Defensive teaching position

For one student, the pedagogical benefits of active service

Following 15 years as a mechanic and welder in the Canadian Forces 51st Service Battalion, Corporal Bill Akerly decided to become a high school teacher. His time in the battalion, a non-combat unit whose role is to provide technical and logistical support to combat regiments, has given him the unique opportunity to train fellow military technicians in mechanics. In an interview with The Daily, Akerly explained that his experiences in the Army gave him the chance to see both his enjoyment of and competence in teaching ,“a good combination for a career.” In the autumn of 2009, Akerly took a leave from the Army and answered the call of higher education at McGill’s Faculty of Education.

At the end of November, while most students are preparing for finals and planning their winter vacations, Akerly, an undergraduate student, will be deployed to the Kandahar Airfield military base in Afghanistan’s Kandahar province on a nine-month tour of support to the Canadian Forces’ First Battalion of the Royal 22nd Regement. It is the largest francophone infantry regiment in the Canadian Army, based in Quebec City and better known among military personnel as the Van Doos – an anglicized butchering of the French vingt-deux.

While not serving on the front lines in a combative role, Akerly will be involved in vehicle recovery missions and close support of patrol vehicles. In addition to vehicle repair and recovery, Akerly will be mentoring and training members of the Afghan National Army in mechanics and welding as part of a new initiative by the Canadian Armed Forces to “build Afghan institutions,” according to the federal government. Akerly was offered the opportunity based on his teaching experience in the military and his current university studies. Regarding his choice to accept the role, he said the offer is “a privilege I feel lucky to have.”

Part of the appeal of this military mission to Afghanistan is the unique perspective he will gain from it, an asset Akerly believes will make him a better, more effective educator. “I’m pretty excited about this, as an Education student … Teaching involves going past your own set of values and interests to reach someone on their set of values and interests, to get them where they want to go – it’s all about bridging the gap.”

The motives inspiring Akerly’s continued military involvement have basis in pedagogical training. Kathleen Biggs, a former high school English teacher and expert in the field of teacher training explains: “[Bridging the gap between teacher and students] cannot be done without depth of reflection and self-awareness by the teacher. Once one is comfortable in one’s own skin and open to multicultural viewpoints, relating to one’s students certainly becomes easier.”

Ronald Morris, a professor in the field of values education adds that “an experience like serving in Afghanistan could provide insight and understanding that we could never achieve by seeing through the eyes of the media or by examining the issues from a distance.  I suspect that such a teacher would be a credible ‘witness’ to world events, cultural practices, and values.”

Following a difficult period of soul-searching, reflection, and what he calls “accelerated personal growth,” Akerly’s philosophy has somewhat taken a turn toward the Zen, embracing the unknown of the path before him with an open attitude, one he hopes to impart on his future students. When it comes to the risk inherent to military involvement he says, “You prepare for it and you do the best you can when it happens. It’s not going to stop me … To accomplish some things, you have to accept some risks.”