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A Teacher, No Matter Where

When NEA Foundation award winner and U.S. Navy reservist Philip Forgit was sent to Iraq, he found himself in surprisingly familiar territory.

The students sitting in front of Virginia teacher Philip Forgit couldn’t read or write, so he did what any good educator would do: he found a way to help them. But this was no ordinary class. Forgit was in Iraq, and his students were members of that country’s fledgling military.

A U.S. Navy reservist called to active duty, Forgit was responsible for readying the soldiers for their new military duties. When he realized they couldn’t read or write their own language, he knew the first lesson would have to be literacy training. So in addition to his regular military duties as an advisor to the Iraqi army, he used local contacts to find an Iraqi teacher willing to take on the risk of working with the U.S. military. Forgit set up a one-room schoolhouse, complete with textbooks and posters. The students helped select the school’s name—the Mind and Rifle School—and its logo melding scholarship and military duty.

Philip Forgit accepts an NEA Foundation award for teaching, via satellite from Iraq.
Photo: Juan Carlos Briceno/Foto Briceno

“I found I was able to use my skill sets as a teacher in Iraq,” Forgit says. “Students have different learning styles, just as different cultures have different learning styles. As a teacher, I was very sensitive to that.” Pleased with the results, military officials replicated the literacy school elsewhere.

Devising unique ways to engage students comes naturally to Forgit, a fourth-grade teacher now winding up his tour of duty as the winner of the 2005 NEA Foundation Award for Teaching Excellence. It was his enthusiasm and relentless creativity that caught the eye of Foundation judges. “Tectonic Tex”—one of many educational characters brought to life in the classroom by a singing and dancing Forgit—has become so popular that he’s performed at concerts for thousands of children throughout Virginia, starred in a movie, and had a day named after him by the city council.

Forgit’s leadership and organizing prowess were evident while serving as president in two locals, doubling one’s membership and helping secure salary increases and significant health care benefit subsidies for both districts’ teachers. He even ran for the Virginia House of Delegates in 2003, on a pro-public education platform. Small wonder, then, that Virginia Education Association President Princess Moss recalls, “[when] I first heard that Philip was being called up, I cried.”

That call from the Navy came in August 2005. “All you had to do was look at the news to know it was coming,” Forgit says. He had to report for duty on the first day of school that year. So, on the night he was recognized by the Foundation for his teaching work, Forgit was not in the packed ballroom with his wife, other finalists, and such high-profile guests as former President Bill Clinton. Instead, he was in full gear on the roof of the Palestine Hotel in Baghdad, waiting for a satellite hookup in which he would surprise those back in Washington with a live acceptance speech. “It was surreal,” says Forgit, recalling looking down at the wreckage of a car bomb that had targeted the hotel while waiting for the announcement from NEA President Reg Weaver.

Forgit returned from Iraq this past summer, ready to tackle new challenges and fund-raise on the NEA Foundation’s behalf. Earning the award was not only recognition of his hard work in the classroom but also a powerful motivating force. “The award provides an incentive to ask ‘What can I do now? How can I top that?’” he says.

In answer to his own question, he’s already got something in mind: Mr. Forgit’s Field Trip. He envisions a TV show in which American students ask questions of their counterparts in other countries and vice versa. He is now building up interest in the show, explaining its potential to increase students’ global awareness—something a man who has seen war firsthand believes is crucial.

Cynthia Kopkowski

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