Cadets at Illinois State University who aspire to be tomorrow's military leaders are helping to educate tomorrow's leaders in the classroom.
Members of the university's ROTC Redbird Battalion spend every Friday during the school year tutoring students at Fox Creek Elementary in Bloomington through its Cadets Helping Kids program.
Kristen Hammer is leading her first-grade class through a game of Bunny Hop.
It's a dice game that teaches addition and subtraction. At first, the first-year teacher wasn't sure adding more adults—and the distractions they might bring into the classroom—would be a good idea for her class.
“The first couple of weeks the cadets entered the classroom, I didn’t know how it was going to play out as a first-year teacher, but it ended up being one of the best things that happened this year,” Hammer said.
When Hammer realized having more adult brains in the classroom would help her students get more personal attention to help them keep pace when they need it, that was her lightbulb moment.
“I realized quickly that if I could have all of these people in for tutoring, I could go to higher-level thinking for these first graders and we are reaching goals that I never would have guessed that we could achieve this year, because we have the cadets in the classroom,” she said.
One of those cadet volunteers, ISU sophomore Kenzie Toland from Mundelein, hopes to work in a classroom someday. The elementary education major figures it's as much of a learning experience for the cadets as it is for the students.
“If I see they are struggling I will step in and just make sure what I am saying aligns with what the teacher is asking them to do,” Toland said. "Even though they want to ask a million questions and get to know us, that if they are supposed to be working on something, (I make sure) that they are sticking to their tasks.”
Toland figures her role more than anything is to serve as a role model for the students, especially the young girls who haven't seen a woman in military fatigues before.
“When I first started the program I wasn’t contracted yet, so I didn’t have a uniform,” Toland said. “One of the little girls asked if I was in ROTC and I said ‘Yes,’ and she goes, ‘But you are not a boy,’ and I said, ‘No but females can be in the Army too.’”
The young boys see role models too. Third-grader Austin Dorris looks out the school window every Friday to see if his ROTC buddies show up.
Austin said he enjoys learning from them and getting to know them a little better.
“They make me confident so I can do my work, so I get good grades and I could probably become one of them,” he said.
When asked to pick a favorite, he pointed to cadet Ryan Schmitz, whom he affectionately calls "Army Dude."
“That was very heartwarming,” Schmitz replied. “He has a lot of energy, specifically and I’ve realized that from a very early point. I could see some of my younger self in him. I just kind of gravitated towards him. (We) just had good chemistry in that sense that we are both coming from the same place.”
Schmitz is 22 and leads the Cadets Helping Kids program. He has seen his share of hard work. He listed in the National Guard five years ago and has worked as a painter and trained as a welder. But Schmitz has a soft spot for the kids he sees every Friday.
“Aside from dressing in Army greens, social work and mentoring the youth is a passion of mine, so for me it’s simply fun,” Schmitz said. “It’s good to decompress at the end of every week and see familiar faces and you build relationships. It’s just a good time all in all."
It's hard to measure how much these ROTC cadets are enriching the education of these grade school students, while visiting with them once a week. But Fox Creek Principal Leslie Davenport said there's one sure measurement they can use—students don't miss school when the cadets are coming.
“The kids want to come in, they want to see the ROTC that visits their classroom,” Davenport said. “They know at 1 o’clock, some of them are waiting at the door. They are waiting for them to come in to be here.
“I don’t know if it’s measurable, it’s measurable in the hearts of our kids.”
Hammer said she hopes to give the cadets a greater role in her classroom next year, by offering one-on-one help to students with social and emotional learning needs.
ISU's Redbird Battalion includes close to 120 cadets. They will begin active duty service as newly commissioned officers once they had finished their training and education.
WGLT depends on financial support from users to bring you stories and interviews like this one. As someone who values experienced, knowledgeable, and award-winning journalists covering meaningful stories in Central Illinois, please consider making a contribution.