Black Elk's career path has been a marathon. But the former All-American
long-distance runner maintained a steady course to a rewarding job
teaching students at the Little Wound School on the Pine Ridge Indian
Located in South Dakota, Pine Ridge is America's eighth-largest
Indian reservation, spanning more than a million acres. A rugged
yet beautiful patchwork of hills, cliffs, valleys and prairie, Pine
Ridge encompasses eight towns and communities, including Wounded
Knee. Black Elk's school is in Kyle .
On The Job
A staff sergeant in the Army National Guard, Black
Elk teaches Lakota language and culture to 200 students from kindergarten
to fifth grade. During the first half of the academic year, he focuses
on grammar and spelling before moving on to Lakota history and culture.
"I grew up in Wounded Knee and was lucky enough to learn Lakota
at home," said Black Elk, 45. "It's satisfying to be able to help
these students keep a part of their heritage to pass on to future
Black Elk, who became an educator through the Troops to Teachers
program, begins his day at 0500. Since he lives 85 miles from his
school, he leaves at 0630 to make it to work at 0730. At 0800 he
reviews his lesson plan before gathering students outside for a
prayer, followed by the raising of the American flag which
is accompanied by a traditional drum ceremony and the recitation
of the Pledge of Allegiance in Lakota.
"These kids have a passion for learning," said Black Elk. "A
lot of them come from poor economic backgrounds, but they're good
students and fun to teach."
Thousands of military veterans are transferring the skills they
learned in the Armed Forces to serve their country again
as teachers in classrooms across America. With assistance from the
Troops to Teachers program, more than 10,600 service members have
been placed in full-time teaching positions since it began in 1994.
Troops to Teachers, which is managed by the Defense Activity for
Non-Traditional Education Support System (DANTES), was established
to help relieve teacher shortages by helping eligible service members
to become public school teachers. The program offers stipends of
up to $5,000 to help pay for certification costs, or bonuses of
up to copy0,000 to teach in schools serving a high percentage of
low-income students, according to program officials. Detailed information
regarding program eligibility requirements, enrollment and contact
information for state coordinators is available on the Troops to
Teachers Web site: ProudToServeAgain.com.
Black Elk wasn't your typical Army enlistee. In 1996
the former junior college track star was working as a teacher's
aide but felt stuck in a career rut: "I felt I needed a challenge.
I wanted to test myself physically and mentally, so I enlisted at
the age of 32."
After basic training and infantry school at Fort Benning, Georgia,
Black Elk served in Panama and Washington. He later left active
duty for the Army National Guard, serving in Iraq from 2004 to 2005.
"My unit fought between Mosul and Kirkuk," Black Elk said. "Things
got crazy sometimes. I try not to think too much about the combat
When he returned to South Dakota from Iraq, Black
Elk earned a bachelor's in Lakota Studies from Oglala Lakota College
and decided to earn his teacher's certification. As if fate smiled
on his decision, a representative from Troops to Teachers visited
his National Guard unit in Montana and left behind some literature.
After looking through a brochure, Black Elk enrolled in the program.
"I couldn't ask for a better job than teaching my students,"
he said. "I know I want to continue working with kids on the reservation
and maybe get into teaching special education."
Black Elk's Advice:
Take care of yourself before getting out. "Get all your
medical appointments done. This is especially true if you were
in combat. A lot of the Soldiers in my unit are dealing with PTSD
[post-traumatic stress disorder]. You want to take care of that
as soon as possible."
Plan thoroughly before getting out. "Figure out what you
want to do and Take all the time you need. There's no need to