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New Horizons: A Classroom at Sea

Manning a Classroom at Sea: An adventurous teacher sets sail

—Svetlana Shkolnikova

John Chapin was more than content to spend all 36 years of his teaching career in the same classroom at South Portland High School in Maine.

When it came to retirement, however, he decided to leave behind not only his classroom but his home as well.

“I was ready to take on a challenge,” says Chapin of his decision to apply to teach in the Navy College Program for Afloat College Education (NCPACE).

The program provides members of the U.S. Navy the opportunity to earn a degree while deployed at sea.

Chapin, a former social studies teacher, was introduced to the idea several years ago when a military official came to speak to his military studies class. Over the next several years, he began to seriously consider it as an option after retirement.

After a rigorous application process, a security clearance, and an extensive physical examination, Chapin was admitted into the program several months shy of his retirement in 2006.

Since then, Chapin has taken part in three deployments of about three months each, teaching aboard two aircraft carriers and a destroyer, traveling from Tokyo and the Pacific to countries in the Persian Gulf and beyond.

Besides the change in scenery, teaching on a warship is not all that different from teaching in a school, says Chapin. He’s still teaching American history, but his students are much more diverse in age and experience.

“The kids come from everywhere, which is a neat thing,” says Chapin. “They become great resources. I’m out there learning as much as they are.”

Adjusting to a lack of teaching resources proved to be more difficult. Internet access is sporadic and mostly limited to those in the upper ranks, so Chapin had to make do with just textbooks and what he managed to bring onboard.

“I am the college when I’m there,” says Chapin. “I’m the president, I’m the manager of the bookstore—I’m a one-man band.”

Still, Chapin describes each of his deployments as “cruises” that he can’t believe he gets paid to take. With nearly 20 decks full of things to do and see, life on the ship is never boring.

“I can go just about everywhere,” says Chapin. “It’s got everything a city’s got with almost every profession represented.”

Chapin has been able to watch carriers in action while standing on flight decks and has even experienced a three-day typhoon while at sea. On the several occasions when the ship stops at a port, Chapin gets to experience different cultures firsthand.

“I always look forward to the next assignment,” says Chapin. “I’ve made great friends and I travel the world—how many people have done that?”

Chapin plans to work for NCPACE as long as he passes the annual physical. While the travel is a perk, he says it’s the students who inspire him to keep getting on board.

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