Helping Military Spouses Serve in the Classroom

Posted February 13, 2015

By Kelly Weatherby-Pennisi

Kelly Weatherby-Pennisi is a 2004 Teach For America–Houston alumna who is on staff at Teach For America and concurrently pursuing her Ed.S. in school psychology at Seattle University. She and her husband, SGT Adam Pennisi, are stationed at Joint Base Lewis-McChord and reside in Tacoma, Washington. They are expecting their first baby in May.

Military spouses play a vital role in serving and strengthening our country. They support our service members and manage households single-handedly during deployments – all while facing the fear, anxiety, and loneliness that come with knowing one’s spouse is in a dangerous and faraway place. There’s an adage that being a spouse is the hardest job in the military. Maybe that is a bit of an overstatement, but it ain’t nothing.

Given the culture of service which military spouses choose to enter into, it’s not surprising that the vast majority want to give back to their country even more – through employment. According to a report published last year by the Institute for Veterans and Military Families, an overwhelming 90 percent of military spouses say they want to work; 50 percent say they “need” to work. Combine this motivation with their leadership, patriotism, grit, and cross-cultural experience, and it’s clear that military spouses have much to contribute to our nation’s classrooms.

Military spouses are a strong source of classroom leaders – if only our system were set up to support them.

According to a 2013 Military Spouse study, 90 percent of military spouses report being underemployed or overqualified for the jobs that they hold. The portable lifestyle of spouses is a significant factor in this discrepancy. They are an intelligent and educated group, but it’s hard to start or maintain a career when uprooting every few years – or more frequently – to accommodate a spouse’s transfer.

Imagine what it would look like to encourage military spouses to teach by creating interstate licensure agreements that would make their career portable. Currently, teacher certification credentials earned in one state are often not readily recognized by another state. This is a huge obstacle for teachers who are married to service members, and prevents bringing more military spouses into America’s public school classrooms.

By changing those policies to allow for state-to-state reciprocity, we could welcome a new cadre of teachers into the profession while also addressing the concerns that military spouses have voiced to us. Military spouses are among the most courageous and dedicated people I have had the privilege to know, and the same skill sets that allow them to be the backbones of their families would serve them well as teachers.

Much of my time is divided between my community at Joint Base Lewis-McChord – where I live with my husband SGT Adam Pennisi – and my community at Teach For America, where I began my career in education as a Houston ’04 corps member. Both communities have led me to believe deeply that working for public education is among the most important ways that we can serve our nation. A well-educated citizenry is critical to participatory government as well as a safe country and thriving economy. Public education has been identified as a national security priority for over thirty years, and it’s time we work to make teaching accessible to those with the talent and commitment to do it well.

I’m extraordinarily grateful to the many individuals and organizations who’ve come together to help military veteran and spouses get the jobs they’ve earned. On February 17-18, the American Legion is hosting a National Credentialing Summit in our nation’s capital to bring together experts from the private and nonprofit sectors, the Armed Forces, and federal agencies to share best practices for credentialing and enhancing civilian career prospects for veterans, service members, and military spouses. I applaud them for leading this critical conversation and am humbled that Teach For America will play a role in exploring how we can better serve spouses in the classroom.

Military spouses are integral members of the military community, and they deserve their nation’s support. By enacting teacher licensure policies that would make teaching a more portable career, we could create opportunities for us to strengthen and grow our teaching force while simultaneously providing a valuable career option for military spouses. I hope you’ll join me to help turn this possibility into a reality.