What Teachers Can Learn from the Marines

In his most recent blog post for Time, Andrew Rotherham discusses five things he believes teachers could learn from the US Marine Corps.  He begins the article with a reflection on the fighting in Fallujah:  “19- and 20-year-old Marines were trusted to make extraordinary split-second decisions in an environment more dangerous and confusing than most of us can imagine.  Yet back home in American schools, we still haven’t figured out how to give our teaching force—whose members are college graduates, more than half of whom have advanced degrees—autonomy and accountability in a far less dynamic workplace.”

After having conversations with some active-duty Marines and former Marines working full-time in public schools, Rotherham has distilled several lessons for educators and policymakers:

1. Give people autonomy, but training too.  The Marines have the most junior force of all the armed forces, and the highest ratio of enlisted personnel officers.  Rather than leading to chaos, however, this has allowed training to be thorough, communication to become implicit, and responsible decisions made by front-line fighters without immediate feedback.  This can be translated to education by the establishment of an overall framework where teachers are allowed and trusted to make ongoing decisions vis-à-vis their practice and students.  “So while educators talk about empowering front-line practitioners, the Marines actually do it,” reflects Rotherham.

2. If it really matters, do it.  Every year, Marines are required to re-quality for their marksmanship ratings.  This reflects a deep commitment to mission-critical skills, as well as respect for the philosophy of helping team members improve their skills.  Contrasted with education, where seniority often outweighs subject matter expertise or superb classroom practice, one can see where education can learn from the Marine philosophy.  Furthermore, the Marines have a standard for everything, and everyone from the lowest-ranking privates to the generals is aware of what they are and why they exist.  A far cry from the current education system.

3. Take pride in what you do.  Marines take pride in their membership in an elite group of the military.  They don’t need to sell anyone on joining by flaunting GI Bills or other incentives.  To serve is enough.  In the education arena, even educators have taken to bad-mouthing the public school system.  No one takes pride in the system they are working for, and no one is bothering to instill in teachers or students a sense of obligation to live up to the ideals of the American school system.

4. Teach character.  Marines get 13 weeks of core training where they learn what it means to be a Marine, the history of the Corps, and its values.  Contrastingly, “Schools get 12 years and still fail to teach kids to be basic citizens,” says Rotherham.

5. Encourage competition.  Marines understand that a focus on excellence and accountability improves quality rather than undermining it.  Everything Marines do, from taking fitness tests to working on the rifle range, is competitive, and Corps members are clearly distinguished according to their skill sets.  In education, we shy away from doing this because we are afraid to say that someone is better than somebody else.  Marines are encouraged to live up to the standards set by others, and by doing so, enjoy the distinction of being the most elite arm of the military.  “We should aspire to talk about public schools in the same way,” concludes Rotherham.

To read the full article, please visit http://ideas.time.com/2012/03/15/5-things-teachers-could-learn-from-the-marines/