Eastside teachers step in boots of Marine recruits at San Diego workshop

They’re used to issuing commands in their classrooms or on the athletic field all day during the school year.

But one group of 17 Eastside and Seattle-area teachers last week was on the receiving end of the orders as they spent their week in a place few educators have ventured before — boot camp.

And not just any boot camp, but the San Diego boot camp of the Marine Corps, arguably the most rigorous of the branches of the U.S. military.

The U.S. Marine Corps Educators Workshop, held 12 times per year, gives teachers a five-day taste of what it would be like to be to be an 18-year-old Marine Corps recruit, fresh out of high school, going through the most grueling 13-week period of their lives.

The idea behind the workshop is for teachers to have a better understanding of what students who have an interest in joining the military after high school will go through, so that they are able to educate the future Marines from personal experience on what’s in store for them.

“I have a lot of seniors and several students who told me they were going in the Marines,” explained Issaquah High School math and personal finance teacher Kathleen Myers.

Additionally, the workshop gives teachers the potential to do a bit of career counseling in the future — many of the teachers, such as Kelly McLaurin of Kenmore’s Inglemoor High School, said that they were now better-prepared to pick out which students might be best-suited for a military career, and that now they may suggest this career choice to such students.

“I came down to learn more about the Marines and if it would be a good option for my students,” said McLaurin, who teaches Spanish and ELL.

“There is a certain type of individual that has the necessary qualities it takes to become a Marine, only some of which show up on the high school transcript,” said Abby Durrett, who teaches English and CTE at Tahoma High School in Maple Valley. “An educator is one who can recognize these qualities in a young person, such as determination, humility, courage, and integrity.”

“It makes me think, ‘How can I be more effective as an educator?’” said Bethany Shoda, who teaches U.S. history at Lake Washington High School in Kirkland.

The week was called a “workshop,” but it was no typical work conference of being shuffled between seminars in different classrooms or hotel conference rooms. Instead, teachers were pushed to their physical limits taking part in the same training that a Marine recruit would undergo, out in the hot sun of the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego and at Camp Pendleton just north of the city.

The “recruits” took part in the Marines’ Combat Fitness Test, which includes tests such as running 880 yards, lifting 30-pound cans of ammo, crawling and performing push-ups. They climbed up obstacles, dropped into nets below and balanced their way on a walk across a tightrope bridge while holding only a rope up above.

The teachers teamed up in small groups to perform simulated challenges, such as dropping a grenade over an electric fence and running away before it explodes and carrying a wounded comrade across a tightrope bridge. A favorite challenge for many of the educators was getting to shoot M16 rifles alongside some of the world’s best marksmanship instructors.

“I was scared to come but I’m glad I did,” Myers said, laughing, “There’s nothing like lifting a 30-lb. can of ammo over your head to show you how out of shape you are.”

The challenges that the participants faced were not only physical, however. To make the experience as close to that of recruits as possible, the drill instructors spoke to them in orders, to which they answered, “Aye-aye, sir,” “Yes, sir” and “No, sir.” Marching was done to the tune of “Left — left — left, right, left.” As soon as they stepped off the bus on to the historic yellow footprints, they were shouted at in a simulation (albeit a toned-down one) of what actual recruits hear upon their arrival at the Recruit Depot.

“The discipline and yelling isn’t meant to make people feel like they’re nothing, but to teach them the particular skills to be used in combat,” Shoda observed. “It’s all challenging, but challenging in a way that’s fulfilling.”

It is not necessarily the fear of the intense training that keeps students from joining the Marines, however — teachers agreed that there is often a stigma associated with kids who choose to join the military right after high school, such as that they are not smart or disciplined enough to continue their studies at college.

“There’s a stigma that the military is for troubled kids … but going out with these guys, they’re so intelligent,” said Lake Washington teacher Jessica Orndorff. “[The Marines’] core values emphasize that kind of behavior.”

Orndorff and Shoda said that far from being a last resort for troubled youth, the ideal Marine recruit is smart, responsible, respectful and ambitious. Shoda said that all week she had had “three [former] students in mind” who would have been an ideal fit for the Marines, as they possessed the traits of “self-discipline, intelligence and flexibility.”

“I can think of several [students] who really only see college as the only option, whereas they’d probably thrive and mature a lot in a community like this before going to college,” said Jessica Orndorff, who also teaches at Lake Washington, referencing a student who has a fascination with aeronautics and wants to become an astronaut.

The educators learned that enlisting in the Marine Corps and pursuing a college education do not have to be mutually exclusive; on the contrary, the military provides many opportunities for soldiers to advance their education in a more financially feasible way. For instance, the post-9/11 G.I. Bill gives military members full tuition at public schools and up to $18,077.50 per year at private schools.

“It opened my eyes to the different educational opportunities” offered by the Marines, said P.E. teacher Ashley Gambrill of Hazen High School in Renton.

“I found out there are a lot of opportunities [for education] … and I’m all about education and learning,” Myers said.

For those who have family members in the military — such as Shoda, whose grandfather served in World War II, Korea and Vietnam — the workshop represented an enlightening chance to walk in the footsteps of their relatives.

“I’ve always felt a real connection to that side … I wanted to learn more about it,” Shoda said.

“It really did change my whole view about the military,” Myers said, noting that she had called her husband on the phone and apologized to him for discouraging him from joining the Army decades ago.

Perhaps the most rewarding experience of the week for the educators was getting to have lunch — or “chow,” as it’s called in the military — with young recruits and to see firsthand the fine character qualities of the future Marines. For Myers, meeting the recruits meant a reunion with a former student, Derek Fletcher, who joined the military after graduating Issaquah High. Like all recruits, Fletcher is without phone or internet access for the duration of boot camp, and so cannot contact his family for three months. However, Myers took a photo with her former student and sent it via text message to his mother.

“He had so much confidence and discipline,” Myers said. “His mother can be very proud.”

Eastside teachers step in boots of Marine recruits at San Diego workshop
Eastside teachers step in boots of Marine recruits at San Diego workshop
Eastside teachers step in boots of Marine recruits at San Diego workshop
Eastside teachers step in boots of Marine recruits at San Diego workshop
Eastside teachers step in boots of Marine recruits at San Diego workshop
Eastside teachers step in boots of Marine recruits at San Diego workshop
Eastside teachers step in boots of Marine recruits at San Diego workshop
Eastside teachers step in boots of Marine recruits at San Diego workshop