How the NSA’s post-9/11 hiring might address the teacher shortage

Key points:

There is a critical teacher shortage across the United States. (As well as serious shortages in other professions, such as nursing.) This trend began before the pandemic, but has grown more serious afterwards.

I teach Latin at a public high school in New Jersey.  Signs of this teacher shortage are evident in my own district. Some of my colleagues teach extra classes because we could not fill maternity leave replacements. We fill other positions with online teachers in different states. 

How to fill a critical shortage

Once before in my life, I was part of filling a critically needed shortage. After 9/11, I worked as an Arabic linguist at the National Security Agency. We knew we urgently needed to increase the number of linguists working for the NSA, which was tasked with processing intercepted foreign communications, such as terrorist attack planning.

I was part of the first group hired to work after the tragedy, and so I had a front row seat into how they went about boosting a work force needed to prevent another attack on U.S. soil. I believe that the ways they went about fulfilling that mission may hold lessons for us today in addressing our critical teacher shortage.

Joining the NSA

I sent my resume online to the NSA and was contacted within a few days to begin the hiring process. A month later I was flown there to have my language skills tested. I am not a native speaker and I had not been in a classroom for a few years. Although I did my best to study in advance, I learned via an email that I had passed the reading part of their tests, but had not passed the listening component.

I was devastated. I had wanted this thing so badly. 

But then, two weeks later, I received an email telling me that the NSA was creating a new program to train people who didn’t pass one of the two tests. I had been selected for this and they extended a job offer. I received in the mail the forms to apply for my security clearance.

I would later learn that the man put in charge of recruiting new Arabic linguists created this program precisely because of people like me. He saw that promising new hires were deficient in one of the two skill sets. So he created this program where people could be hired and their first assignment would be to work on their deficient skill. 

When I raised my right hand on June 16, 2002 and swore an oath to uphold the Constitution of the United States, I learned that I was a part of the first class of new post-9/11 hires. It had taken that long to work out the logistics of where these new employees would work and to acquire the computers that would sit on their desks. In the meantime, to address the critical need, they begged retired employees to come back for even a few hours a week, if possible.

Immediately after orientation, I was sent to a 30-day class, in which I worked eight hours a day on my deficient listening skill. It was tough. I worked hard. At the end of the class, the NSA administered the same test I had failed earlier. This time, I scored 92. The plan had worked. A candidate originally turned down as unqualified had tested as fully qualified just 30 days after starting work. 

Once on the inside, I experienced the NSA as a vibrant place that prioritized further education of its workforce. There was an exciting camaraderie of people knowing that they were part of something bigger than themselves, serving a noble mission in defense of our nation. I would eventually serve a deployment to Iraq in 2004, earning the Global War on Terrorism Civilian Service Medal. I chose to leave the NSA in 2006 in order to become a high school teacher. I had served my nation for four years and felt I had completed my duty.

Takeaways for the teacher shortage

There have been multiple studies trying to diagnose why the attrition rate of new teachers is so alarmingly high (about 30 percent in the first five years of service). People in exit interviews frequently cite the low pay relative to the work load and the time demands of what they consider to be administrative busywork. But I want to focus on some specific matters that my experience at the NSA could teach us about how to address this problem.

1. A focus on effective training

A program to hire people who aren’t completely ready for the job would seem at first glance to be comparable to the Alternate Route Program, which I did to become a licensed teacher in New Jersey. But a key difference is that the NSA hired people who were deficient in a skill set and then directly trained them where they needed help. 

A takeaway for teaching would be that we could do even better with new hires and alternate route teachers in terms of helping them find their way in the teaching profession. The current mentorship program in my district is well organized and effective. But I feel that we could further reduce attrition if we identified early on new teachers who were struggling and directly helped them identify and work on their specific deficient skills. 

2. More active formation of camaraderie

In my 2022 article The Endless War, I shared thoughts of how the experience of surviving the pandemic together as a school community felt like when I served in Iraq in 2004. When I was at the NSA, we knew we performing important services. It was difficult work, but made bearable by the support of colleagues sharing those burdens. 

School districts and education associations should do even more to actively and intentionally pull faculty, staff, and administration into a sense of intentional and supportive community. My district recently held a professional development day that was astounding. It started with a morning of very useful workshops to choose from, but then the afternoon was a delightful array of options. These included yoga, Zumba, a walk and talk with administration, and tae kwon do, just to name a few. The day went a long way to promote the kind of shared mission that I feel will help staff experience the school community as a place of belonging. 

3. Do this right, not fast

At first glance, it might seem astonishing that it took nine months to bring in a new Arabic linguist in response to 9/11. But the reality is, some important things cannot be rushed when you are trying to do something right. The process of properly investigating people for security clearances takes quite a bit of time. And I would suggest that the takeaway for addressing the teacher shortage is that long term solutions to this crisis will be more important that quick fixes. 

Drastically reducing the requirements for a teaching license may put warm bodies in classrooms faster, but could lead to its own problems. The introduction of truly unqualified teachers into classrooms alongside people who have the proper certifications could lead to substantial morale issues among the faculty, and also poor outcomes. I have no doubt that here and there a talented teacher would emerge who otherwise would not have entered this career. But I also expect that many more would fail out of teaching because they never had any business being in a classroom.

The solution is to address the systemic issues preventing high-quality personnel from entering and then staying in these important fields. And that means, at a minimum, more attractive salaries and favorable work place conditions. 

Looking ahead

I am happy to have served at the NSA when I did. But I am considerably more grateful to Leonia High School for the opportunity to teach young people for the last 18 years. I believe I have done more good for the universe as a public high school teacher than I ever did as a spy. I offer these comparisons to my previous service because I hope it may help more people pursue and then persist in this rewarding career.

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