Written by Dr. Gail L. Thompson on September 17, 2018
In August 2018, I was blessed to conduct four hours of professional development for school leaders, teachers, and staff of the Lewis Center for Educational Research (LCER). The LCER oversees two charter schools: Norton Science and Language Academy in San Bernardino, California, and the Academy for Academic Excellence (AAE) in Apple Valley, California.
During the morning break, several individuals came up to me to ask questions or to comment on my presentation. One of these individuals was a middle-aged African American man. After he walked away, Lisa Lamb, the President and CEO of the LCER, began to rave about him. She informed me that George Armstrong lll is not only a highly-decorated retired Air Force Colonel—recipient of many awards (including “Instructor of the Year” for multiple years, and a “2015 Dreamers, Visionaries and Leaders Lifetime Achievement Honoree”), and founder of the AAE’s Junior ROTC program—but he’s also a “turnaround educator”: a life-changing, powerful, teacher who has made a positive impact on hundreds of high school students.
In this article, I would like to share highlights from the one-hour telephone interview that I conducted with Colonel Armstrong. During this interview, the 69-year-old Colonel described his upbringing, schooling and impactful life experiences, teaching and Air Force careers, views about race relations in the U.S., and shared advice for students, teachers, and school leaders.
Although he was born in New Brunswick, NJ, because his father was in the Army and often stationed abroad, Colonel Armstrong spent most of his upbringing outside of the U.S. According to the Colonel:
“I lived all over the world: Paris, Denmark, Germany, Thailand, England. I lived outside of this country 17 and a half years. Even though I was splitting schools, a lot of the schools that I went to were Department of Defense Schools on military bases. They always hired the best teachers. So, I was moving from one good school to another good school. By the time that I got to ninth grade and back to the United States, I already had good study habits and decent grades.”
Tracking and Low Expectations: Two Impactful Schooling Experiences
Although he returned to the U.S. with a strong academic record, when Armstrong enrolled in a high school in New Brunswick, he was subjected to institutional racism that surfaced through low expectations, academic tracking, an unfair grading system, and exclusion from the National Honor Society. These problems stemmed from unconscious biases and low expectations from a school counselor, a teacher, and other school leaders. He explained:
“In high school, I noticed that most of the minority students were in the lower classes and not getting good grades, and here I come along, getting good grades. The upper classes were the white people classes, pretty much.
I showed up from Germany, and the Guidance Counselor thought, ‘Here’s another Black student.’ I didn’t know this at the time, but later on my dad became a Guidance Counselor at the same high school, so he found out some things that had been going on when I was going there.
The Guidance Counselor put me in all the lower classes, and my grades were even better than they were when I came from Germany. It was easy for me. I guess that strategy didn’t work for that Guidance Counselor. The next year, he put me in all the high-end classes, because he figured that I’d just fail. And I did struggle in Biology because I got thrown from a really easy class to a hard class, and that took me a little bit of adapting. But I finally ended up getting a B in Biology for the year. I did great in all of my other classes, except for Typing.
The Typing teacher said, ‘I don’t know how you’re going to pass this class,’ and sure enough I failed it that semester. I did not know why. I would have failed the next semester but the only way I passed was that we ended up having a Student Teacher who couldn’t give Fs. Again, I found out later on through my dad, that this Typing teacher failed every Black student he had. That’s what he did. So, I dodged a bullet there by getting a Student Teacher at the right time.”
In spite of these negative experiences, Armstrong became the first African American member of the National Honor Society (NHS) at his high school. However, this only happened after he brought the exclusionary practices that had previously barred African Americans from the NHS, to the attention of the school principal. Today, in his current position, Armstrong works with the AAE’s NHS, and shares his personal NHS stories with cadets.
