Mission Accomplished: Former soldier accepts task of teaching, making a difference with students

stone-1MARSHALL – Mr. Dallas Stone carries a commanding presence in his sixth-grade Social Studies classroom at Price T. Young Middle School. His voice is powerfully soft, with clear pronunciation and a forcefulness that demands attention without necessarily demanding it.

His students respectfully listen to the day’s instruction, which is a lesson on symbols and developing a class “coat of arms.” The assignment is to create a design specifically for the class, and Mr. Stone graciously and patiently answers each question and urges his students to think, to determine, to explore.

The bell rings and Mr. Stone assumes another position in the doorway, as his students gather their supplies and line up for their next class. Once everyone is in their proper place, Stone escorts the entire classroom down the hallway, to ensure that everyone is in the place they should be, heading in the right direction, at the right time, with no exceptions.

It is then, and only then, that Mr. Stone can sit down and relax at his desk. At this point of the day, it is mission accomplished.

DALLAS STONE NEVER thought of ever being anything other than a military man. Born just outside Washington D.C. and growing up on naval bases all over the United States, it was just a given that he would take up the mantle established in his family of serving his country. His father was his idol, a Navy officer who decided upon retirement to plant his family in Houston, Texas.

That’s where young Dallas — yes, in Houston – finally achieved his dream of joining the ranks. However, he did break rank a little bit, deciding to forgo the Navy and join the United States Army with a friend. The determining factor in the decision?

“I’m afraid of swimming,” Stone said. “The Army sounded really good to me.”

He was not afraid of the service, however. He was so ready to join up he signed up for the delayed entry program during the summer between his junior and senior year. The day after he graduated high school, on May 29, 1985, he got picked up to go to basic training.

His graduation day turned out to be the last day of his life as a civilian until he retired from military service in 2008, 22 years later. During that time, he criss-crossed the globe from places like Germany, to South Korea, to Iraq. During that time, he met his wife, Sharon, also a teacher, and they had two children. During that time, Stone kept going to military training schools, achieving rank and looking for his next assignment, his next command. And during that time, he was developing a love for something that while not so obvious in the beginning, would become much clearer as his days as a soldier were drawing to a close.

“My wife started asking me what I wanted to do when I get out (of the military),” Stone remembers. “I said, well, I’d like to teach. I didn’t want to carry a gun anymore. But the one thing I enjoyed was teaching, because I’d gotten into a habit of knowing that wherever I went in the Army, the people I left behind were going to have to carry on. I taught soldiers in the military and I started getting pretty good at it, so I just said that fits. It’s something I’d like to look into.”

His journey to that decision was a long one, however. Dallas Stone was a military man. He couldn’t imagine himself doing anything that didn’t involve serving his country. He was literally born to be a soldier, which is what he knew going into basic training in Missouri and his first duty station at Fort Knox in Kentucky. Stone was trained as a combat engineer, which “basically means you build stuff and then get to blow stuff up.”

His first assignment as a soldier was simple enough: guarding the gold vault at Fort Knox. But the urge to do what soldiers do, to be on the battlefield, was very strong. The gold vault could feel like a cage, a sideline, and Stone wanted to be out on the field.

“I wanted to be where the real Army was, so I kept volunteering to go other places and get more training, trying to make the best of me or the best of a situation I was in,” he said. “I started to really get into my job, really getting to know what I was doing and I just kind of bounced around from place to place and volunteering for all the jobs and duties I could get, and it served me well as far as my career progression.”

His desire to move up the ranks was solely because of his will to fight. But as fate would have it, Stone was never in the right place at the right time in his mind, and it became a frustrating aspect of Army life.

“Every war that came up, I was someplace else,” he remembers. “I was always in a different place. I was in Germany during the invasion of Panama, and a lot of my friends back here in the States were going and I wanted to go but couldn’t. Shortly after (the Berlin Wall) fell, the whole reason for me being in Germany was pointless, so I volunteered to go to Korea because there’s still some conflict over there. So when I got to Korea I got locked in there and then everybody else went to (Operation) Desert Storm. One thing after another…Iraq (in the 1990s), Somalia, all these different places and hot spots were popping up and I wasn’t getting picked up. So I decided and began thinking then, what I’m going to end up doing is teaching others. Whenever I would leave a unit and go someplace else, they would end up going to war. So how can I leave that unit in a better position than when I got there? That became my motive to be a leader.”

His commanders kept asking him questions about promotion, and moving up the ranks, and Stone’s first reaction was “I don’t want to be in that silly club.” As an enlisted man, he saw the relationship between soldiers and officers as an “us vs. them mentality.”

