Ethan Schmidt | azcentral.com
Retired Staff Sgt. Louis Joseph went from teaching military intelligence in the U.S. Army to helping inmates at the Arizona State Prison in Tucson. He teaches math, reading and language to more than 20 inmate students at the prison.
"I like helping," Joseph said. "I like having a hand in actually helping people succeed. When they succeed, I feel like I succeeded. And I like working with the underdogs, the people that others write off."
Joseph knows how it feels to be written off. When he was attending high school in his hometown of Bridgewater, Massachusetts, his guidance counselor told him he'd be better off as "a garbage man" than attending college.
That only put a chip on his shoulder and motivated him to help those in need find success.
After more than 10 years in the Army, Joseph is continuing to give back through teaching with special help from an organization called TEACH-NOW and its Veterans Initiative program.
TEACH-NOW was founded by Emily Feistritzer in 2011 and officially launched in 2013 to provide a way for people to receive their teaching certificate online. IT includes optional master's degree attachments. The Veterans Initiative portion launched in early 2017 and has had more than 100 veterans enroll since then.
Feistritzer said military veterans tend to make good teachers.
"They can walk into a classroom without a whole lot of extra teacher training and be excellent teachers," she said. "And what they bring is that sense of order, discipline, expectations and meeting expectations that is so desperately needed in classrooms."
The Veterans Initiative is a 9-month online program. Participants are required to hold a bachelor's degree first. Under the program, the Department of Veterans Affairs allows veterans and their spouses to tap GI BIll funding to cover the $6,000 tuition, according to Feistritzer.
Joseph went back to college and earned his bachelor's degree in education from University of Arizona in 2016. He found out about the job opening at a correctional facility while attending a teaching fair shortly after. Recruiters encouraged him to apply.
Joseph said he was granted an emergency teaching certificate on the condition that he would obtain a permanent certification. That's when he also found out about TEACH-NOW on the Arizona Board of Education website and learned of its Veterans Initiative program.
Joseph said the application process was easy, and he was approved quickly. Through the Veterans Initiative, his tuition and books were covered, and he got his certificate this year after finishing the online program.
The 52-year-old veteran now is using his certificate to teach inmates mandatory or functional literacy to significantly increase their chances at receiving a GED or high school diploma and prepare them for life after prison.
"They need somebody just to give them a helping hand, give them some encouragement, give them a little push and drive, and they'll get it done, and they do," Joseph said.
Retired Army Col. Keith Essen leads the TEACH-NOW Veterans Initiative.
Essen met Feistritzer in Washington, D.C., while working with Veterans Affairs in 2015, and she asked him to take on a role with TEACH NOW.
"What I learned about her program was, one, it seemed very substantial," Essen said. "It covered a lot of territory in a relatively short period of time. It was cost-effective, fully accredited. I thought this was the gold standard for helping people who are transitioning out of the military to move into a new career path."
A return to teaching after tour of duty
Joseph was a sixth-grade history teacher when the 9/11 terrorist attacks occurred.
"One of the little girls in my class was just upset, crying, and said she wishes she was old enough to do something about it," Joseph said. "It hit me like a ton of bricks, and I said 'You know what, I am old enough to do something about it.'"
Joseph joined the Army in 2002 at age 34. He was deployed to northern Iraq a few years later, where he was converted into a heavy equipment truck driver.
"Our first convoy out the gate, I was the lead vehicle, and my truck got hit with a roadside bomb," Joseph recalled.
The explosive destroyed Joseph's truck, engulfing it, him and his partner in flames. Joseph suffered several serious injuries but he was still able to get his partner out on the other side, he recalled.
When he was back to full strength, Joseph returned to action right away. He went on another convoy and was driving the lead vehicle once again. But this time, his truck just missed a car bomb.
"I drove past it, and it blew up right behind me," Joseph said. "After that, they didn't let me go out anymore because they told me stuff blows up around me."
When he returned to the U.S., Joseph spent more than four years as an intelligence analyst at Fort Huachuca in southern Arizona.
After a brief stint of the same work in Fort Louis, Washington, Joseph was called back to Iraq, this time to hunt the makers of explosives. He received an award for a major role in finding a high-level bomb maker in October 2010.
After more than 10 years serving in the Army, Joseph was able to medically retire in 2012.
Today, in his his classroom at the Arizona State Prison, Joseph has several motivational quotes hanging on the walls.
"When people believe in you, it motivates you," Joseph said. "But when you got all the naysayers and it's always all negative and doom and gloom, and people don't believe in you, you end up getting stuck in a rut. I try to be that positive and encouraging guy."
Since becoming a teacher in the prison system, Joseph has moved from the Level 3 yard to to the Level 4-5 yard, where more hardened prisoners are housed.
"We always had the motto of leave no soldier behind (in the Army), and it's kind of like the same thing with education," Joseph said. "You don't want to leave anybody behind, you want everybody to succeed. And I think there's a lot of passion in it when you see success."
Joseph was nominated for the 4th Annual Veteran of Distinction Award and was presented a certificate by Sen. Martha McSally. He also has a Purple Heart for his service oversees. In addition, Joseph will be receiving his master's degree thanks to the TEACH-NOW program on Nov. 25.
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