At Manley High School, every freshman is required to join Junior ROTC. But upperclassmen—many of whom credit the program with motivating them to succeed—sign up by choice.
Students who stay in say ROTC was an unexpected source of motivation. They give credit to involved teachers and the military version of the three Rs: responsibility, rewards and role models. Junior ROTC also makes use of instructional techniques, such as hands-on learning, that spark intellectual curiosity and motivate students.
Student cadets give the program high marks for teaching lessons they consider relevant. “Sometimes … I’ll try to block out the teacher just to be ornery,” admits junior Myisha Williams. “But when Sgt. King told me [the lesson] would be how to put on a splint, I didn’t know what that was, so I looked it up. Then I got interested.”
Academic teachers could take a hint and make their own classes more interesting, cadets add. “Don’t always teach from the book,” says sophomore Jimmy Harvard. “Use real-life experiences.”
As a freshman forced to enroll in ROTC, Harvard initially was skeptical. He thought ROTC would be “hard,” with drill sergeants who were always assigning pushups and “getting in your face.”
But once in the class, Harvard was pleasantly surprised, especially by the patient approach of his instructor, Sgt. Kenneth Corbett.
“He never really hollered at the classes [or got] real loud and out of control,” Harvard says. “[He] never really let it get out of control in the first place.”
Students also respond to the generous amount of personal attention their instructors lavish upon them. “They give you so much motivation and get you excited,” says junior Sonya McCrary. “It keeps you pumped on everything, keeps you on your Ps and Qs. Sgt.[Henry] King [will] talk about your classes, he’ll peep in your class, check up on all your teachers to see how you’re doing.” For McCrary, the attention paid off. She recently won one of six coveted slots on the citywide Junior ROTC corps staff.
Of course, physical discipline—like doing pushups—is part of the program, too. Williams says a few rounds of pushups and the threat of doing more taught her self-discipline. Subtler techniques help cadets learn to control their tempers or other negative feelings. “There have been so many times I wanted to hit someone in the mouth,” Williams recalls. “Then I remembered Sgt. King saying, ‘Take a count of ten,’ and I did that instead.”
When students do well in an academic setting, typical rewards range from school supplies to television sets. ROTC rewards students who perform with power. Cadets who excel in academics and personal appearance, and show initiative, leadership and respect, can ascend to the next rank. The spoils of a higher rank include titles, spiffy insignia to wear on uniforms and the right to boss around lower-ranking students. “Knowing that you’re earning rank makes you want to do better” in school, says Delilah Blue, a junior.
At first, Williams says she was turned off because she had to start off at the bottom. “I probably wouldn’t have [joined ROTC] if I didn’t have to, because of the upperclassmen saying ‘You gotta do this because I have more rank.'”
But after observing a peer role model, she noted the short- and long-term rewards of earning rank. “My battalion commander was a female [student]—she motivated me,” says Williams. “It was the way she carried herself when we had inspection. She went around with the sergeant. I wanted to be in her position.” When her mentor graduated, she received a four-year JROTC scholarship to college. Williams wants to win a scholarship, too.
Cadets who earn rank also get more responsibility. “Instead of [King] calling a staff meeting, he expects one of the [students] to call a staff meeting and get the word around to everybody,” says Williams.
ROTC requires teamwork and students learn how to motivate each other. “At drill team or staff meetings we all have to agree, and sometimes people have attitudes,” observes Blue. “Sometimes it’s kind of hard to build a team. But then [cadets] start understanding that everything won’t go their way.”
Once students begin to cooperate, they can get things done. “We help teach other students when we’re working on our drills,” notes McCrary. “We help them with the rifle movements and about face.”
No silver bullets
However, Junior ROTC is no panacea for student motivation. Freshman Mercedes Brown says her experience in ROTC bears little resemblance to the picture painted by upperclassmen cadets. Her classes are boring and “I don’t catch on fast,” she says.
Brown estimates “about half” the students in her Junior ROTC class share her feelings about the program.
Sgt. Corbett admits that ROTC is not for everyone. “Some people don’t embrace structure,” he notes. “At their age, they don’t know that some sort of structure has to be developed.”
By Brown’s own estimate, for every one of her there is an April Funches, a freshman who says Junior ROTC is a positive experience for her. “I like ROTC and I want to make a career out of it,” she says.