of teaches in multiple subjects, including mathematics (47 states and the District of Columbia), special education (46 states and D.C.), science (43 states), and career and technical education (32 states).
The Learning Policy Institute found teacher education enrollment dropped from 691,000 to 451,000, a 35 percent reduction, between 2009 and 2014. Douglas says Arizona loses about 40 percent of new teachers within the first three years.
“Not only will (Troops to Teachers) help us get qualified teachers into the classroom, but we also have teachers who are very well trained and may be able to help us with some school safety issues, also, to help keep our schools safe,” Douglas said.
From Sgt. Contreras to Mr. Contreras, he’s in a field he never thought he would be over a decade ago—and has even adopted one of his former students who was having a rough home life. Contreras has also invested his own money in a sports medicine program and now takes his architecture students on field trips to Habitat for Humanity.
“I have hundreds of students that tell me all the time, through Facebook or other social media routes, that were past students that say, ‘Hey, you impacted my life, I wouldn’t be here without you,’” Contreras said. “None of those students would be where they’re at if I didn’t become a teacher.”