THE BLOG
11/10/2014 07:44 pm ET Updated Jan 10, 2015

What Veterans Have Taught Me About Teaching

For the past two summers I've been working with the Warrior-Scholar Project, a program that helps veterans make the transition to college. Each June I've spent up to 12 hours a day with veterans in classrooms, cafeterias, and libraries, talking about writing, fielding questions, reading drafts, and generally getting to know more about their hopes, challenges, and strengths.

I knew that working with veterans would affect the way I thought about non-traditional students, but I didn't expect it to dramatically enrich the way I approach all my teaching. Veterans contribute so much to their college communities: maturity, experience, varied perspectives. An unexpected benefit they bring is an ability to help their instructors be better teachers. Here's some of what they've taught me:

DON'T ASSUME.

Veterans are an extraordinarily diverse group, both in obvious ways (race, class, gender, and sexuality) and in less obvious ones (politics, temperament, perspectives on their military experience, feelings about Beyoncé and Jay Z). In short, they are utterly unique human beings.

This should go without saying, and yet it doesn't. Veterans are often seen as a known quantity, defined by their military service. But as Greg Hardy, a student at Bunker Hill Community College, told me:

"Personally, I just want to fit in -- as myself. I do not see my job (current or former) as a defining characteristic of who I am to the rest of the world. I think the same is true for most jobs/careers -- exceptions perhaps being rock stars, Hollywood-level movie stars, actual brain surgeons."

Or, as Wesleyan student Michael Smith puts it: "Sure, we have a different set of experiences than our civilian classmates. That just means that members of each community should, rather than relying on stereotypes, invest time and energy in getting to know the other."

Many instructors who have taught college for any length of time find themselves defaulting to stereotypes as they try to match names to students: There's the boy with the backwards baseball cap, the nerd with the obscure math pun on her T-shirt, the boy with the amazing glitter nail polish. You think you know them, but you don't.

I'm the pacifist daughter of a Vietnam War protestor who burned his draft card, which is a stereotype in itself -- but like all stereotypes, it's not the whole story. I went into teaching veterans knowing I would have to make a daily effort to set aside my assumptions, and I'm so glad I did. Teaching veterans has reminded me how important it is for teachers to view their students as individuals, and to be open to being surprised.


DON'T ASK; DO LISTEN.

In one of my seminars in grad school I was the only woman in the class. At one point the male professor suddenly turned to me and asked me to explain "the woman's point of view" on a novel we were reading, and I froze up. The professor may have had good intentions -- he may even have thought that he was addressing the gender imbalance by helping to amplify the lone female voice in the classroom -- but being treated as "the woman" was not something I'd signed up for.

The questions civilians ask veterans are often more subtle than that. Hopefully we don't ask them if they've killed anyone (though a surprising number of my students have been asked just that), or demand that they justify US foreign policy. Even so, there is often a subtext in questions about veterans' military service that puts them on the spot or implies that civilians have a right to an answer.

Some veterans are happy to answer questions about the military and take on a kind of educator's role, but since I'm never sure in advance whether a given student wants that role, I tend not to ask them questions about their military experience. Instead, I let veterans decide when and what they'd like to share.

This is about respect. As Greg eloquently puts it:

"I imagine very few civilians would like a microscope pointed into every detail of their past. For no matter how benign you think that past might be and how open or willing you might be to standing behind it, the sheer matter of scrutiny eventually becomes its own annoyance and then weight."

Sometimes the best way to honor veterans is not to thank them for their service, or grill them on it, but allow them the space to define themselves.

Veterans aren't the only students under heightened scrutiny. Over the years I've heard from other students -- Chinese students, Muslim students, queer students -- who have felt pressured to be spokespeople by their professors or peers. Teaching veterans has motivated me to try harder to ease the burden of scrutiny for all my students by protecting their right to keep their stories private, but letting them know that if they want to talk I'm interested in what they have to say.

DESTIGMATIZE HELP.

The military is good at a lot of things, but encouraging people to ask for help is not one of them. This is unfortunate, because the most common refrain among my veteran students who are succeeding in college -- and the most consistent advice they have for each other -- is that seeking help can make all the difference. Over and over, my students tell me that their academic experience changed dramatically for the better when they realized it's OK reach out to professors for assistance or advice.

They also stress the importance of seeking help from peers, and offering help to them in return. When I asked Rob Henderson what advice he'd give to a veteran starting college, he offered, "Don't hesitate to connect with other students; many will be glad to collaborate and learn." Rob had a great experience in community college starting a weekly study group that allowed him and his classmates to share their resources and help educate each other.

Rob figured out how to create the supportive academic community he wanted, but many students hesitate to take this kind of initiative. Making students aware of resources such as office hours, tutoring, or study groups is often not enough, because, as Yale student Logan Keith observes, "most veterans struggle with asking for help." Even showing up to office hours or the tutoring center can be a challenge, and asking classmates for assistance can seem daunting to a student who wants to seem self-reliant and "together."

Working with veterans has caused me to be more creative about getting around these barriers to help for all my students. I've discovered that the best way to encourage resistant, stubborn, shy, or overwhelmed students to accept help is to publicly require that everyone in the class gets help. The week before essays are due, I send around sign-up sheets in my classes to make sure my office hours are full. I bribe my students by promising them a 24-hour extension on their assignments if they meet with a tutor at the Writing Center. When my students are writing research papers, I organize them into writing groups and require them to check in with each other in class and online.

Not all these requirements will fit every teaching situation, but I think in most cases it's possible to use universal requirements to get the idea across: everyone needs help of some kind; no one gets through college (or achieves anything) on their own. There's no shame in getting help if everyone's doing it.

NOTICE THE STRUGGLE. SHOW THE STRUGGLE.

This is maybe the most helpful and surprising thing I've realized as I've reflected on the lessons of teaching veterans. Transitioning to college from the military is hard -- it requires a whole different way of thinking about knowledge and work. Students need us to recognize how difficult this transition is, and how much grit and character it takes to stick with it.

Greg told me:

"If I could hope for anything from a professor, all my professors, it would not be an extension of time on assignments or any other form of leniency. It would be for them to notice our drive, and our struggle and suggest ways in which we could learn the basic skills needed to turn our situations around -- before we become too discouraged."

Just as much as students need concrete academic help, they need us to notice their drive and their struggle. We can do this by making sure that we acknowledge the work they're putting into the class, whether it's showing up in their grades or not.

Another way for us to recognize and honor their struggle is to be honest about how difficult academic work is for us, as well as for them.

As my colleague Adam Keller puts it:

"Students will be more willing to do the intellectual labor if you reinforce that it is, in fact, labor. ... While you come to class with a perfectly polished lesson plan (or at least one that will get you through a 75-minute class without looking like an idiot), your students never see the work that goes into it. Really they just need to see some evidence of struggle on your part, to be reassured that it's hard and that it's supposed to be hard. Veterans aren't the only students who will benefit from those admissions."

Another instructor in the Warrior-Scholar Program, Jadzia Biskupska, describes this as "exposing the labor of intellectual work."

I remember how much it changed my relationship to writing when I realized that writing was hard for my professors too. It was both a dose of realism and a jolt of confidence. I realized that the work wasn't so hard because I was inadequate -- it was hard because it's supposed to be hard.

"Exposing the labor of intellectual work" -- being honest about our own deadlines, discouragements, and hard-won achievements -- can be an important part of helping students understand what intellectual work is, and why help is necessary. It can also help students to see their instructors and classmates as individuals, not just symbols or authority figures. It's yet another powerful way of letting our students know something that we all need to be reminded of, teachers and students and veterans and civilians alike: We're all in this together.