Monday, August 01, 2005 | Anyone who has ever changed careers knows how hard the transition can be. Moving into a new role with unfamiliar tasks and responsibilities can shake one’s sense of personal competence.

Imagine the culture shock experienced by James Palkie, a senior Navy pilot who had led a team of 300 highly trained airmen, when he became an elementary school teacher in charge of 20 wiggly third graders. Given his prior career accomplishments, Palkie thought he’d command immediate attention and respect. “That misconception lasted about 20 minutes,” he laughs.

Palkie has since gained recognition, and a profound sense of personal satisfaction, for his success at teaching young children to read. “Leadership in the military is about the care and feeding of the troops,” says Palkie. “In the classroom, it’s all about doing right by kids.”

The former pilot got into teaching through Troops to Teachers, a federally funded program designed to help separating or retiring military personnel pursue careers in education. The program guides applicants through the sometimes complicated teacher credentialing process and facilitates their recruitment by school districts. Since its inception in 1994, more than 4,000 TTT participants have been hired in our nations’ public schools.

The San Diego branch of TTT is attacking the critical shortage of math, science and special education teachers in the county. Local coordinator Kawanda McLendon does monthly outreach to all of the region’s military bases. She tells her audiences about alternative credentialing programs that can get someone with a bachelor’s degree into a classroom job in as little as six to 12 months. During her two years with the program, she’s placed over 30 people.

“School districts love our candidates,” says McLendon. “They tend to be more ethnically diverse than the current population of teachers, and we have more males.” She says another key selling point is the 80 percent retention rate of TTT placements, which is much higher than the average for other candidates.

San Diego was host to the California Troops to Teachers’ first annual “Teachers of the Year” ceremony, held on May 21 (Armed Forces Day). Nominations were submitted by school principals around the state. Finalists were selected by a committee of education, business and military leaders. James Palkie, the former Navy pilot, was chosen as the elementary school winner. Other winners were Ed Brown (high school), Charles James (middle school) and Larry Smith (vocational education).

As a member of the Teacher of the Year screening committee, I had the pleasure of reading several applications and was uniformly impressed. In essay after essay, the applicants spoke of the importance of integrity, teamwork and perseverance, as well as their commitment to the goal of ensuring that all students learn according to established standards.

The Troops to Teachers’ slogan – Proud to Serve Again – captures the true spirit of this valuable program. Anyone interested in learning more can contact Kawanda McLendon at

Susan Wolking is executive director of the Girard Foundation, which has provided millions of dollars for K-12 programs in San Diego County over the last 18 years.

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