Veterans Day: My Students Could Have Killed Me

As has been my tradition for the past few years, I like to spend Veterans Day reminiscing about my eight years as an officer in the U.S. Air Force.

When I started writing about teacher unions, I was often asked if I had any teaching experience. I would reply, “Not the kind you mean.” I wasn’t entirely a stranger to the classroom. I was an instructor navigator for much of my time in the military, and this involved an academic setting as well as teaching in the aircraft.

It wasn’t to be compared with teaching children in a public school, but there were similar tasks (lesson plans, staff meetings) and similar gripes (unrealistic expectations from superiors, being evaluated as a teacher based on the performance of students). I freely admit I have neither the desire nor temperament to teach schoolchildren.

Being a military instructor had different pressures, of course. My students were highly motivated and intelligent young adults, who were also exactly the types who tend to wrap their sports cars around telephone poles. So checking your student’s math – when they were computing emergency safe altitudes and minimum required fuel – could end up being a matter of life or death. Letting them learn from their mistakes doesn’t apply when it involves flying into a mountain or North Korean airspace.

As you might imagine, military instruction is big on OBJECTIVES. When you were being evaluated on your instruction, the evaluator would sit in the back of the room with the list of OBJECTIVES for that particular class and check them off as you covered them. He would also have a stopwatch, but that’s another story.

Here are the OBJECTIVES for a single 50-minute class on aircraft performance. I should mention that aircraft performance was the responsibility of the pilots and the flight engineer, not the navigator. Nevertheless.

The primary method of gauging student performance was the flight evaluation – the “check ride.” But there were also standardized tests. Lots and lots of standardized tests. What exactly did we test students on? The OBJECTIVES.

So, was there “teaching to the test?” Absolutely! It was built into the structure.

Was there “drill and kill?” You bet! Particularly the “boldface,” which were emergency procedures you had to memorize verbatim. One word wrong and you would flunk a check ride. I was a little surprised to find the C-130 pilot boldface available on flash cards online.

I would never suggest replicating military instruction in civilian classrooms. I do think the clarity of having OBJECTIVES eliminated a lot of confusion. Yes, we often had arguments about whether particular OBJECTIVES were stupid or obsolete. But they were all achievable and no one ever said they didn’t know what the OBJECTIVES were.

I enjoyed teaching, but it had a major downside that wasn’t related to students or the classroom. As a highly experienced non-instructor navigator, I was assigned all sorts of exciting work. I twice spent a month in Thailand flying special ops training missions, and once deployed to Malaysia for three weeks. I did beacon, leaflet and HALO missions. My additional duty was as squadron tactics officer.

When I upgraded to instructor, that all went away. I had student overwater training missions, like flying out to Minami-Tori-shima and back. A lot.

I don’t consider my teaching experience relevant to the beat I cover. I did once belong to a labor union, though. That’s a story for a different time.

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