Troops To Teachers Guides One Soldier From Battlefield To Classroom
Story by MAJ MICHAEL PETERSEN on 02/08/2019
For years, Sgt. 1st Class Benjamin Simon wanted to be a teacher.
Simon certainly took the long way, but the Senior Pubic Affairs NCO assigned to the Connecticut Army National Guard's Joint Force Headquarters in Hartford has finally found himself in a classroom he can call his own, teaching 10th grade at Achievement First Hartford High School.
And he has Troops to Teachers to thank for the mentorship and guidance that helped steer him into a career field he always has a passion for.
"Troops to Teachers helped to provide me the mentorship and guidance I needed to stay motivated throughout this entire process," Simon said. "Being able to speak to likeminded individuals who followed similar paths certainly helped me stay committed to one day becoming an educator."
Simon, now 36, joined the military out of high school, beginning his career on Active Duty as a Veterinary Food Inspector Specialist stationed in Washington state. After just over two years on active duty, he decided to come back home to Connecticut and join the National Guard. During his transition brief, he learned about Troops to Teachers.
He took college classes while on Active Duty, and finished his Associates Degree at Three Rivers Community College in Norwich before earning his Bachelors at the University of Connecticut's Avery Point Campus in Groton in 2008, and Masters of Fine Arts at Western Connecticut State University in 2011.
But military life came first, and his dreams of becoming an educator had to wait. While assigned to the 1-102nd Infantry Regiment as an Indirect Fire Infantryman, he was twice deployed to Afghanistan once in 2006, and then again in 2010.
"Those experiences certainly interrupted the flow of my personal educational progress, but a deployment is a sacrifice you are destined to make when you choose the military as a lifestyle," Simon said.
But through it all, Simon kept in touch with Troops To Teachers advisors and personnel who were able to lead him to where he is today. Advisors, Simon says, who went through similar experiences.
"It was important to take advice from likeminded people," Simon said.
After his second deployment, Simon served as a substitute teacher in elementary schools in southeastern Connecticut as a way to make a little extra money. He took an internship at UConn, serving as an Assistant Teacher at UConn Avery Point in the English Department.
Meanwhile, he kept focused on his education. Simon started a second Master's Program at Trinity College in 2011.
He also had the opportunity to work as an associate instructor at the Capitol Regional Education Council's Polaris Center in East Hartford. Each classroom, according to Simon, had two teachers to help support the students' needs.
"I got a lot of one-on-one time with those kids," Simon said. "Working there really showed me how compassionate and caring you have to be to be an educator. If you don't have that, then you're going to be really challenged [as a teacher]."
He also worked in the public relations field, taking jobs as a press secretary for the House Republican Caucus at the Legislative Office Building in Hartford and then as a communications specialist for CTtransit (The state-owned public bus company).
It was during his time with CTtransit that he decided to hone in and focus on his teaching certification. Through Troops to Teachers, he learned about Connecticut's Alternative Route to Certification, better known as ARC. While working with one of his mentors, he decided to apply.
"(ARC is) a fantastic program," Simon said. "For just under a year, I spent every Friday night and all-day Saturdays, plus a six-week student teaching assignment working toward my certification," he said.
"Coming back from the public relations field, student teaching was a difficult transition for me. I had to build relationships with kids in an extremely short time frame. Classroom management was tough. This was also the first time I had to really put lesson plans together, which meant a lot of late nights. It was hard to get into the swing of things," he said.
Simon said that the experiences he had student teaching reminded him of training exercises he's taken part in while in the military
"Student teaching was a lot like (the Joint Readiness Training Center in Fort Polk, La.)," Simon said with a laugh. "I went in the classroom every day with a plan and had to adjust, and sometimes start from scratch."
Just like those training exercises, Simon adapted and learned from his experiences adding more skills to his toolkit to help deal with the numerous variables that come with teaching.
"It's impossible know how to deal with certain things until you actually are presented with the situation," Simon said.
As he neared earning his certification, Simon began applying for full-time teaching positions, which led him to the Achievement First Network. He said the process was competitive, and that his natural instinct was to see if he had what it took to get selected.
Turns out: He did.
"I sent in an application, a recruiter got in touch with me and led me through the process," he said.
Simon applied for a Literature position but was offered a position in Composition Writing. He accepted.
After many road blocks and detours, Simon now teaches four daily classes: three on pre-Advanced Placement Seminar (the finer points of argumentative writing, according to Simon) and a tutorial math class, where he has the opportunity to step outside his comfort zone and work with kids who benefit from extra support in mathematics.
"Teaching is definitely the hardest thing I have ever done in my entire life," Simon said. And that's coming from a guy who completed his first-ever 50-mile "ultra" marathon at the age of 36.
Throughout the entire process, Simon remained in contact with his Troops to Teachers mentors, and credits them for connecting him to the ARC program. He speaks highly of the program's expertise and mentorship, but has one critical piece of advice for service members who may want to follow a similar path: prepare to work extremely hard.
"You have to be dedicated, and you have to have thick skin. There's a lot of trial and error," Simon said. "Composure is so important. You have to understand you're working with kids. These aren't NCOs and Privates who have gone through Basic Training. Every child has different sensibilities, different backgrounds, different learning styles and it's on you as a teacher to mold yourself to meet their needs."
"Kids need adults in their lives, and teachers can be that constant, positive presence," he said. "If you think teaching is for you, contact Troops to Teachers, and get in touch with a military mentor that can help you through the process."
Maybe one day, it will be Sgt. 1st Class Simon who responds.