A different call of duty for some greater Williamsburg school teachers

Where education and military service intersect, you'll find a special kind of teacher: Someone whose exposure to strict discipline shapes classroom methods and teaching philosophies, and someone called to public service more than once in his or her life.

"It kind of makes you view the world differently," said Sandy Layman, a special education teacher at J. Blaine Blayton Elementary and veteran of the U.S. Coast Guard.

Layman is among several local teachers who have served in various branches of the military, representing schools across a region with a heavy military influence. According to the Census Bureau's 2012 American Community Survey, Williamsburg is home to about 950 veterans, James City County is home to almost 9,000 and York County is home to more than 10,000. That's about 21 percent of the total population, excluding active duty personnel.

A study commissioned by Troops to Teachers, a Department of Defense program that helps military personnel make the transition to teaching, found that veterans who become teachers meet the same benchmarks that civilian teachers – those with a more typical background in education – are meeting. The study, released in March, was conducted by researchers from Old Dominion University in Norfolk and based on student assessments and surveys of principals.

"Troops teachers are effective instructors, are likely to work in high-poverty, high-minority schools, teach critical subjects, use research-based instructional and classroom management practices, and plan to stay in the profession longer than traditionally prepared teachers with the same years of teaching experience," the report found.

USA Today reported in January 2013 that many young veterans are choosing to become teachers after returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. Programs such as Military.com's Passport to Teaching are available to help them. The New York Post reported last November year that Teach for America – an organization that retrains experienced people to be classroom teachers – saw a dramatic increase in the number of applications it received from veterans between 2009 and 2012.

Pathways to the classroom

A common thread among local teachers is the indirect pathways that led to the classroom.

Bob Howell, a social studies teacher at Jamestown High School for the past 10 years, served six years in the U.S. Navy beginning in 1967. Later, after many years of working in the oil industry and owning his own business, he chose the "career switch" program at Old Dominion to become a teacher.

"I can't oversell that career switcher program enough," said Howell, 66. "I wish people would learn about it and hear about it. It's a big deal."

Nancy Lassiter, a reading specialist and English teacher who will enter her fourth year at Toano Middle School this year, had a similar experience. After receiving an honorable discharge from the U.S. Army, Lassiter, now 45 and a single mother of two, worked in management for a Fortune 500 company for several years before pursuing a career in real estate and owning a children's day care business. Now, she says, she loves the middle school environment.

"You never know what the day is going to bring you," she said. "Middle school is so dynamic, it's so fun. I'm not one for the same thing every day, so it just fits."

Layman, inspired in part by her father's Coast Guard career, joined in 1992 and rose to the rank of coxswain. She worked as a boarding officer, enforcing U.S. laws along the coastline. Her experiences included rescuing people who were attempting to reach the U.S. by boat through international waters. She also tried a few different jobs before she joined and found fulfillment in teaching.

"Everything shapes everything," said Layman, who is 46. Her husband, Special Agent Doug Layman, is still on active duty with the Coast Guard Investigative Service. "I feel like the Coast Guard was definitely part of that web that led to teaching and definitely added to my character and who I am as a person," Sandy Layman added.

Before she became a teacher, retired Lt. Cmdr. Carolyn Petrina spent 15 years on active duty in the Navy. She piloted jets and spent time on active duty at the Pentagon, then served in the Reserves.

She flew reconnaissance missions around the time of the war in Bosnia in the early 1990s. Her path to Providence Classical School, where she has taught physics, pre-calculus and calculus, earth science and algebra for the past two years, also included time spent selling nutritional supplements.

"Once you finish with the military, it's like, 'Now what do I do?'" said Petrina, 50. "I didn't know what my likes and dislikes were. I started researching. You do community outreach that you've never had time to do. You do volunteer work. You find your niche."

Practical applications

Petrina now translates her experience flying jet planes into lessons on trajectory, aircraft design, engineering and mathematics.

"It gives me the chance to share with the students that this is an important concept because you will use this," she said. Petrina's husband, Gil Petrina, is a retired lieutenant colonel in the Air Force. "I typically spend all my time talking about the things they will really need and use. I prepare every one of them like they're going to get a science degree."