Leigh Cooksey, deputy director of educator engagement, chats with Air Force veteran Angie Vogt, who is currently an English teacher and interventionist at Dobyns-Bennett High School in Kingsport.
Please tell us a little bit about your military service.
I spent five years serving in the Air Force as an Air Surveillance Officer on AWACS aircraft. I have over 2000 flight hours on AWACS and feel very proud of my service during the Cold War years. I served in a highly technical field in electronic combat, supervising a combat ready team of radar, radio, and digital link technicians on the airplane. I served in Okinawa, Japan, the Middle East, North Africa and Iceland. When I separated from the military, I got a master’s degree in Ministry and Theology and served as a lay minister for several years. Servant leadership has always appealed to me and, as a professional lay minister, I found myself mostly serving in a teaching or counseling capacity.
Why did you decide to go into teaching?
My middle child has always struggled with cognitive processing and language. He was a late talker and he had been placed in Life Skills in elementary, which I felt strongly was a mistake. In 2010 we moved to Kingsport from another state and was so happy that the middle school case manager, even after seeing my son’s thick folder of IEP paperwork, decided to put him in all general education classes with special education support (this was pre-RTI). I was so amazed at the fast progress he made that I immediately started working in the school system as a teaching assistant, which eventually led to me getting a Master’s in Teaching in Special Ed. My son is now a senior in high school and is in Berlin, Germany as a foreign exchange student for the entire semester. The culture of innovation and excellence is the reason my son has found his passion for European culture. It has forever changed the direction of his life.
Can you draw any connections between your military service and your current role?
My service in the military and then in ministry has created in me a profound appreciation for the value of relationships and teamwork. These two components are so critical to education in the 21st century because our students are facing a world that demands soft skills as well as technical skills. There is no such thing as educating a brain…we are in the business of educating human beings with all the complexities and mysteries that come with human nature. That only happens in the context of trusting relationships. I don’t always do it well, but it’s my primary goal and I am lucky that the culture at Dobyns-Bennett High School encourages this. Our principal regularly reminds us that the relationships we build with our students are at the heart of everything else we do.
With regard to teamwork, the military gave me a sense of “mission” above self. Like everyone, I struggle with sometimes being too self-focused, which always leads to feelings of insecurity and anxiety. I try very hard to keep myself on track by thinking about the larger picture…the students and the “mission at hand,” whatever that might be during any given day or week (or hour)! When I find myself sinking into myself, I deliberately reach out to other teachers to brainstorm with or solicit advice.
What’s been your biggest surprise as a new teacher?
I’ve had several “aha” moments, but one in particular was when I started sharing with students my own thought processes…helping them to see that learning isn’t magical and it isn’t a fixed dynamic. I like reassuring them that it’s okay if, for example, interpreting an author’s technique feels awkward…nobody “gets it” every time. Giving myself permission to struggle and even fail every now and then was liberating to me, so I enjoy giving students that same freedom. Ironically, having the “freedom to fail” usually encourages them to take more risks. Teaching students how to think, problem solve, and analyze is rewarding, but, as an English teacher my ultimate aim is to help them communicate what they are thinking, problem solving, and analyzing.
I have a standard speech I give to kids about the meaning of their education. I tell them that each one of them has an idea or a gift to give the world that is life changing, but that idea or gift is invisible to the world unless they can communicate it effectively in either written or spoken form. All of our work in the English classroom is designed to give them the skills necessary to share their world-changing ideas and gifts in order to make their lives, and the lives of others, more meaningful. They can’t really do this until they connect with their own inner voice. Nothing excites me more than when I see a student begin to “own” his or her own voice!