Massachusetts Army National Guard Soldier Educates the Next Generation
Standing in front of a classroom filled with roughly two dozen eighth-grade students, a man teaches a lesson on how to form an argumentative essay using Harper Lee’s novel To Kill a Mockingbird.
“When explaining a quote, you need to first ensure you know what it fully means,” says the English language arts teacher. “You need to show how it supports your claim.”
As his class looks on intently, he continues to explain how to use evidence from the text to prove an assertion.
“This could be a sentence or two [that puts] a quote in your own words,” he says. “It is an easy way to start off your explanation. It gets you thinking more deeply about the quote itself.”
A lesson on writing a well-developed essay is typical in most middle schools. The man teaching this particular lesson, in contrast, is anything but standard issue. Gregory Kessler works to serve his community both as an educator at Horace Mann Middle School in Franklin, Massachusetts, and as a Soldier and second lieutenant in the Massachusetts Army National Guard.
2LT Kessler’s military and civilian career have grown side by side. After graduating from Athol High School in Athol, Massachusetts, he accepted an Army ROTC scholarship. “I saw it as a great way to help out my community and pay for college,” the second lieutenant said.
During his second year of undergraduate studies, 2LT Kessler realized he wanted to become an educator: “I substitute-taught and really enjoyed it,” he said.
Knowing that he wanted to continue to serve his country and pursue his new-found joy in teaching, 2LT Kessler took steps to convert his Army ROTC Scholarship to a Dedicated Army National Guard scholarship. After graduating from the University of Massachusetts Amherst in 2011, 2LT Kessler was simultaneously commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Massachusetts Army National Guard and began his teaching career.
He served two years in the Army Transportation Corps, and then was assigned to the 65th Press Camp Headquarters, an Army public affairs unit stationed in West Newton. As a press officer, 2LT Kessler supervises a team of Soldiers that specializes in design, journalism, photography, videography and writing.
He noted that leading his troops and leading his classroom share similarities. “I try to instill, in both the kids and the Soldiers alike, that without clear communication there can be a lot of misunderstood realities in this world,” he said.
2LT Kessler went on to say that he believes the training and experience garnered from his time in the Army National Guard have been instrumental in his success as an educator.
“The Army has taught me a lot about being an instructor and leading others,” he said. “You treat Soldiers differently than you treat students, obviously. But you use a lot of the same [tactics]. I try to bring a lot of energy. I think Soldiers and students both respond to enthusiasm.”
“What makes him an excellent English teacher is [his love for] books,” said Horace Mann Middle School Assistant Principal Mary Cotillo. “He gets really passionate about them, and he discusses them with that same passion.”
Affection for literature started for 2LT Kessler at a young age. “The stories of heroism and strength always intrigued me as a kid,” he said. “I always liked finding characters to emulate and look up to.”
Now, as a teacher, he encourages his pupils to do the same. “It is important that students relate to the novels they read,” 2LT Kessler said. “Many of the themes and ideas they are reading about happen in their own lives.”
While 2LT Kessler prompts his students to find novels featuring positive characters to use as role models, some might say he is the one his students would most like to emulate.
“Having a teacher invested in helping adolescents foster an interest in reading is critical,” Cotillo said. “But equally as important is the personality of that [teacher].
“Our boys in particular really connect with Mr. Kessler,” Cotillo said. “He is a football coach, he is a baseball coach, he is a military guy – all things that our boys aspire to be. It’s really important [for them] to have a role model who embraces all that and has a passion around literature. It makes them feel that it is OK. You’re not going to be a geek if you like to read. It doesn’t make you any less popular, any less macho and any less tough if you enjoy good books.”
Given the strong connection 2LT Kessler has with his students, it can be difficult for him and his class when he must leave for Guard duty.
2LT Kessler’s unit was called to active duty three times in the aftermath of the 2017 hurricanes, Harvey, Irma and Maria, to assist in recovery efforts in Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico.
“First and foremost, our concern is for him and making sure he knows that we support whatever obligation he has [with the Massachusetts Guard],” Cotillo said.
2LT Kessler explained, “I always have lesson plans ready to go in case something comes up, like a natural disaster or some type of training.”
Even with the best-constructed substitute plans in place, Cotillo noted that it is just not the same when 2LT Kessler is away.
“The kids know him, they have [a] relationship with him, and they miss him when he’s not there,” Cotillo said. “You could be the world’s best English teacher, but if you go in there and try to teach the kids a new skill, they are always going to want to know what Mr. Kessler wants them to do.”
Despite the challenges, 2LT Kessler embraces his dual-service roles. “I love teaching and being an active member of the Guard,” he said. “I want to continue to do both and serve my community.”
Cotillo stated that she hopes that more service members will decide to become teachers and help educate the next generation of Americans by sharing with them their unique skills and experiences.
“If anybody can handle being a middle school teacher, it’s a Soldier,” she said.
BY Contributing Writer SPC Samuel Keenan