Published: July 5, 2013 Updated 14 hours ago
By Renee Schoof — McClatchy Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON — Anthony Kajencki spent more than seven years in the Army, training soldiers to use Stinger missiles to shoot down enemy jets and helicopters.
Now he’s using his wartime experience to teach high school students how to develop their critical thinking.
Along with thousands of other former members of the military, Kajencki is part of an effort to bolster America’s teaching corps with worldly veterans whose leadership skills and life experiences could be valuable in the classroom.
Troops to Teachers, a nearly 20-year-old Pentagon program, has produced more than 15,000 teachers, largely for high-need schools. The program gives guidance about state teaching requirements and how to make the transition to teaching.
“A lot of times kids want to test me because I was in the military,” said Anthony Kajencki, a West Point graduate and former air defense artillery officer who teaches at Northern High School in Durham. “ ‘Look at this guy. Let’s see how tough he is. Let’s see if I can push him.’ ”
Kajencki, 41, is known to his students as “Capt. K.” He said one reason he chose to become a high school math teacher was a commitment he made after West Point to a lifetime of service. The military taught him about teamwork.
“I learned about how to be resilient and how to just take whatever West Point gave me and withstand it and continue on,” he said. “We were constantly tested.”
It’s what he strives to pass on to his students – that and what it’s like to jump out of a plane.
“Our people come with a background,” said Ed Kringer, director of the Voluntary Education Program, of which Troops to Teachers is a part, at the Department of Defense. “They’re disciplined. They have leadership skills. They have a lot to offer that can transfer into the classroom.”
The program’s overall funding was $15 million in 2012, which included about $8.5 million per year for one-time bonuses for people in the program who agree to work in schools that primarily serve low-income, high-needs students. Some of that money goes to help pay for the cost of education not covered by the G.I. Bill.
From 1994 to 2012, 11,277 veterans received stipends or bonuses. Of those, all but 547 completed their obligations to teach for three years in a high-needs school.
There have been years when the program produced few teachers, such as during the recession and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, when people were encouraged to stay in the military. At its height in 2005, 1,362 veterans went through the program and were hired as teachers.
Kringer said studies have shown that former members of the military do well as teachers. They have leadership and life experience skills that a college graduate going into teaching wouldn’t have, he said.
They also tend to remain in teaching longer because they’re older, he said, and for many teaching is a second career.
Helping ‘people succeed’
Kajencki spent more than seven years in the Army, including stints at Fort Bragg and Fort Drum, N.Y., training soldiers to use missiles to take down enemy aircraft. He also was a protocol officer in Bosnia for a commanding general.
He left the military in 2001 to become a teacher, but initially ended up working in retail instead. In 2009, he looked into the Troops to Teachers program. He also won a fellowship from Duke University to earn a master of arts degree in education. In return, he agreed to teach at a high-poverty school.
Kajencki, who’s spending the summer working for a Charlotte kennel until school resumes, knows his new career won’t make him rich. He earns $37,000 a year in a state where teacher salaries are among the lowest in the nation.
“I feel I have the ability to help people succeed,” Kajencki said. “I did that in the Army. I did it in retail. Now I’m doing it in education. That’s something that has given me a lot of joy.”
Not that the transition was the easiest. He had to learn to adapt to classroom management – like warning and expelling troublemakers – rather than yelling.
Particularly satisfying has been helping students who struggle with algebra, conquer their math phobias and pass.
“Algebra is one of the first classes where they have to demonstrate critical thinking,” Kajencki said. “It’s really tough. It’s abstract. It takes a lot of fortitude to make it through.”
Troops to Teachers
The program has regional offices. Veterans interested in teaching can contact the state’s Troops to Teachers office to receive counseling and assistance regarding certification requirements, how to get state certification and employment leads.
Financial assistance varies with stipends up to $5,000 to pay for teacher certification costs and bonuses as high as $10,000 to teach at least three years in schools that serve a high percentage of low-income students.
For more information, go to www.ncpublicschools.org/troops/contact/ or call 888-878-1600.