A Career in the Air Force
After graduating high school, the Colonel had no specific “career path,” but at his father’s insistence, he enrolled in Rutgers University. During freshman year, an ROTC presentation convinced him that joining the Air Force would allow him to fly airplanes. When Armstrong graduated from college, he had a teaching and chemistry degree, and “Second Lieutenant Bars.” His decision to eventually become a teacher stemmed from an experience that he’d had in high school:
“The thing that got me into a career the most was we had “Senior Teach Day”: a day in high school where a senior gets with one of their teachers and the students taught the class; I got with my Algebra 2 teacher and I taught Algebra 2 all day long. At the end of the day, one of the students walked up and said, “I learned more from you than the regular teacher.” I said, “Uh oh! I got something going on here.” It just was natural to me, so I said, “Let me look into teaching.”
During his 27 years in the Air Force, Armstrong flew planes, and completed Navigator Training and Pilot Training. Despite this, he was always looking for teaching opportunities because he had planned on teaching after the Air Force. “I always thought, ‘The minute I get passed over for promotion, I’m going to teach,'” he said. “But I always got promoted, all the way to colonel.”
While in the Air Force, Armstrong was actually able to use his teaching degree by teaching in a flight simulator course, and also by teaching a university course for his last five years in the military.
“I was Dean at one of the schools. We were teaching top secret stuff. So, I was doing that for most of the time. I did that intentionally because when I got promoted to Full Colonel, I said, “Well, I could go for General or I could teach.” That’s where I learned to run my current class like it’s a military classroom. Young teenagers need a little discipline. Some of them won’t admit it, but that’s what they need.”
Teaching High School and Leading the Junior ROTC Program
In 1998, after the Colonel retired from the Air Force, he decided to pursue his teaching passion full time. From 1999 to 2007, he taught Geometry, Algebra 1, Algebra 2, and Chemistry at AAE, and even served as the Math Department Chair. But in 2007, he was able to merge his Air Force training and teaching skills together by implementing a Junior ROTC Program at the high school. Today, he serves as the senior aerospace science instructor for the school’s Air Force Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps.
During the program’s first year, 38 students became cadets. Since then, approximately 1,000 students have participated in the award-winning program. In 2011, Armstrong received the “Outstanding Air Force Junior ROTC Instructor of the Year” award. During the current school year, more than 100 students are enrolled. “The whole goal of the program is to make them better citizens,” he said. “They learn a lot of soft skills that we don’t teach anymore, such as interviewing for a job [understanding and respecting] the chain of command, and citizenship.”
Armstrong also emphasizes the importance of selecting a career path as soon as possible, the benefits of joining the military, and encourages the students to endeavor to earn at least a Bachelor’s degree after high school. In explaining why he continues to teach high school at an age when many former teachers are enjoying retirement, Armstrong says:
“At 69, I’m old enough to be their grandad, but I still want to get up everyday and go to work. A lot of students can’t wait to come to my class. For a lot of them, my class is the best class of the day. That gives them a reason to come to school. That’s why a lot of them actually come to school. I look out into the classroom and there are people there that want what I’m giving out, that are willing. They’re buying into it, so I have to do it for them. There are some who don’t want to be there, but I have to work on them, too.”
Advice to Students
When asked to summarize the advice that students need, Armstrong shared the following three points:
- A lot of doors get slammed in your face. It happens, so don’t let it bother you! A lot of times it’s because of the color of your skin. There’s no doubt about that, because it happened to me in the Air Force and before. Don’t let it bother you. If that door slams in your face, somewhere else there’s another open door, or there’s an open window. You just have to find it. Don’t get bitter; start looking for another way in.
- Be proactive. That’s what I’m always telling them. You want to get up every morning and come to school, and even now, I want to get up and come to work.
- When you see that opportunity, you have to jump on it, because it’s there. You may think that it’s not there, but you just have to look for it. It may be bad timing; you may have to do something you weren’t planning on doing, but if the opportunity is there, you have to go for it, because you may not get another one.
