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Alumni Draw on Their Military Experience in Their Roles as Teachers
Do military veterans make good teachers? This question was posed to two School of Education alumni—one a former U.S. Army pilot and the other a former Air Force systems and IT technician turned linguist—who both now teach in Upstate New York schools.
A narrow answer to the question might reference giving and receiving orders as a common denominator between the two careers. But the experiences of Elaina Hajduk G’04 and Bryan Dion G’17 show that a military background brings so much more to the classroom, from building teams and motivating students to sharing horizon-expanding stories of global deployments.
A Common Goal
For Hajduk, a math teacher in the Fayetteville-Manlius (NY) school district, the journey toward the classroom began at the United States Military Academy. “At West Point I was often chosen to tutor struggling students. And I was good at it,” she says. “My tutoring would turn students around, and watching them grow and learn excited me. Being able to explain things in a way they understood gave me a lot of personal satisfaction.”
After graduating from West Point in 1986, Hajduk attended the U.S. Army Aviation Center of Excellence at Fort Rucker, Alabama, before being stationed in Würzburg, Germany, as a platoon leader for a UH-1H “Huey” helicopter platoon. Three years in Europe saw her promoted to battalion logistics officer and then to assistant brigade logistics officer before she returned to Fort Rucker to take the officer advanced course.
When Hajduk left the military as a captain in 1991, she and her husband moved around the country for work before they and their growing family—the Hajduks have four children—settled in Syracuse in 2000. That’s where Elaina picked up the teaching thread once again, first as an adjunct math professor at Cazenovia College. “I had struggling students at Cazenovia, but I was good at getting them beyond their math phobia,” she says, recalling how this experience inspired her to move into K-12 teaching. “I loved teaching, especially when I made an impact and a positive difference.”
Although she always had a knack for math and for leading teams of soldiers, Hajduk admits that her teacher training—part of her School of Education M.S. in Mathematics Education program—opened her eyes to different perspectives about math concepts and to the different struggles students can have with them. To this day, those perspectives help her adjust her approach depending on the student. “One of my professors called it ‘making teaching good for all kids.'”
Hajduk also recalls teaching methods that professors such as Helen Doerr, Gerald Mager and Joanna Masingila used, such as modeling student engagement and collaboration. “We did the activities and assignments in class so that we could visualize what a school classroom looks like. That was the best way to learn,” she observes.
Ultimately, Hajduk says that her experience training soldiers—stretching back to West Point—is very similar to teaching. “The attributes of being a platoon leader are completely similar. In the military, I trained soldiers all the time. Now, I train students—to study, work in groups, and verbalize thinking.”
Specifically, Hajduk points to leadership, instilling trust and fostering teamwork as three skills that directly transfer from the military to school. “As a platoon leader, you need your platoon to work toward a common goal. In a classroom, we work as a team toward the common goal of learning,” she explains. “A good leader has a connection with their soldiers, and having that personal connection means they knew I cared about them. Today, my students know I care about their interests, the sports they play and their families.”
For Dion, the primary benefit of being a military veteran turned high school teacher is his “ridiculously broad perspective and cultural experience.”
Thanks to his Air Force service, Dion has lived and worked across the U.S., Europe, Asia and the Middle East. This background provides diverse perspectives for his 10th grade English language arts students at Monticello (NY) High School. “I constantly share worldly knowledge with my students, every chance I get. Whether it’s identifying cognates, telling deployment stories or simply sharing foreign concepts.”
As for the disciplinarian side of his military background, Dion admits that he’s “dropped most of the poise” that might be expected of a veteran. “I’m goofy. I laugh with the kids. But while I try not to, I do lead when the need arises,” he says.
Dion took a winding, fascinating path through his service. Enlisting shortly before graduating high school in 1996, after basic training he became an airfield systems technician, maintaining meteorological and navigations systems.
After his first overseas station—at Kadena Air Base, in Okinawa, Japan—Dion moved to Biloxi, Mississippi, to re-train as a network administrator before heading north to Grand Forks, North Dakota as a “computer guy.” In 2003, Dion was sent abroad again, on a special duty assignment to Ramstein Air Base in Germany.
From Germany it was back to the U.S. as a network administrator at the Air Force Research Labs in Rome, New York, before a foreign deployment to Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar. That’s when Dion was struck by the idea for another career move.
“I saw and heard Arabic as I toured the country, but I didn’t understand it.” Nevertheless, the language and culture fascinated Dion, and—having passed the Defense Language Institute’s basic Arabic course—he applied to become a linguist. “The Air Force sent me to Monterey, California, to learn Arabic,” he recalls. “I figured learning a difficult language would keep me traveling, and I would deploy again as a linguist. Instead, I was assigned to Fort Meade, outside Baltimore, Maryland, for the last eight years of my career.”
Nothing Like It
It was during that final act that Dion’s thoughts turned to teaching. “I’d amassed a lot of undergraduate credits and I was involved in a lot of training programs for young Air Force men and women. I realized that I enjoyed helping others to better themselves. My daughters were also young, and I was always creating ‘teaching moments’ while I raised them. It was natural.
The benefits of the Post-9/11 GI Bill gave Dion the final push he needed. “It covered three years’ tuition and helped me pay my rent, so I used a single year to go to Syracuse and gave the remaining benefits to my daughters.”
Dion’s strongest memories of his M.S. in English Education program are of his professors, such as Interim Dean Kelly Chandler-Olcott (“She has this welcoming, intelligent, yet frank and caring energy about her”) and Associate Provost Marcelle Haddix (“I try to consider her reaction whenever I face cultural questions”). With his Air Force experiences and long beard, Dion has a “cool English teacher” vibe, so part-time instructor Keith Newvine’s words also stuck. “Keith taught me that we can be cool teachers, but we must always be compassionate and open to alternative understandings for anything that we might think is already crystal clear.”
Both Dion and Hajduk discovered how their military career enriches their teaching. In offering advice to young veterans thinking of their own post-service careers, Hajduk observes that the confidence and responsibility the military instills in young people are among the skills a veteran should assess when thinking about a switch.
“When I was 22 years old, I was leading 13 helicopters and 25 soldiers, some quite a bit older than me,” explains Hajduk. “That management ability, maturity and leadership—there’s nothing like it in the civilian world for someone that age.”
She urges veterans to never sell themselves short, whatever their next move. “Your skills are the ones employers want the most,” adds Hajduk. “The biggest fear for military veterans is wondering if their military skills will transfer to the civilian world. I say, make an inventory of the skills you learned in the military and really think about how they transfer.”