After returning to civilian life following nearly a decade in the Army National Guard, Riki Baker (Twin Cities '13) soon learned why her military experience was readily applicable to her new career as a third-grade teacher.
May 30, 2016
In Riki Baker’s eight years serving our country in the Army National Guard, she went to South Korea and Honduras, but she vividly remembers her 14½ months as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom the most.
“This was right after all the infantry had cleared out all major threats in Balad, and we were in charge of creating infrastructure for the troops coming in,” she says. “A lot of it was blown up and tore up. There were holes everywhere.”
However, those striking visuals didn’t affect Riki’s eventual career trajectory, but rather, the children who lived there amid the wreckage.
“We were driving in our convoy and kids were running around following us, some of them without any shoes on,” she recalls. “They would come up and say ‘Michael Jackson’ in a way to relate to us.
“I had a five-year-old at home, so it really struck me because I was imagining what it would like if she had to deal with roadside bombs and war violence in her streets. I couldn’t imagine my own child growing up through that.”
When Riki returned to civilian life and her family, she also returned to her career in architecture, but something was missing.
“I liked my job, but it was hard finding fulfilling meaning, as far as something that would have a direct positive impact on society,” she says. “So I studied to be an ESL teacher, and in one of my classes, I met someone who had done Teach For America. The mission spoke to me, so I applied.”
Now in her third year as a third-grade teacher at Excell Academy in Brooklyn Park, about 15 minutes away from Minneapolis, Riki describes her new job as “the perfect fit.”
“I was told so many times I should be a teacher because I like working with kids, whether I’m coaching them [in sports] or raising three of my own,” she says. “I’m drawn toward imagination and creativity, and the focus that TFA has on closing the achievement gap and leveling the playing field for underserved students in low-income neighborhoods.”
Although it’s been 10 years since she left the National Guard, Riki realizes that the soldier in her remains to this day.
“Where do I start? I incorporate so many aspects from my military experience to my classroom,” she says. “I stress discipline with my students and holding themselves accountable while being a part of the team.
“As a teacher, you have to have perseverance when things are challenging. You need order and organizational skills as you build a system of respect. However, a lot of that means you don’t just explain what you’re doing, but also why we’re doing things. The list goes on and on.”
Needless to say, Riki’s students have responded to her methods.
“They ask me about the military all the time,” she says. “I think it’s because they’re so excited to learn about things outside of their own world, so in a way, it became a part of our classroom. I even see students salute me in the halls sometimes.”
Now in charge of molding young lives, Riki reflected on her impact as a teacher.
“My biggest fear is that every year, you have to say goodbye to your students, and you hope you’ve helped put them on the road to be prepared for the future,” she says. “I want to be very real with them about what they may encounter and how we can change things to make the world better for everybody.”
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