By Gabriela Nostro, Esq.
In the Greek myth of Sysiphus, he is condemned to push a rock up a hill. Each time it reached the top, it rolled back down and he had to start over again… forever. Many military spouses can hear that story and immediately draw parallels to their professional experience. Some of you reading this right now are probably torn between smiling in acknowledgment and crying in desperation because, well, the truth hurts sometimes. While I do think there is a lot that public perception gets wrong about military spouses, the camaraderie is as real as corny shows like Army Wives make it seem (with a bit less drama) and spans from understanding our unique lifestyle to the professional challenges we confront regardless of which profession we are in. Most significantly though, I’ve learned that these remarkable spouses that I am proud and humbled to be among don’t stand still watching each other struggle to push up the rock, they jump in to help, and then work to build a wall to get the rock to finally stay at the top.
My first article in this series started to address the scope of licensing issues professional military spouses confront. I promised to deliver three additional articles, each one focusing more thoroughly on a specific field. A career in education has been deemed to be the fourth-best career for military spouses, and I will admit that I always assumed this was an easier licensing process, but my research for this article has revealed many of the challenges of maintaining a career as a teacher and a military spouse. I was initially torn on the tone for this piece, in part because I am not a teacher, but it quickly came to me that just as I was surprised, disappointed and impressed by what I learned, my ultimate objective is to validate teachers by communicating their challenges to a broader audience.
In my research, I discovered a breadth of information far too extensive to include, so I’ll break down my findings into three categories: 1) General Licensing Issues; 2) DoDEA Schools; 3) Other Paths. Intermixed throughout all the sections are first-hand accounts from military spouse teachers who graciously agreed to share their insight with me, and resources and groups that offer support and information.
General Licensing Issues:
Teachers require a series of exams to be licensed, and then a stream of continuing education and fees to stay licensed (the Spouse Licensure Reimbursement program can reimburse up to $1,000 of recertification/relicensing expenses from having to PCS if you qualify). Reciprocity is possible state to state, and while at first glance the reciprocity rules themselves don’t seem as strict as they could be, everything that comes along with a teacher changing state licenses is overwhelmingly burdensome. First, military spouses in any profession have the added inconvenience of tracking their employment from far more employers and states than their counterparts, but more importantly they face a pay imbalance. The National Military Family Association estimates that military spouses earn 26.8% less in income than their non-military counterparts. Licensure aside, teachers need to fight and overcome burdensome paperwork to prove that their years of teaching qualify. From what I gathered, this often leaves military spouse teachers working for less than they deserve because of documentation issues. More seasoned teachers were quick to point out the importance of checking regulations on state retirements and transfers between states when considering retirement because of this very issue.
The other interesting point is that even if the license transfers, specific credentials may not, so it’s not blanket reciprocity. California, for example, has a K-5 multi-subject credential or a 6-12 content-specific credential. An incoming middle school teacher could be potentially left completely out of their element, even with a license that transferred. This is especially problematic when positions are posted for multiple certifications, meaning you’d have to have the exact right mix, on top of the license transference.
I have to believe there is a way for state boards to streamline this process and I hope military spouse teachers can come together and bring this pressure to their respective state boards. Especially considering that although National Board certification is possible, military spouses are inherently at a detriment due to the requirements for consecutive years teaching. At a minimum, there is room for state licensing boards to make a military spouse exception to ease some of those requirements.
If you’re not a military family, chances are you haven’t heard of a DoDEA school. Short for Department of Defense Education Activity, they are fully accredited schools, ranging from elementary to high school, located in certain military bases both stateside and overseas. I didn’t know very much about DoDEA schools, and my assumption was that their very existence made it easy for military spouse teachers to work and stay employed (although military spouse, employment, and easy rarely share a sentence). A quick visit to the DoDEA website and I learned that there are 160 DoDEA schools spread over seven states, 11 countries, and two territories. They estimate about 66,000 military-connected children are enrolled in DoDEA schools, who employ over 8,000 educators. The process for military spouses to be hired into this system, however, seems incredibly arduous.
A military spouse that prefers to stay anonymous sent me this statement: “I’ve had my application in for teaching at DoDEA schools for years now and have updated it and never heard anything even with our PCS coming up. I apply to the counties and I haven’t had a problem finding a job but every state requires different state testing depending on your license so, every time you go to get a new teaching license in a state, you basically start all over. Having schools verify your years of employment with every move is another roadblock because they take forever and it affects your pay because they start you over at the beginning of the pay scale with no years of experience until they get the paperwork from the old counties. It’s frustrating to say the least.”
If you are able to get into the DoDEA system, you can view job postings before they are public, but because of their limited presence in only seven states, it can be extremely difficult to remain within the system while PCSing. Interestingly, DoDEA overseas is staffed via a different application process, making internal hiring moves from stateside to overseas back to stateside not possible. Once out of the DoDEA system, you are back at square one to get back in. Surprisingly, non-local hires reap far greater benefits when hired to teach overseas to include higher salaries and housing allowances. While a military spouse is certainly capable of applying as a non-local hire, they run the risk of separating the family due to different move timelines. The other challenge is the length of the hiring process, which can take close to a year, while the duty assignment of their spouse is routinely only 1-3 years.