“My NCO then asked me okay, so what are you going to do about that?” he said. “It was an interesting question. My response at first was ‘well, nothing,’ and he responded with ‘well then, you’re just going to be part of the problem then.’ He said if I was going to be part of the solution then I was going to need to join the club. So I went ahead and went to the schools and took the test and I got promoted and became a ‘them,’ but I decided I wasn’t going to be a normal ‘them.’ I was going to do it a little bit different. I made efforts throughout my training to not be like everybody else.”

But he was still looking to join the fight. He enjoyed the schools and the teaching and the preparation, but the soldier in him would never totally give in to simply training others. He was Dallas Stone, military man, and he was in the Army to battle.

It took nearly 20 years, but he finally got his chance.

“I PRAYED FOR combat. I envisioned my life ending in this big fireball of death,” Stone says. “I tried, I volunteered to go anywhere, to get as much combat training as I could to be the one picked to go and fight. Battle is the ultimate test. I find that is most soldiers’ wish, to be tested, to prove you can handle it, to find your mettle. Most people want that in some form or another, but if you join the military you really want to see it.”

In his earlier years it was an obsession, a literal prayer. But it wasn’t until he’d almost given up entering the fight, after he’d become a husband and father, that his call to duty came. And when it came…Stone was developing small, but definitely second, thoughts.

“It wasn’t that I didn’t want to go now, but you know, the Lord had brought me to a place in my life to where I no longer wanted that fiery ball of death,” he said. “My prayer was answered by getting an assignment, but when it came I was a father and a husband and all I wanted then was just to go home.”

Stone was deployed to Iraq in the early 2000s, and was placed in charge of a headquarters company where he was the commanding officer of a group of mechanics, cooks and medics. His job was to set force protection, building walls to withstand mortar fire and to set up gate guards and configure base camp. Rarely did he find himself outside the walls, but a couple of times he did venture out into the war.

“This one time I did, we got hit with what they call IEDs (Improvised Explosive Device) a couple of times,” he said. “I never got struck by it, but I got into a firefight while were were going to check on a small unit in an area that American troops hadn’t been in in a long time.”

Once the unit arrived at the location, Stone says they were engaged by “hostile elements.” He still remembers the moment vividly, but the memory isn’t of fear but simply more of a feeling of just doing his job.

“It just kind of went downhill pretty fast and we got into this firefight,” he said. “Nobody died or anything like that, but I did fire exactly 28 rounds from my rifle and I got two bursts off from a squad automatic weapon. The guy was a radio operator and he’d frozen when we started taking fire, and I had to kind of wake him up by pulling his trigger. It woke him up and he just kind of kept on going with it.”

The battle lasted long enough for Stone to “get a taste” of the battlefield he felt he’d been training for all his life.

“I remember the initial feeling of we were being shot at, and the feeling was that this isn’t really happening,” he said. “Once it started happening I was in charge of people who weren’t as combat-trained as others, and I had to move them forward to engage the hostile element that was there. So I got my taste of it then, and I got back home.”

Once back home Stone was selected enter the highest-level course work for enlisted men, the Sergeant Major Academy. He attended the academy and achieved the rank of First Seargeant, then spent the rest of his time teaching and preparing new soldiers for combat.

He reached 20 years, which is what he’d first told Sharon was his initial goal in the military. In his own mind, he was prepared to shoot right past that and make the Army his career. But Sharon had other ideas, and once she explained her thoughts to Dallas, he knew it was time. His days as a soldier were nearing an end, and it was time to really, really think about life after the military.

“If it wasn’t for my family, I would’ve stayed in,” Stone says. “I really enjoyed it and had a great time. But, it was hard on my family. After you miss so many birthdays, and so many Christmases, well, it’s time to get out. I got back home and my kids were happy to see me and have me around but there were these little inside jokes going on in the family that made me feel like a third wheel sometimes. I had missed out on a lot, and I didn’t like it. I told my wife that she had followed me around all these many years now, and that now it was my turn to follow her around.”

AFTER TWO DECADES of uniformity, of the strict discipline of military life, Dallas knew he needed an outlet. He would need to find a new place to fit in. He’d already decided that teaching was something he’d like to try out, so just as he’d done his entire military career, he decided to begin building something new.

His first job in education, as a para-professional, was not good, he admits. Seeing his military background, a school hired him as an ISS (In-School Suspension) teacher. While he was able to get the system working during the year, which basically means he got ISS into a place where students didn’t want to be, he calls that experience “the worst mistake of my career.”

After that first year, he found a job “delivering nuts and bolts” while he finished college. When he was close to finishing, he heard of a tragic school shooting where some teachers had died protecting their students. It was a heart-breaking moment, even for someone who’d been hardened by over 20 years in the military. That solidified his desire once again to be part of the solution and not part of the problem.

“In regards to the teachers, the first thing I thought of is that teachers aren’t paid enough to put up that deep of a sacrifice, but these folks literally gave up their lives to protect their students,” he said. “As underappreciated as teachers are, I felt a calling to want to be there and want to do it.”

