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'How Good a Teacher I Am Matters': Daniel Feehan's Road from TFA to the Obama Administration
In 2009, Daniel Feehan walked into a Chicago elementary school for his first day at Teach For America’s summer institute.
Fast forward to the present, where he’s President Obama’s nominee for assistant secretary of defense for readiness.
While these two jobs would appear to be on opposite ends of the spectrum, Feehan is quick to point out the nexus between them.
“Whether it’s the military or the classroom, the foundation of leadership doesn’t change," says Feehan, who served in the U.S. Army for four years before entering the classroom. "If you’re a leader, you have to have a sense of what your organization is—its strengths, its weaknesses, but most importantly, where it’s going.”
In a recent interview, Feehan, currently the principal deputy assistant secretary of defense for readiness, revealed what the promotion would entail—and how his time with Teach For America was vital preparation for a key role in the Obama administration.
Congratulations on the nomination. How did that feel coming from the President of the United States?
It’s a great affirmation, because the work is very tireless. It takes the coordinating work of a lot of people within my organization, so to get that nomination is an affirming feeling, in terms of a vote of confidence for the work we’re doing that I believe is making our nation a safer place every day.
To hear my name announced, I’ve been so humbled and honored to serve in the Obama administration the last couple of years. It shows how far volunteering into service can take you. Looking back on my own career, I would have never predicted or anticipated any part of that. I think of where I was watching President Obama’s inaugural speech on a broken Internet feed. Then to be there later on, meeting him in person when I was taking part in the White House Fellowship, and now today, hearing my name announced—it’s incredible.
Can you tell us more about the role of assistant secretary of defense for readiness?
The two ways I look at it are: ready to fight and ready for life. I have oversight for the Department of Defense on the readiness of the military and Armed Forces. Ready to fight means that everyone within the military is properly trained [and] equipped, and has the right amount and type of people to be able to do anything we would ask of it, from anything we do in peacetime or the very extreme—that they are trained, equipped, and properly manned to defeat an adversary in full-spectrum warfare.
It takes a lot of analytical work. It takes a lot of making logical cases that are based on economic supply-and-demand in managing. The U.S. military does a lot. It is stressed and it is strained, so balancing the amount of readiness you have is my job. That becomes not just one of managing the force we have, but also making sure that the budget informs and grows the force, and properly trains the force. That’s one way to look at readiness.
With ready for life, I’m constantly thinking about, while we’re making our service members ready to fight, everyone takes the uniform off and becomes a civilian again at some point. It is DoD’s responsibility to prepare them for that transition, and to help make them the best people they can possibly be. That comes as far as our financial education, how service members are able to make smart money decisions, and manage their own budgets with tuition assistance, which is how they educate themselves when they’re in service—how they pursue education in their off-time.
I also oversee how we transition our service members, and that’s something really near and dear to my heart, because it’s something I’ve experienced myself. It really matters. We think of the Great Generation following World War II. We really have an ability to create a new Great Generation. How we do that depends on how well we prepare our service members during and after their time in service. In fact, it’s ironic that after being a teacher, one of the programs I oversee is Troops to Teachers, which allows service members to continue their service [in the classroom].
How did that experience in Iraq set you back on a trajectory for Teach For America?
I dealt a lot with kids in my second deployment and saw the violence of war being pretty indiscriminate in who it touches. I saw a lot of civilian casualties—in particular kids—and I wanted to do something good where I could apply my leadership skills in another form.
I had a four-year commitment in Iraq. It was 2008 at that point, and I was wondering if I would stay in the Army longer than that. I began to think of what might come next for me. I wanted to get back to what had originally driven me as a young man in high school and college, which was to do something of unequivocal good.
One of my old college professors suggested I look at Teach For America again, and so I reached out to the D.C. alumni network, and they patched me in with the national recruiting network. I was still under deployment at the time, and the TFA team worked with me and was very accommodating to me. Eventually I was on a mid-term leave, and I was able to do my interview off-cycle, where I did my intro lesson by myself. It was a really good signal about the organization and what TFA meant.
Where were you placed?
I ended up in what is now the Chicago–Northwest Indiana region. I did institute in the South Side of Chicago, but I ended up teaching sixth grade in Gary, Indiana, for my corps experience. I actually taught in Gary with my future wife, who was a 2004 D.C. corps member. She taught reading and I taught math.
What do you remember most?
I saw so many similarities to the work I had left in Iraq. I’m not calling it a war zone, by any means, but I saw youth pretty much challenged by their environment, and a school in need. The foundation of leadership in the Army is motivating a group of people toward a common end state, or mission accomplishment. It might be one they’re invested in, or one that they’re not, and you have to find out how to motivate them.
In the classroom, I found a skill set that I had that I was able to rely on [and] a mission that has enormous stakes for everyone, in that you really are reliant on each other to make it through—and that’s a classroom, especially with kids who are not necessarily where they need to be. It was an awesome experience to be with those kids and be involved with the community.
Gary is such a unique city, one of great history and great passion, but one that is in the throes of a changing American economy and infrastructure, and a complicated education system that is not, in large, delivering. My second year, 74 percent of them were on grade level with the state assessment, in comparison to their suburban peers in terms of their educational performance.
It is something that I am incredibly proud of, not just for what my kids were able to do, but to hear from them today and know that my impact lasted beyond my days with them in the classroom. It’s not just for the challenge it was, but what I was able to contribute. I felt TFA gave me the preparation needed for it, but was also so realistic and honest with me as far as what to expect. At no point did I ever feel surprised or misled.
Though I’m in policy-making, but not strictly educational policy-making, I’m now in charge of the professional military education policy of the United States military. And what TFA does in a smart way is tying its mission to the long game of policy. I left my classroom with an in-the-moment understanding of the dynamics of that classroom and also how educational policy was impacting it, in terms of making it more or less challenged. Teach For America shaped me as far as the ground-level impact of policy decisions on every classroom in America. I use that same approach today.
You’re now in the Department of Defense, but you’ve said that your time in the classroom has been essential in preparing you for the job. How does working with sixth graders manifest itself when you’re working in the Obama administration?
Whether it’s the military or the classroom, the foundation of leadership doesn’t change. If you’re a leader, you have to have a sense of what your organization is—its strengths, its weaknesses, but most importantly, where it’s going. Where are you taking it? What’s the vision? Because if you’re not thinking about what that vision is, no one else is.
That’s something I do on a daily basis here, with the larger challenge of, how ready is our military? You have to work within the challenges you’ve got, with the budget and limits of resources, or people with preconceived notions of how things are supposed to go. You have institutional challenges going up against you. Thinking of how to anticipate them is one way that my TFA experience completely translates to what I do now.
How about dealing with Congress, where variances of opinion are a daily occurrence?
My current job allows me a chance to talk with a lot of different groups. Congress is an example. The concept of readiness is a complex topic. Every time I do it, I put on my teacher’s hat more than anything—even more than I draw on my military experience. Each [member of Congress] learns differently. Each of them has different angles. Each of them brings their own preconceived notions to the material. Each of them is a different social, emotional being, essentially. You have to be able to speak to every one of them individually in the material you present. You have to be flexible with the type of questions you get.
It’s a classroom, in a sense. I’m a teacher for that time, and that’s how I approach these engagements. And that’s huge, because those are the people who essentially impact the budget under which we operate, the legislation that either provides us great flexibility or limits our flexibility. It’s high stakes here, so how good a teacher I am with Congress matters, and I have my time in Gary, Indiana, to thank for my ability to do that.