5 Things Teachers Could Learn from the Marines

Why Fallujah might have more to teach us than Finland about improving our schools

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Members of the U.S. Marine Corps during a Veterans Day ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Va.

Fallujah probably isn’t the first place you’d go for ideas about how to improve our schools. It was the scene of some of the toughest fighting during the Iraqi War. But the city’s successful recapture by the United States highlighted why the Marines Corps is such a respected fighting force. In that battle, as in others, 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. In school districts and state capitals, we veer between giving teachers insufficient training and oversight and giving them almost no autonomy at all.

The Marine Corps isn’t perfect. A few of its members have been accused of atrocities in Iraq and Afghanistan. Still, it’s undeniable that the Marines are highly effective at their core mission of maintaining a nimble and lethal fighting force. In conversations with active-duty Marines and with former Marines who now work full-time in public schools, some lessons for improving our teaching force became clear. Here are five things the leathernecks can teach us:

1. Give people autonomy, but training too
The Marines have the most junior force of any of the armed services: 39% of Marines are Privates or Lance Corporals. By comparison 19% of the Army, 20% of the Air Force, and 24% in the Navy are at the lowest ranks. The Marines also have the highest ratio — by a substantial margin — of enlisted personnel to officers of any of the armed forces. So they’re not top-heavy.

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This could be a recipe for disorganization or worse, but instead a Marine fire team of four can operate largely on its own, if necessary, while carrying out its commander’s intent. It can do this because of extensive training. “The battlefield is always chaotic and the information is hazy at best and unreliable,” says Steve Scarfe, who was a Major in the Marines and is now an assistant high school principal in Illinois. “You have to develop implicit communication,” he says. “We’ve trained together so we’ve learned how each other thinks and can make decisions without immediate feedback” when communication becomes difficult or impossible.

Scarfe points out the obvious parallel to schools where an overall framework must be balanced with ongoing decision-making by teachers – and where communication should be far easier than on a battlefield. In practice, however, explicit communication, especially around tough issues like performance and leadership, is rare. Training for the deeper teamwork Scarfe is describing is almost non-existent. So while educators talk about empowering front-line practitioners, the Marines actually do it.

2. If it really matters, do it
“Every Marine a rifleman” isn’t just slick sloganeering. Once a year, Marines have to go to the rifle range to re-qualify for their marksmanship ratings. The motto also reflects a deep commitment to mission-critical skills as well as a philosophy that if a group of Marines needs an extra hand, any other member of the Corps is prepared to jump in and help. Contrast that with education, where vital skills – such as teaching ability or subject matter expertise – are still secondary to seniority. And school districts rarely do everything possible to get the best teachers where they are needed most.

The Marines are also big on aligning training with standards. They have standards for everything they do—from hair cuts to heavy weapons—that flow from their core mission to be a fast, amphibious assault force. Everyone from Marine Privates to Marine Generals knows what the standards are and why.

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3. Take pride in what you do
“When I was recruiting Marines, I didn’t sell the benefits like the GI Bill,” one Master Sergeant, a veteran of multiple combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, told me. “We pride ourselves first and foremost on being Marines. We really play on that.”

It’s remarkable how we as a country undersell the importance of working in education. Politicians and other outsiders slam public schools, but so do educators. It’s endemic. Thoughtful criticism is vital, but in teacher-training programs, you’re as likely to encounter a professor trashing Secretary of Education Arne Duncan as you are one celebrating the richness of the field. Likewise, the teachers’ unions spend as much time complaining as they do talking up the importance of improving student outcomes.

“The Marine Corps has a reputation of excellence,” Scarfe says. “You have a sense that you’re joining something much bigger than just another organization and you have an obligation to live up to it.” Too few schools instill this kind of feeling in either their teachers or their students.

4. Teach character
Many of the young Marines in Fallujah who did amazing things under insanely stressful conditions had been walking the halls of America’s high schools just months before. They would not have been ready for the responsibility they bore on the battlefield prior to their training, which is as deliberate as it is intense. Ask any Marine and he (the Corps is still mostly men) will be able to clearly articulate what it means to be a Marine, the history of the Corps, and its values. Marines don’t pick this up through happenstance; they learn it in 13 weeks of core training. Schools get 12 years and still fail to teach kids to be basic citizens.

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5. Encourage Competition
“The Marine Corps is all about competitiveness,” says Scarfe. “You take a fitness test and your score falls into one of three categories, or you go to the rifle range and you’re a rifleman, marksman, or an expert, and you wear those badges so everyone can see them.” But, he says, “in teaching we don’t have that because we’re afraid to say that somebody is better than somebody else.”

In other words, the Marines understand that a focus on excellence and accountability improves quality rather than undermining it and effective teams don’t shy from acknowledging strengths and weaknesses. Reflecting on being a Marine, the Master Sergeant I talked to eloquently summed up how these elements work together: “I try to live up to [my predecessors’] standards. I love to run through Camp Lejeune or Pendleton at night and just think about the hundreds of guys who walked that road before me.”

We should aspire to talk about public schools in the same way.

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