He had a job offer in Murchison, a tiny community in East Texas between Tyler and Athens. But he got a call from Price T. Young in Marshall ISD, and after coming for an interview and meeting some of the people he’d be working with, Stone felt like the door he’d been looking for had opened up.

“Within a year, I found out something more about this job. I needed to be here,” he said. “This is something for me. I’d love to be able to pass something on to the kids, but I’m getting more out of this. I’m learning more about myself, about my family.”

Stone constantly critiques himself, which is a habit cultivated by the many requirements of being a soldier. That first year of full-time teaching at PTY was a tremendous learning experience, but he found himself believing he could have done better, that he almost felt like he’d cheated the students.

“It’s just as it was in the military; I found myself asking could I have done more? Watching a class graduate and move on, how could I have taught them better?” he said. “It is a compromise between the ‘a-ha’ moment, that you see a child go ‘Oh, I get it,” and the challenge of there’s something else on my mind. A lot of these kids, especially in this district, they’ve got so much going on in their world that they just need a break from their normal stress and challenges. What can I do about that? What can I add? In my opinion, I’m in the perfect arena for that.”

Stone says his career in the military and the skills he learned in the Army provide him with a blueprint for what is needed in his classes today. So while he was building a career as a soldier, he was actually preparing himself for his career after all the fighting days were over.

“Tasks. Conditions. Standards. That was drilled into us,” he said. “The task is, what is it that you want to accomplish? The conditions are, what are the things you have to make this happen? And the standards are, what will you be graded on? That helped me to a point where I had to apply this to everything I did. That really sets the stage. As a teacher, we have all these TEKS (Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills) that we have to teach, tons of them, but which ones are the most important? In the Army we call those ‘battle tasks.’ You have all you need to know to make this unit successful, and these are first. Your mission is to do this, or do that. Here in the educational setting, you sit down with your administrators and instructional aides and say what comes first? What is our mission? What do I need to focus on first? My training in tasks, conditions and standards certainly helps.”

Success as a teacher in his classroom and as a faculty team member at PTY is also measured by the theory of “interlocking fire,” also from his days as an Army man.

“The Army is very big on keep your eye on your own lane,” Stone said. “But when you’re not firing straight ahead at a target, you have to interlock your fire. When soldiers shoot forward, you watch your lane. When you team up with somebody, you actually aim in front of the other person so your fires interlock, creating a wall of lead. Understanding the importance of interlocking fire, and lanes, it becomes much easier to watch my classroom. It’s my classroom, but I’ve also got to look at my teaching family and know that what I do in this classroom will also affect everyone else on the team. If I have a troubled student, I will let my team know. It’s one of the reasons I love this school district. It’s very team-oriented.”

Managing stress – another key skill that must be mastered in military service – is another part of what Stone tries to instill in his students.

“I learned in the military is, what comes first, what should I watch for, when it comes to interacting with people?” he said. “How do they operate under pressure and what their instincts under pressure?

“I’ve learned that people don’t wear out…but, they can rust. I’ve seen this in students. Students don’t wear out, so you can keep working them and working them and teaching them and pushing them. But if you let them set, they’ll rust. Then you have a problem. That is when I learned, that people under stress, what do they revert to? I’ve seen an adult man cry because he had spaghetti for dinner the third time in a row. People will get to where stressers take over, and then my job is to relieve the stressers.”

So with that in mind, Stone makes it a point to try to keep the mood as light as possible in his class, because “learning is a stressful situation if you’re truly learning,” he said.

“Since I’ve been here, I have learned from some of the most professional teachers I know, there is a difference between schoolwork, and teaching,” he added. “There’s this administrative paperwork we have to do because it’s professional, it’s a job. But that doesn’t always translate into what’s going on in the classroom. So, which one comes first? Some of the best teachers I’ve come across at this campus, in this district, all say this: the kids come first. Do not let these kids, these students, suffer. When I have that in mind, and I know my tasks, conditions and standards, and I know my lane and that my team has my back, this is the number one thing. I hear that all the way up from my fellow teachers to the superintendent.”

The challenge of teaching today is a great one, even for a man who has traveled the world and seen true battle conditions up close. Just as he was trained to fight, trained to carry out a mission, and trained to succeed in the United States Army, Stone feels that his days as a soldier have trained him to be a teacher of young people.

Not that schools are a battlefield, but because the future is at stake with young people. As a teacher, Dallas Stone personalizes his calling and breaks his task down into something really, really simple.

“What I leave, I’ve got to live with. These kids are going to run the country one day. I tell them this: don’t give up. You can make it, don’t give up.”

If that happens, First Sergeant Dallas Stone knows the mission can be accomplished.

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