John Hill always wanted to teach math. It was the U.S. Army that prepared him for the classroom.
Hill remembers the welcome he received his first day at Star Spencer High School in November 2009. He was the fifth teacher those students had that year.
“I had a student tell me, the first day, that they didn't have to listen to me because I wouldn't be there in a week and they were going to get rid of me,” Hill said. “I told the kid, ‘I will be here when you graduate.'”
The student graduated last spring.
“I was on the stage when he graduated,” Hill said. “When he walked by he gave me a thumbs-up, saying, ‘You know, you did, you stuck it out with me.'”
Hill, 49, joined the Army in 1988 as a way to try to finish his degree after dropping out of college. He spent more than four years on active duty. Then he joined the Army Reserve for what he thought would be a few years; he ended up spending 19 years there as a drill sergeant.
“I had dropped out of college and couldn't decide what I wanted to do. I know that sounds horrible, but that is the truth,” he said. “I couldn't decide what I was going to do and I wasn't going anywhere in life, and the military offered me that opportunity to settle down, get my mind straight and get on a right path.”
A retired Army first sergeant, Hill began his teaching career in 1996 while he still was a drill sergeant.
He was a paraprofessional in an Oklahoma City Public School alternative middle school in the school's military component.
After graduating from the University of Oklahoma in 2008 with a bachelor's degree in math, Hill was trying to figure out how to earn his alternative teaching certification.
That's when he stumbled across the Troops to Teachers program.
Hill became a math teacher with Advanced Academics, an online school, teaching students on a one-on-one basis.
That job inspired him to go back into the classroom — this time to teach math.
“I really missed the face-to-face interaction with the kids, being in the classroom with the kids, and I decided I was going to go back to a classroom,” Hill said. “One of my former co-workers was at Star Spencer and she called me, and she told me ‘Hey, we have a math position open here. You should come out here and apply.'”
Hill set high expectations for his classroom.
“I actually relied very heavily on my experience as a drill sergeant when I went into the classroom at Star Spencer,” Hill said. “I think my experience as a drill sergeant and not expecting anything less than the standard that I set forth before them ... I think that's what helped me survive out there.”
This school year, Hill is moving to Southeast High School to be closer to home and to his wife, who is disabled.
“I loved my time at Star Spencer,” he said. “When I first went out there, I thought, ‘Uh, this will be a year or two type thing,' but the hardest thing in the world was for me to leave.”
Making the grade
The Troops to Teachers program in Oklahoma began in 1995 and currently has about 280 full-time teachers in classrooms, state Director Shelby Satterfield said.
“Our program goes and visits the bases and we recruit military people with (at least bachelor's) degrees, put them through the alternative certification process and basically put them in the classroom,” he said.
The program offers veterans a $5,000 stipend to help them earn their alternative certification and the possibility of a $10,000 bonus for teaching at an at-need school for three years, Satterfield said.
“It is a great program for veterans,” Satterfield said.
And for the schools.
“We put more minorities in the classroom. We put more males in the classroom,” he said, “and our troops stay longer in the classroom than a lot of regular teachers.”