Lessons Learned from a Combat Engineer about Helping Kids Learn
My combat engineer company in Germany had two primary missions: clear the way so tank units could advance, and deny the enemy freedom of maneuver. As a parent and later as a teacher, I recognized that several important lessons transferred over to my new roles.
Mr. Petzrick receiving the Meritorious Service Medal at the completion of his tour in Germany in 1988.
1. Empower students to get through their own obstacles.
In military situations, the simplest and fastest way to clear an obstacle is to bulldoze or force your way through. Unfortunately, this is also expensive in terms of equipment and casualties. I noticed that some of the units we supported would only try this when our combat engineers were present; if we were supporting a different unit, they would sit and wait for us to show up. During my 24 years of teaching, I have seen numerous instances of parents serving as combat engineers and bulldozing a clear path for the kids in scouts, sports, and school. In virtually every case, I noticed that eventually the kids would sit and wait for someone to clear the path rather than trying to do so themselves. To be sure, there are definitely situations in which a combat engineer is essential, but in most cases, kids need to learn how to get through the obstacle on their own.
2. Teach students to plan ahead.
Picking your way through a minefield is time-consuming and requires careful preparation and probing. Units we supported occasionally got impatient with us and would try to go around the minefield, usually with terrible results. (Minefields are usually placed to force advancing units into areas we called “kill zones.”) When my combat engineers had some advance warning, we would often move to potential minefields to clear lanes before the attacking units got there. That required anticipating someone else’s moves, but we got pretty good at that. As a parent (and teacher), I learned to help my kids do some advance planning so they could determine the actions and the proper sequencing that would allow them to complete a project. Over the years, I have found that younger students need quite a bit of help in such planning, but even juniors and seniors may need a little coaching in this area. The payoff is usually high. Students are able to complete all the interim actions leading up to a project without burning the midnight oil, getting frustrated because they forgot something they needed, or needlessly losing points.
3. Don’t micromanage.
This one really is not a lesson from a combat engineer as much as it is from a junior officer. When I first came on active duty, we had a large number of Vietnam vets in senior leadership positions. During the war in Vietnam, it was not unusual for senior leaders to be circling in helicopters above junior leaders engaged in operations on the ground. One positive aspect of this was that the senior leaders had a bird’s-eye view of what was going on, and they could warn the leaders on the ground of what might be coming their way. The primary negative aspect of this is that many senior leaders would start directing the junior leaders and micromanaging the operation. In many cases this led to junior leaders not making decisions and simply waiting around for someone to tell them what to do. As a father, I certainly wanted my kids to do the best that they could and would occasionally fly overhead, micromanaging their efforts. I caught myself flying around while they were in middle school and grounded myself. I still coached and helped them with probing through minefields, which they told me they appreciated, but I did not micromanage.
My advice to my combat engineer leaders boiled down to this: “Don’t bulldoze or fly around; teach your folks how to probe and clear the way!”
About the Author
Kip Petzrick is an Upper School Chemistry and Engineering teacher at TCS and a 1977 grad of the US Military Academy at West Point. When not teaching, Kip loves building modules for N-Scale model trains and running them with either other member of his train club or his grandson. Kip can also be seen pounding the pavement along Braddock Road as a runner. Kip and his wife, Debbie, the Lower School Language Arts Specialist have been married for 44 years and live in Fairfax.