By Sidney Ellington
Continued desire to make a difference led veteran to Teach For America
Many Americans are born with an inherent desire to serve others. I certainly felt this way when I joined the Navy in 1985. I wanted to be a difference maker, and so I applied for Navy SEAL training. I then spent a 20-year career in one of the most personally fulfilling and rewarding careers I can possibly imagine. I say “one of the most” because, believe it or not, I’ve retired from active duty military service and moved into yet another fulfilling career. I’m a teacher.
When I retired from the Navy, I spent a year as a private contractor, and quickly realized that with my experience, my security clearance, and a Ph.D., I could be doing the same work for a whole lot more money. So I took my GI Bill benefits and enrolled in graduate school.
However, education changes people, and I found my outlook toward my post-military career changing. The more I read and studied, the more I came to believe that in order for America to remain a strong and vibrant global power, it had to close the existing educational achievement gap. As a result of my philosophical transformation, I decided to apply for Teach For America.
I first learned of Teach For America when a 21-year-old undergraduate colleague of mine named Craig—a brilliant scholar who could have his pick of any graduate program in the nation—chose to put his talents to work in our nation’s underserved classrooms. I reasoned that, if I truly believed that a failure to attain educational equity for all children was paramount, then I needed to follow Craig’s lead and actually be a part of the type of change I wanted to see in the world.
I strongly recommend a career in education for any veteran or military spouse who seeks a purposeful occupation. In the end, it’s all about service.
Joining Teach For America and serving as an AmeriCorps member meant selling a house and moving to New Orleans, a city still suffering from the ravages of Hurricane Katrina. I taught in an alternative charter high school setting, where the prerequisite for enrollment was to be two or more years behind grade level. Every day I interacted with students and families who bravely faced, and fought to overcome, the many serious problems that are brought on by generational poverty.
Needless to say, teaching in this environment was a humbling, life-changing experience. I then spent a year working on a truancy intervention initiative for the Recovery School District in New Orleans, and then joined the Teach For America national staff earlier this summer.
My role now is to lead Teach For America’s “You Served For America, Now Teach For America” veterans initiative. The main purpose of the campaign is to bring the power of military veterans and military spouses into the fight against educational inequity by placing these highly diverse and skilled leaders in our nation’s highest-need schools. In my view, students who attend these schools will benefit greatly from the veteran community’s depth of experience, strength in leadership, and desire to continue to serve their country.
For me, being a small part of the education reform movement is highly rewarding. I strongly recommend a career in education for any veteran or military spouse who seeks a purposeful occupation. In the end, it’s all about service.
John F. Kennedy once said that he could imagine no more rewarding a career than military service, and he is remembered for saying that if asked what he did to make his life worthwhile, he would be able to “respond with a good deal of pride and satisfaction” that he had served in the United States Navy. If I were to be asked the same question, I can echo the President’s words, but I also know that I’ve got one-up on Mr. Kennedy, because I can also respond with a great deal of pride and satisfaction, that I have also served as a Teach For America AmeriCorps member.
Sidney Ellington is a former Navy SEAL and an AmeriCorps Teach For America 2010 alumnus. He is the current head of Teach For America’s veterans initiative, You Served For America, Now Teach For America.