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Lessons Learned: From Combat to Classroom

Press release from Teach for America; November 12, 2012: 

Sarah Staab

Standing in the hallway surrounded by a hundred eleven-year-olds, Iraq feels almost impossibly far away. After five years in the U.S. Army, I joined Teach For America and began a new career as a fifth grade science teacher at Brick Church College Prep in Nashville. Each time I bend down to help tie a shoe, or put a band-aid on a tiny finger, I almost laugh at the unusual juxtaposition of these two careers. While the differences are glaring, most often I’m struck by the similarities that they share. Day-to-day, the lessons I learned while serving my country overseas now follow me as I serve my country in the classroom.

Many of these lessons come from a child I met during my first deployment – nine months with a small medical unit manning an emergency clinic and trauma center for troops in Al Kut, Iraq. Baby Noor came to us at only 6 months old. She was born with an incredible number of birth defects and a life expectancy of less than a year. After visiting practically every medical facility in Iraq, Noor’s family came to us on the edge of hopelessness. In the following weeks, as our team performed multiple surgeries and worked tirelessly to correct these potentially fatal defects, I came to understand that every family – no matter how dire its circumstances, no matter its hometown – holds great expectations for its children. Under conditions of war, poverty, and illness, Noor’s family believed that her life should be nothing short of excellent and set out to make it so. In the end, Noor needed more intensive care than our facility could provide and we helped to get her flown to the U.S with her family. Fifteen surgeries later, she would recover beautifully and develop into the happy, healthy little girl her family always knew she could be.

Noor’s story taught me about the power of grit and value of high expectations – lessons I employ in my classroom every single day. In our world, and in our schools, it is dangerously easy to settle – to accept that for certain people, in certain communities, some things will simply never be. But when I think of Noor, her family’s strength and convictions, and the enormous talents of the students in my classroom, I know that to settle would be our greatest mistake. Children facing the challenges of poverty need our passion and commitment, just as Noor did. Every child deserves our relentless dedication.

As an officer, I was fortunate enough to be in a position to help Noor’s parents realize their audacious dreams for their daughter. Now, I hope to do the same for the dozens of parents who trust me with their children each morning. Every day, as I teach, I think about these parents, about Noor, and about the Soldiers with whom I served – men and women who risk their lives as they imagine a brighter, more peaceful world for all of us. On this Veteran’s Day, I am reminded what it means to ask more of ourselves and to truly serve our country – be it in combat or in a classroom.

Sarah Staab is a Teach For America corps member and fifth grade science teacher at Brick Church College Prep in Nashville.

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