My classroom has benefitted from military discipline – and pot plants

Teaching English to military professionals who value relationships has been a breath of fresh air, says a former US academic

August 7, 2022
Plants on a windowsill
Source: iStock

Since 2008 I have been a professor and scholar in the US. But in 2020 I left the academic world and accepted a prominent position as an English instructor at an elite American military institution. Near the end of my career, I thought: “What more can I learn?” It turns out – quite a lot.

Here, my students are international officers, both men and women. They study English with the goal of strengthening security cooperation between the US and their countries. For them, English equates with peace.

Some are young, some are old, many are war veterans, a few are colonels and some even generals. They come from more than 100 far-flung nations: from Indonesia to Qatar, Japan to Columbia, Iraq to Montenegro, Niger to Ukraine. All are chosen by their governments to study here because they are gifted and valuable military professionals.

Soldiers come to class in uniform, healthy and alert, with no excuses, no complaints. Instructors address them politely and formally, by rank and name. We are told: “You will follow a strict military protocol and curriculum. Do not detour from our subject matter. Do not discuss religion, war, sex or politics.”

Yet when Russia invaded Ukraine in January, all my students came to class wearing a blue and yellow scarf, tucked discreetly inside the collar of their uniform. “Solidarity to Misha,” said one officer with a big grin and a wink. They wore their scarves until Misha, a Ukrainian officer, deployed back home to serve his country.

I quickly understood that my international soldiers do not resemble mainstream American students. For them, teamwork can be a matter of life or death. And they share similar experiences, ranging from heartbreaking to exhilarating. This allows them to bond and cooperate easily, building an intimate classroom culture.

For example, recently I taught a class consisting of a lieutenant from Mozambique, a major from Iraq, a colonel from Qatar and three jovial Saudi pilots. After everyone had worked through some complex English grammar, they started storytelling.

“Please look, here are my three-year-old twins,” said one of the pilots, offering us a privileged glimpse into his family.

“What adorable little girls,” said the Mozambique lieutenant, pulling out her phone and showing us her brother’s toddler, playing on Beira beach.

“What a delightful child!” an Iraqi major exclaimed. “If only I had such a grandson!” Then he too showed pictures, choosing to highlight a vacation to Alexandria. “Here it was I met my wife 28 years ago,” he said shyly, and we all beamed and congratulated him.

Next, a Qatari colonel pulled up photos of his three white Arab horses. The Saudis were ecstatic as they knew the prince who had sold him the stallion. After praising these horses, the Saudis proudly brought up a video showing recent camel races outside Riyadh and explained how camels are raised for racing or beauty contests. “The longer the lip, the more lovely,” one of them said, smiling and pulling his lower lip down to explain. The Mozambican lieutenant laughed delightedly and said she hoped one day to meet a pretty camel.

She had remained positive despite struggling for weeks and failing our very tough proficiency exam four times. On a subsequent day, when she finally passed, the entire class stood up and applauded her for several minutes. After the lunch break, the Qatari colonel brought in an elegant strawberry shortcake to reinforce her victory. This was not unusual: in all my classes, the officers took turns bringing in coffee and sweets. This was another way they built community. “We have only a short time here on Earth,” said the Iraqi major. “Why not share food among friends?”

Clearly, military professionals value relationships. They also upgraded my classroom environment. Initially, the room was bare except for the standard posters depicting grammar, helicopters and warships. But then pot plants began appearing on the windowsill.

“We practically live here with you,” the Mozambican lieutenant explained.

“Teacher, plants give oxygen and loveliness. You give us words and knowledge,” added one of the Saudi pilots.

“Smart soldiers know that living well is breathing easily and finding beauty everywhere,” added another.

How could I have known that these tough soldiers, trained to fight and defend their homeland, would embody the three crucial factors educators try to teach anyone from pre-K toddlers to PhD candidates: respect and take care of yourself, your classroom and your classmates.

Their backgrounds and training are obviously a world away from that of standard US college students. But would it not be rather dismal to conclude that their mixture of discipline and humanity can only be forged in military conflict?

The author has chosen to remain anonymous.

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