GOSHEN, Ind. (AP) — When Jordan Willsey traded the battlefield for the classroom, he brought with him a global perspective that he tries to impress on his students.
Willsey, now a teacher at Goshen High School, was compelled by the terrorist attacks of 9/11 to enlist in the U.S. Army Reserve in 2002. After two deployments to Iraq, Willsey arrived back home in South Bend in 2009 and decided he wanted to "stop being a doofus and grow up."
He went to Indiana University South Bend to earn a teaching degree and graduated in 2013. Although he quickly landed a full-time job launching the Jobs for Americas Graduates program at Goshen, Willsey was not ready to turn in his combat boots and Army uniform quite yet.
For the past few years, Willsey has been balancing his dual roles as a teacher and as a sergeant in the U.S. Army Reserve with the help of fellow teachers and Goshen Community Schools district administrators.
He still attends military training camp regularly to practice what his group would do if mobilized. Although most of the training takes place on weekends, sometimes there are extended training periods over the summer months — sometimes forcing him to miss school.
But when duty calls, his colleagues cover for him.
"There was never a gripe or a sign or any doubting," Willsey told The Elkhart Truth (http://bit.ly/1lUXOtn ). "There was never a complaint. They always backed me up, and they knew the Army is important to me in the same way that teaching is."
That is why Willsey nominated Goshen High School Principal Barry Younghans for a Patriot Award through the Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve, a military office that exists as a liaison between members of the U.S. Army Reserve and the National Guard and their civilian employers.
A representative from Indiana's branch of the Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve, Larry Brady, attended a recent Goshen School Board meeting to award Younghans with the certificate.
"It's just a way to say thanks to the employers who are willing to work with us and understand we have made a commitment to the Army and to the United States," Willsey said.
But Younghans said it is Willsey who deserves thanks for his service.
"What we do for you is way less than you do for us," Younghans said as he accepted the award. "Thank you for your service."
Although Willsey earned his teaching degree in social studies, psychology, history and government, he had a hard time finding a teaching job in any of those areas. But then one of his Army friends called and explained how she found a perfect teaching fit in a program called JAG. At first, Willsey was confused because, in the Army, JAG only stands for one thing: judge advocate general.
But JAG in high schools is different. It's a school-to-work transition program that helps at-risk students graduate and continue to postsecondary education, an entry-level job or a career in the military. The program is funded by WorkOne, and it aims to help students with academic or economic hardships succeed.
Willsey's job is to help the juniors and seniors in his class graduate, but he's not done with them even after they do. He follows up with his JAG graduates after high school to guide them through the transition and offer resources.
He launched the program from scratch at Goshen High School, and it has been a hit — at least in his students' opinion. Willsey has 40 students this year, and he achieved a 100 percent graduation rate last year.
The program has helped students like Josh Loucks, a senior who was getting in trouble at school a few years ago but then got involved in JAG. Loucks has decided he wants to be a tattoo artist, just like his brother, and JAG is helping him learn how to make that dream a reality while still paying the bills.
"Without JAG and Mr. Willsey, I wouldn't know what it takes to pursue my career or what options are out there for college," Loucks said. "I feel like I would be so much more lost. I'm not ready to graduate quite yet, but, without JAG, I wouldn't be where I am now. It's like a life class. There's nothing else out there that teaches you about the real world."
Another student, senior Ma Yatziri Cortez Rangel, also said JAG and Willsey have helped her figure out her future.
"It's not just a class, it's more like a family," she said. "We come in here, and we all know each other and know we can talk about anything and know no one is going to criticize you or look at you differently. We have a really strong bond."
Willsey has seen more of the world than most of his colleagues and most of his students, and he tries to use his experience to guide his students.
"I've seen more than others have seen in the world, and that has shaped the way I try to guide students," he said. "I want my students to be aware of detail and be aware of what's going on in the world. It really affects me a lot, right?"
He applies some of his military training in his classroom, such as calling students by their last name and holding them accountable for deadlines and their behavior.
But one thing he wishes he could communicate more with his students is the concept of privilege. When he hears a student complain about a store being out of something on Black Friday, he wishes he could tell them that there are some people who don't have a store they can safely shop in and don't know if they'll wake up on Friday.
"I want my students to be thankful," he said.
"Be thankful for every meal. Be thankful that they can get on the Internet and look at whatever they want. Be thankful they have roads. Be thankful they can go to a coffee shop or grocery store without the constant fear of violence or terrorism. Be thankful that they can choose what it is that they're going to do with their life."
Information from: The Elkhart Truth, http://www.elkharttruth.com
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