When I joined the Army in 2006, entering the United States Military Academy as a Cadet, I never dreamt that I would one day be teaching at an institution of higher education. I was fortunate to be chosen by the Army to teach at the University of Texas at Austin and have been teaching since August of 2017. I quickly learned however, the Army method of instruction and collegiate instruction were more than slightly different.
I teach juniors in the Texas Army Reserve Officer’s Training Corps (ROTC) program, which is arguably the Cadets’ (students’) most difficult year. The Cadets not only have their rigorous academics from their fields of study but they also have two classes and a two hour lab each week for the ROTC program. They even have numerous weekend activities that consume a large portion of their time. I was up for the challenge. Like any good soldier, I quickly adapted to my new environment in order to achieve mission success. However, there lied my first problem: what was my mission? The mission was to allow students of diverse backgrounds to be free enough to maneuver through their individual identification models while simultaneously learning how to become an Army Officer. The way a university teaches and the way the Army trains are often times polar opposites. I had to find innovative ways to instruct my students on leadership and tactics that had rarely been attempted in the ROTC program, at least to my knowledge. Teaching strategies are derived from the instructors’ respective field of study, personal experiences, beliefs, and perceived understanding of their students (Lattuca & Stark, 2009).
I now found myself having to fight my nature, in a sense, and develop a new, to me, style of teaching. To my surprise I was not the only teacher who wanted to understand and evolve my method of teaching either. Our office, the Texas Army ROTC, participated in the university's "Eyes on Teaching" event which allowed teachers to observe others during instructional periods and then partake in a question and answer session afterwards. The teacher I observed was engaging, forced her students to make an argument, and held them to a high academic standard. I wanted to possess her finesse and skill. I began modifying my spring classes throughout the winter leave period, eager to engage my students with new and innovative techniques. I implemented a common three phase technique the Army uses: crawl, walk, run, focusing on a more experiential learning environment. The students crawl during their homework, walk during the participation portion of my classes where they are challenged by their peers and myself on their beliefs and understanding of material, and run at their leadership labs when they conduct hands on missions with their peers, freshman through seniors. I taught differently between classroom instruction and field instruction, similar to how we conduct a training event in the Army, and I believed it to be effective. But I questioned whether what I was doing was working or even helpful to my students. I quickly found my way to the Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL). I asked them to observe my teaching strategies and provide candid feedback so that I could become a better instructor. They observed two of my classes, one on leadership and one on tactics, and then conducted an interview with my class, absent myself, to provide me critical feedback. The first class they observed was ‘motivating soldiers’ and the latter was ‘terrain models and crossing linear danger areas’. The first class was in the classroom and I utilized a number of techniques to include jigsaw and think-pair-share techniques to engage the students (Major, Harris, & Zakrajsek, 2016).
The second class was located at Camp Mabry in Austin, Texas. Students were instructed on how to build terrain models and conduct a terrain model brief for major operations followed by learning how to conduct linear danger area crossings. I build my Thursday classes to mirror what the students are doing at leadership labs Thursday nights, to ensure success and retention. After the CTL interviewed my students, compiled information, and formulated their thoughts, we met to discuss their observations. Overall they liked the amount of energy I brought to the classroom, they observed that I confidently guided students through the lesson and navigated discussions with ease. They continued by stating I keep the students on their toes and introduced a number of instructional strategies that aided to the learning process. They noted that I scaffold my lessons to achieve the overarching goals of the course. The CTL did suggest areas that I can improve, which I wholeheartedly agree with. They observed that I do tend to move rapidly through material and I may benefit from trimming down the number of items covered per lesson to instill the critical items. They suggested I find a systemic way of assessing knowledge retention rather than cold-calling since some students do not grasp concepts as quickly or easily. They recommended think-pair-shares or each one-teach one. They recommended that I provide skeletal outlines of the material being covered to focus the students’ attention and reading. The CTL provided me a copy of the comments collected from my students to allow me to further reflect on certain items and create changes as needed. Working with the CTL I learned a great deal not just about myself and my leadership style, but about the university as well. Working with another department was thrilling and terrifying all at the same time. I anticipated my first meeting as one that would be met with hostility or crassness based on Hollywood dramatization of institutions of higher education. I was pleasantly surprised to be asked the same questions about my department as I had about the CTL. To the best of our knowledge this is the first time the two programs have worked together and I for one am hoping to continue the relationship for years to come.
References Lattuca, L. R., & Stark, J. S. (2009). Shaping the college curriculum: Academic plans in context. San Francisco, CA: Jossey Bass. Major, C. H., Harris, M. S., & Zakrajsek, T. (2016). Teaching for learning: 101 intentinally designed educational activities to put students on the path to success. New York, NY: Routldge.
Jason Sexton Assistant Professor (ROTC) Military Science (Army), College of Liberal Arts Jason's current area of focus at UT-Austin is leadership and ethical decision making. He earned his Masters in Higher Education Administration from the University of Louisville.