Armstrong’s hard work with students has paid off. Many of his former students keep in touch with him, and each week, he invites them to come back as guest speakers for his current students. Among other successful outcomes, some of his former students have become Commissioned Officers, Pentagon Guides, gotten full scholarships for college, or gone into the Air Force Academy.
Advice to Teachers
- Don’t give up—you can reach your students! You can reach the most troubled student if you just work at it. Keep working at it. Build a relationship. Just don’t give up on them. I’ve seen it where teachers just pass students on, or send them to another school, but instead try to help them out. They’ve all got some merit, skill, or something. There’s something they can do. We just have to find it, and point them in the right direction. If we can get them to buy in, if we can get them to be enthusiastic about a career path, then they’ll take it from there. They’ll do whatever it takes to get there, once they really really believe in it. Somehow, teachers have to get them to do this. I know it’s tough.
Advice to School Leaders
- You’ve got to let your people do their thing. I learned this a lot when I was in the military. Yes, you are the commander. You’re in charge, and you’re the one that gets into trouble if things go down, but you can’t do it all yourself. You have to let your people do it. So, a school leader has to let the teachers teach and the school run. They have to be on top of things, but they have to let people do their job. You can’t micromanage all of the time. It’s really burdensome.
Impactful Life Experiences and Race Relations
In addition to being subjected to academic tracking, low expectations, and initially being excluded from joining the National Honor Society at his high school, Armstrong has had numerous other impactful life experiences. Most of them involved racism, including racist practices that remain prevalent in the Armed Forces, especially the exclusion of African Americans from high levels of command. However, the death of his mother was, undoubtedly, the greatest tragedy that he has experienced:
“My dad, George A. Armstrong Jr., wrote four books, including Boots and the Hurricane, which is available on Amazon Kindle. He wrote it after my mom died from Hurricane Katrina. No one should have died in that part of New Orleans. According to my dad, the hurricane had already come through. It was the next morning when the levies gave out. The 17th Street Levy near where they lived gave out. That caused the house to flood. My dad tried to save my mom’s life; he couldn’t, and she drowned. He managed to save his own life at the last minute. My sister, my brother, and my niece were all there, too, and they all had to be evacuated.”
Armstrong also said that although some racial progress has occurred in the U.S., he is disappointed that so little has been done in society, schools, and the military. “When I was growing up, I thought, ‘We’re going to make a lot of progress!’ We’ve made some progress, but not enough,” he explained. “We’re still talking some of the same stuff we talked about way back then, which is sad. We could be a whole lot better off.
Regarding barriers that prevent many students from historically underserved groups from getting a good education, Armstrong says, “They have to have the opportunity. A lot of them don’t have the access. A lot of them want this, but they just can’t get to it. It’s way across town, or they can’t afford it, or something like that. There’s some barrier that is holding them back. The strategy is to give them the opportunity.”
Colonel Armstrong is a great role model to students, teachers, school leaders, and parents. Although he is now a senior citizen, he continues to serve our country by empowering youth. His goals of helping students identify a career path as early as possible, understand the benefits of going into the military, learn the importance of “soft skills” as well as the importance of going to college has benefited hundreds of students. But one of his greatest accomplishments is that he finds ways to motivate students to keep attending high school.
The stories that the Colonel shared about his mother’s tragic death, the institutional racism that he’s experienced, and the advice that he shared for students, teachers, and school leaders contain practical and powerful lessons. In addition to this interview, the following questions can be used for Professional Development in schools:
- What strategies do you use to ensure that all students, regardless of racial background, have access to a rigorous curriculum and high-level academic courses?
- What strategies are used at your school to ensure that students are not subjected to low expectations?
- What strategies are used at your school to ensure that students are not subjected to unfair grading practices stemming from unconscious biases by teachers?
- What strategies are used at your school to ensure that students are not subjected to racial profiling through unfair discipline practices and policies?
- How can teachers and school leaders use this interview to improve the schooling experiences of students from historically underserved groups?
- How can teachers and school leaders use this interview to improve policies and practices at their school site?
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