BALTIMORE – Ken Kuehne knows now that the Navy spoiled him. Getting the attention of 26 fourth graders in an inner-city Baltimore grade school is nothing like his last job, where he oversaw 1,500 sailors in a security command.
“Line up! Line up! Line up!” he yelled one morning as he herded his James McHenry Elementary School students back to the classroom after a bathroom break.
“Jordan, sit up please. Jordan, sit up please! Jordan, sit up please! Jordan!” Kuehne screamed, his voice gradually rising in volume.
Jordan, who was sitting with his feet on his desk, did not move.
“Do I need to call someone at lunchtime like I did yesterday?” Kuehne asked. “Don’t make it worse. Keep having a good day like you’re having.”
Jordan finally put his feet down.
“When you are a captain, people do what you say when you say it. No questions asked,” Kuehne said. “Here I am, 57 years old, and here I have 11- and 12-year-olds questioning what I’m saying.”
His experience is not unique among those in Troops to Teachers, a federal program that seeks to attract retiring military personnel to teaching. People who teach after leaving the military have to get used to a different environment, said Lissa Brown, assistant executive director of the Maryland State Teachers Association.
“In the military there are rules . . . and there is not much room for questioning — if you don’t agree with the rules, you do it anyway,” Brown said. “In education, much of the training of teachers is to get you to look at a whole variety of options and then make a decision.
“It’s a totally different culture, and some make the transition and some find it’s not what they thought it was going to be,” she said.
But others say that same culture can make former military people particularly well-suited to teaching.
“Many people have military experience where they lead, where they nurture, where they develop,” said John Smeallie, state superintendent for certification and accreditation. “And those skills translate very well in the classroom.
“It is a transition, but I know many military people come with that skill-set in their toolkit,” he said.
McHenry Principal Judith Dixon thinks Kuehne’s experience in the armed services has helped make him an asset to the school.
“He is very organized in his presentation and his thinking,” Dixon said. “He’s very determined that the children will succeed . . . . He’s just a joy to have because what our boys and girls need is dedication and commitment.”
Like Kuehne, most teachers in Troop to Teachers end up in schools that have the most need. About 90 percent of the students at McHenry Elementary receive free or reduced-price meals. More than two-thirds of Kuehne’s students have repeated at least one grade, and several have attention-deficit disorders or lead poisoning or both.
Regardless of what school they are assigned to, Brown thinks former military personnel can be successful if they have the necessary preparation.
“We think that the idea of taking retired military people and offering them the opportunity to become teachers is a good one if they are required to meet the same standards for certification as all other teachers in order to meet the highly qualified requirements of No Child Left Behind,” Brown said.
“Highly qualified,” according to the act, is a teacher who holds at least a bachelor’s degree and is certified by the state.
In Maryland, former military have to pass an assessment test and an intensive summer course before they can teach. They do not need their state certification to start, but must become certified if they wish to continue.
Most study for their certification while they teach: Kuehne is taking the five courses he needs for certification at Johns Hopkins University.
Pat Kuehne said her husband had always been interested in teaching, but it was a 2002 seminar at Fort Meade that opened the door to teaching as a career. He retired that year and began substituting in Anne Arundel County schools. A year later, Kuehne contacted the national Troops to Teachers office.
“He’s always been interested in my job,” said Pat, a veteran high school math teacher. “Helping me with papers, listening to me vent, kind of being a sounding board.
“He was always good at helping the kids with projects — he was one of those dads,” she said. “He loved doing that kind of stuff with them.”
But having two kids at home is different from having 26 kids in a classroom.
At McHenry, Kuehne tracks student behavior on a chart, with clothespins for each student that move to “super,” “on task,” “nonverbal warning,” “first verbal warning,” “second verbal warning” or “time out,” depending on how the student acts. “Super” students get a piece of candy at the end of the day. Those further down the chart might get calls home.
To encourage his students, he keeps a pocketful of plastic chips that he throws into a jar when the class works as a team. He takes chips out when students misbehave. If the chips reach a certain level, he treats the class to a pizza party.
“My biggest thing is consistency,” Kuehne said. “I have to be consistent and call them on it.”
But when they make good choices, he lavishes praise on them.
After Mercedes read a detailed story that she wrote in colored markers about seven best friends, Kuehne clapped and urged the students to give her a round of applause.
“Raise the roof! Hoot! Hoot!” he cheered, pushing bent arms toward the ceiling. “It was gooood!”
And then all 76 inches of him dropped to the ground to show that he was floored.
“I try to do those types of things so that I can react in another way than saying, ‘Excellent, very good,'” Kuehne said.
He put Mercedes’ clothespin on “super” for her story.
Another time, when Kuehne scolded the class for not working as a group, Dameion asked, “Mr. K., can you tell the bad people to sit somewhere else?”
Kuehne said no, telling Dameion that the class needs to “learn how to get along.”
“There are no bad people,” Kuehne said. “You are all good people, but we all make bad choices.”
Kuehne said he plans to teach for about eight more years.
“I gave to my country for 32 years,” he said. “Now I wanted to give back to the community.”
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