While I recognize the incentive for continuity in staffing that non-military spouse teachers provide, there is value to the student population of having teachers that understand and live the military lifestyle. While not a requirement, this shared circumstance shouldn’t be viewed as a detriment, but as an asset. Angela Martin, an Army spouse, explained “I am trying to tackle what seems to be a monumental task of getting on with the DoDEA school in [location overseas]. Trying to verify my employment of up to 23 years ago is always a ridiculous challenge, but could mean the difference in thousands of dollars for where I fall on the pay scale. The fact that districts do not want to employ a seasoned military wife with an extensive amount of experience and hours of professional development that is extremely expensive because we might leave next year is insane to me… as a former principal and instructional coach I would rather have a proficient/distinguished teacher for one year than a teacher that requires max support and coaching for years to come.”
In lieu of being able to work in traditional employment, some military spouse teachers get creative. While subbing or being an aide are possibilities without a license, this is inconsistent income that doesn’t support future career growth, or retirement contributions. Michele, an Air Force military spouse succinctly described her frustrations: “The hardest part for me is not being able to fulfill my calling. It has been really hard. I have reached the limit of education advances I can make moving every two years.”
Despite all these hurdles, I am in complete awe of the spouses I talked to and their tremendous perseverance and creativity. Take Katie Garcia, a Marine Corps spouse who stated, “I found the process of getting re-certified in California to be overly cumbersome and expensive so I decided not to return to the classroom. Once the pandemic hit and many parents found themselves homeschooling I found I could fill a need. I began tutoring on base three mornings per week and, within no time, I was completely booked. I enjoyed the flexibility that came with building my own schedule and choosing which clients to take on. It also helped me keep my teaching skills sharp and continue working with children, which I loved.”
Jeanette Price, a military spouse who has been licensed for eight years across five states and is nationally board certified, decided to start her own blog and promote military spouse education advocacy, Military Spouse Education, to help other military spouses after she successfully used MyCAA for 33 graduate credits: “I am working on building a Facebook group and community with an education focus for military spouses. There are a lot of misconceptions about military spouse education benefits and I’m working to help spouses maximize and get the most out of them. While I am currently focusing on MyCAA for activity duty spouses I will soon be expanding to include DEA Chapter 35 and the GI Bill.”
Two Marine Corps teacher spouses, Katie and Megan, in a conversation about this article, made a suggestion that would help both military families and military spouse teachers. Bases, they hypothesized, could hire a military spouse teacher through the Family Advocacy Office to fill an advocacy role in regard to IEPs, speech and PT transfers, overseas medical clearances, and other challenges we face when PCSing. This position could be process focused while working with individual school liaisons, who are more understandably likely to be local hires. As a military spouse that is also a mom to three kids, and currently facing a second overseas PCS, I know for a fact this would be a great benefit. A Family Advocacy office could easily take this on, helping military families navigate moves without their children having gaps in needed services, or even attend IEP meetings with overwhelmed parents, all while simultaneously offering employment to a perfectly qualified professional, a teacher who is also a military spouse and, therefore, understands the process.
If this seems like an overwhelming amount of information and you need a place to start or just ask a question, consider joining the MilSpouse Network for Teaching Professionals. Composed of teachers across all branches of the military this member-driven group would go a long way to helping anyone from a new teacher to a seasoned one facing her 3,786th PCS move.
Teachers are amazing, and military spouse teachers… you are rock stars. I can’t think of a better way to summarize what I learned than with the sentiments of Kathy, a military spouse of 29 years, full-time teacher of 15, and substitute teacher of seven who sent me this statement: “I definitely think being in different states and districts has helped make me a better teacher. I’m licensed in seven states and have gotten to experience great admin and not-so-great admin, districts that support with supplies, PD, curriculum, etc. and those who have not. Teachers with good attitudes and bad attitudes, Title 1 schools and high SES schools — all of these things have made me better. I’m better trained, more flexible in my thinking, planning, and approaches to curriculum and classroom management. I can think out of the box and apply things I’ve learned along the way from fabulous teacher mentors. Some people think moving and changing schools is a negative because of no consistency but I’ve always highlighted the positives.”
Well, military spouse teachers, here’s what I now know for sure: The ongoing work of this amazing community can get that rock up that hill and make it finally stay there. Take that Sysiphus.
Gabriela Nostro, Esq. is an attorney licensed to practice in NY, DC, and NC and has served as Adjunct Faculty with the University of Maryland Global Campus since August 2017, both in person and online. Prior to teaching, Gabriela worked as an Assistant District Attorney for the Fourth Prosecutorial District in Jacksonville, NC. From 2009-2012 she was an attorney with the National District Attorneys Association’s National Center for Prosecution of Child Abuse in Alexandria, VA. Gabriela also served as Director of MSJDN’s non-profit organization, Justice for Military Families, serving Gold Star families from 2015-2017. Gabriela is a 2009 graduate of the American University Washington College of Law. She currently lives with her husband and three beautiful children in Twentynine Palms, California.