Disabled Military Veteran and Instructor: Making Sense of an Uncertain Activity

Disabled Military Veteran and Instructor: Making Sense of an Uncertain Activity

William T. Howe
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-7998-9000-3.ch007
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In this chapter, the author details personal experiences of transitioning from the military to the college classroom and offers practical advice for interacting with both students and other faculty members in the academy. The author provides practical advice that veteran instructors could use in the classroom as well as when communicating with other faculty members. The author also proposes that those with disabilities be open with both students and faculty members when the disability may impact instructor performance so that accommodations can be made, or awareness can be raised to help the instructor be successful. Using poetry, much of which was written by war veterans, the author attempts to expose the civilian reader to the military mindset so they may have a better understanding of their colleagues and/or students who are military veterans. The author hopes this chapter can serve as a valuable reference to veterans and/or those with disabilities who seek to teach in the college classroom.
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Soldiers don’t tell war stories anymore Dad,

because wars these days is just about trying to live through them. (Yellowstone, 2021)


My Social Identity And Teaching

In 2016, I taught a first-year college course for the first time. I was determined to change the way students approached their studies. I was determined to bring the Army values I had learned into my classroom. I was determined to demand perfection, discipline, and personal responsibility for all assignments and projects. After all, I had seen individuals of the same age show incredible feats of personal courage, loyalty, and self-sacrifice in the military—why should the university be any different? I walked into class the first day dressed in a suit and tie with my professional looking briefcase and began to lay down the law from my syllabus. I would be unwavering, I would be a force for good, I would be the instructor who changed expectations of the university, I would be … foolish.

What I did not realize as a young instructor was that first-year college students often did not share the same life experiences I did. Receiving my end-of-semester course evaluations was a humbling experience. Students found me to be unapproachable and uncaring. The communication I had used in the military and the leadership style I had learned during service had to be adapted and adapted quickly. To compound these issues was the fact that I had invisible disabilities. Students did not realize that if they told me something in class and I forgot, the reason may be due to my traumatic brain injuries and not because I was dismissive. Students did not realize that if I was grimacing after class it was because my neck, back, and shoulder were on fire from standing for an hour, not from being mean and unapproachable.

But these were often their perceptions, at least according to student evaluations, and these perceptions were a type of rationality which served as their reality. I began to read about how to be more approachable; I took stock of what was important for students to accomplish in the classroom; and I adjusted my communication to meet my students where they were. This process did not happen overnight, but it did happen. In this chapter, I detail my experiences transitioning from the military field to the college classroom and offer practical advice for interacting with both students and other faculty members in the academy. My hope is that this chapter helps veterans and/or those with (in)visible disabilities find ways to communicate these issues to their students while maintaining high academic standards.

In my attempt to offer both practical and theory-driven advice to other military veteran instructors, I must acknowledge other key identity markers which likely influence how students perceive me. I am a straight, white, six-foot-plus man, and as such I may prove intimidating to some college students. Dressing in a suit and tie and carrying a nice briefcase may add to these identity dimensions in how students perceive me. Therefore, I urge readers who identify differently than I do to seek out additional materials (e.g., Howe & Meeks, 2019; Hunniecutt, 2020; van Gilder, 2018; Wilson et al., 2021; Zogas, 2017) to better understand how other identity constructs intersect with veterans and disabilities.

My Perspective as a Military Veteran

Man I'd die for America

I served my time for America

Got shot, shot back went to war

Got back and ain't nobody give a jack in America

I could lost my life, boy I lost my wife

I can't even get right in my homeland

Cold sweats, heart ticks, paranoid

Looking out for a threat in my own land

And I'm still in America

Though America ain't feelin' me

I went to war for this country

Turn around came home and you grillin' me

When y'all free here

Saying you don't wanna be here

Well you probably couldn't breathe here, if I didn't load a couple magazines here

I got a brother in the cemetery now

Cause he wanted y'all safe

Everybody want the freedom but nobody want to hear “About face!”

We bled for America

To keep y'all fed in America

But what’s the point of talkin'? A lot of y'all don't even care, America (Lecrae, 2015)

Key Terms in this Chapter

Military Veteran: Someone who has served in the armed forces of a country.

Post-Traumatic Stress: A common, normal, and adaptive response to a horrific or anxiety inducing event.

Traumatic Brain Injury: A wound to the brain which affects cognitive abilities.

Growth Mindset: The belief that abilities are malleable and not innate.

Moral Foundations Theory: The belief that our actions and communication are often guided by the values we learn from our family, culture, and society.

Communication: A meaning making process which occurs between two or more people.

Disabled: Someone who has a physical or mental condition which limits activities, movements, or senses.

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