Veterans in the Classroom
College faculty will have instances in which they realize there are military veterans in their class. This article will highlight certain ideas that faculty need to be aware of in order to foster a supportive classroom environment for veterans. As with all of our articles, this is not an exhaustive list but does provide a firm foundation for faculty that are working with veterans in the classroom.
Avoid Singling Them Out
Sometimes faculty who have the best intentions actually alienate student veterans by singling them out. For example, during military holidays they will ask the veterans in the classroom to stand up so the class can acknowledge them. Or maybe during a lecture they will casually mention that a student has military experience. Simply stated, this can be embarrassing for many veterans. Because of their age, many already feel like they have a spotlight on them. They want to attend class and be treated like the other students. Singling them out in any way -- even because of amicable motives -- can create a sense of otherness that can serve as an obstacle to the veteran fully integrating into the community.
It is important to note that you can still show your gratitude. In fact, this would be appreciated by student veterans. Simply do so in a way that does not leave them feeling exposed. For example, on Veterans Day you can make an announcement at the beginning of class thanking those students that have served. You could also say something to the student one on one before or after class to express your support. Again, the important takeaway is that you can share your support without causing discomfort for the students.
Sharing Their Viewpoint
To be clear, veterans bring a valuable and unique perspective to the classroom. Still, it is important to note that the extent to which they share this perspective is their choice. Tempting as it may be for faculty to directly ask for a student veteran’s personal take, it should be avoided unless invited by the veteran.
Oftentimes there is class discussion about a current or historical event in which a veteran’s input could enrich the class discourse. This has been particularly applicable the last 20 years as institutions of higher learning have incorporated robust discussion related to the wars in the Middle East. Veterans also provide the feedback that faculty have a propensity to elicit their opinions during politically-based discussion. Additionally, sometimes the skills and experiences a veteran had in the military might directly relate to some of the course content and faculty are curious to hear about it. For example, a Navy Corpsman might have experience in an area of a nursing course.
Faculty must always bear in mind that the perspective of the student veteran is personal in nature and needs to be treated as such. Veterans have no more of an obligation than other students to divulge sensitive, personal information to classmates. In the simplest terms, they are adults. They will share if they are comfortable and willing to do so. If faculty provide a welcoming environment, many student veterans will enthusiastically share. Just like any large population, the social nature of veterans varies greatly. Some are extremely outgoing, others are very reserved, and many are somewhere in between!
Frustration with Classmates
In the military service members are taught to behave professionally. This includes giving their undivided attention in the classroom. As we know all too well, some students in higher education do not provide this same level of focus. They might be texting, talking to classmates, or causing another distraction during class. Many military veterans have minimal tolerance for this type of behavior which they deem as disrespectful both toward the instructor and the other students in the class. Just know that if you see a veteran becoming visibly agitated or even verbally confronting a classmate, this could potentially be the reason.
There are a couple of things to keep in mind regarding the seating placement of student veterans. Some may have a service-related injury that causes them to need seating in a particular spot of the room. For example, if they are hard of hearing they may choose to be near a speaker if it is a large auditorium. Also, in the case of certain veterans with PTS, they may choose to sit in the very back of the room and/or with their back facing a wall. While this may seem minor, it is not. Supporting student veterans and allowing them to sit where they are most comfortable is vital. Oftentimes veterans will take the initiative of simply sitting where they need to in order to be successful. As a faculty member, if you have any questions related to this or simply want to ask the student if there is anything you can do to be helpful, that is okay! Simply do it at a time when you can do so privately.
Veterans enrich the academic environment in classrooms across the country. As higher education professionals, we need to constantly work to create a welcoming environment for them! While just the tip of the iceberg, cognizance of the basic ideas presented in this article are a good starting point for achieving that goal.