By Rudi Williams
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Aug. 14, 2002 Calling the “National Teacher of the Year” a wonderful award, Chauncey Veatch said he’s “a little uncomfortable” about winning because “I have my reward every day as a teacher.”
The Southern Californian recently spoke to more than 350 principals, teachers, counselors, parents, administrators and military personnel at the 4th annual Military Child Education Coalition conference in San Antonio, Texas.
Veatch said the award may be wonderful, but, “It still doesn’t top the day-to-day opportunity I have to work as a teacher in our community.”
After retiring from the Army as a lieutenant colonel in 1995, he ventured into the teaching through the Troops to Teachers program. Veatch, who is fluent in Spanish, is a social studies teacher at Coachella Valley High School, Thermal, Calif., where more than 80 percent of his students are children of migrant farm workers. In the summer months, the children tend and pick grapes near Bakersfield and Fresno.
President Bush presented him the national award in a White House Rose Garden ceremony, Veatch said. But he emphasized that the biggest honor was for his students none of whom were born in the United States to meet the president with him.
The award has given his community pride, and the education world is learning more about the military and Department of Defense schools, he said. “People are also learning about what our children go through as we move from post to post and from assignment to assignment,” he noted.
Noting that military-connected students have special challenges, Veatch pointed out that the children share in America’s defense as they and their families serve the country as they move around the globe.
“It’s a world that I’m happy to share with the rest of America. It’s also a world I believe the rest of Americans need to know about and to learn more about,” said the former infantryman and Medical Service Corps officer. The son of a retired Army lieutenant colonel, Veatch said he joined the Army in 1968 out of patriotism.
He puts teaching at the top of the list of patriotic jobs in America. “There’s nothing more fundamental in a democracy for our survival than an educated and literate public. Without (that), the rest is meaningless,” said Veatch, who followed his brother and sister into teaching. “So, it’s among the most patriotic endeavors that one can engage in.”
He encourages service members who are about to retire to consider teaching. “Our children need you,” Veatch said. He described in two words how his military experience helps him as a teacher leadership and service.
He pointed out the military is public service. So is teaching, he said, so it was an easy shift for him from a uniform to becoming a teacher. The Army, he said, also provided him “endless leadership opportunities.” Again, his role switch was effortless teachers are leaders in the classroom, he said, and those really doing their jobs as teachers are leaders in the community.
He said the military gave him “the gift” of Spanish language fluency by sending him to the Defense Language Institute at the Presidio of Monterey, Calif., and then to assignments in Spanish-speaking countries.
The product of a military family, Veatch started school in kindergarten in Hanau, Germany, and graduated from Frankfurt American High School. He earned his bachelor’s degree at the University of the Pacific and a doctorate from the University of Notre Dame. He’s also a graduate of the Army Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., and attended the Octavio Paz Center for Latin American Studies in Guadalajara, Mexico.
A teacher in a predominantly Hispanic community, Veatch said, “Kids are kids are kids, just as I was when I was a Department of Defense school student and in public schools in the United States. The parents of my students have the same dreams as parents everywhere have for their children a better life and a life of opportunity to achieve even beyond what their parents have achieved.”
His involvement with students goes beyond the classroom. A Catholic, Veatch said he attend his students’ church rather than the one closest to home. “It’s wonderful to get to know their families better and to spend time with them,” he said.
“When I was at the White House, three Army captains came up to me and said, ‘You’re our hero,”” the nation’s top teacher said. “I said, ‘I’d love for you to come to where I teach and meet my heroes.’”
Veatch said he teaches social studies to 10th to 12th graders and a freshman class called “career prep.” In that prep class are boys and girls who became parents in the eighth grade, who spent time in juvenile hall, and who’ve had trouble with gangs or drugs.
“I also asked the special education department to send me any students they want to because I’m a mainstream teacher who wants special ed students,” Veatch said. “I believe that they also can achieve. One- third of all my classes are always students from our special education program. And with the space left, I ask for those whose reading scores in English are the lowest in the entering class.
“Let me tell you what these wonderful students have accomplished,” Veatch told the audience. “On history day, one of our four-member teams included a special ed student who didn’t start speaking English until the 5th grade and one who didn’t start until the 8th grade. They defeated the advanced placement and honor students at our school, won at the district and county levels and finished second at the state level. They were also runners-up for the national competition in history day.”
He had to pause for thundering applause before continuing. “I really believe in culture and the arts,” said Veatch, who always invites the parents to the events. “I think most military people do. We see destruction, and we appreciate and respect those who are creators because that’s what we want as an end to war and a world that lives in peace. Our creators are the ones who bring it there.”
Veatch attributes his award to the achievements of his students. “There’s not a single thing in my classroom that has my name on it or that tells anything about my past,” he noted. “My wall is full of their achievements, everything that has their names on it. We spend the day focusing on their todays and their tomorrows.”
Over the years, he said, teachers of the year have been asked for a theme, and one talked about qualified teachers, another talked about teacher recruitments.
“I’m talking about recruitment, but my theme is, ‘Public Education Truly Is in Great Shape,’” he said. “It’s a great marvel. There’s no place else on the globe or time of history where a country’s goal is to educate every child in a public school. What a marvel. And how many miracles take place by teachers I know and teachers I’m meeting in our educational system.”
Teaching is a profession where the awards are limitless, “but the pay isn’t,” Veatch said with a hearty laugh. “You ask any child who has impacted their life outside their family, more than likely, it’s going to be some teacher.
“If you’d like to be a part of America’s tomorrows, I can think of nothing better than to become a teacher today.”