Naperville teacher boards carrier for new view of Navy's needs
Aboard a ship roughly the size of the school where he teaches, Tom Champion saw quite a few parallels between the worlds of Naperville North High School and the Navy.
The hierarchal structure. The goal-oriented purpose. The required teamwork. The regimented schedule. The learning.
The military has taken a new place in Champion's mind since his roughly 26 hours aboard an aircraft carrier in December. He now sees it as a career destination for students with skills in problem solving, completing complex tasks, communicating and working together.
"The Navy wants people who can learn," Champion said. "They don't want people who know a lot. They want people who can learn and adapt and learn from failure and move on."
Champion, a 49-year-old biology teacher and wrestling coach at Naperville North, participated in the Educators to Sea program for a glimpse of the operations involved and the qualifications required to run a Navy vessel.
Despite the strongly-worded medical release forms, Champion said he had no worries about strapping into a special military transport plane for an abrupt landing aboard the USS Carl Vinson.
There, he wore a white helmet (signifying "you don't know what you're doing") during flight training exercises, observed the ship's rudder control and dined with crew members of various expertise.
"The Navy really is a very technical armed force," Champion said. "As the military becomes more and more advanced, they need more and more advanced people."
What he learned aboard the Carl Vinson is that stereotypes about who enters the military need not apply.
While visiting the ship's hangar deck, flight deck, machine shop and living quarters, Champion met former high school debate team members and auto-shop students who have found a home in the Navy and made it a career. He noted many of them have master's degrees.
"It's not just about being book-smart," he said. "It's about being able to be part of a team and effectively manage stress levels."
The Educators to Sea tour allowed Champion to observe the ship's engineering and nuclear crews and see the area for its medical corps, which even includes a dentist.
The ship was outside San Francisco on its way to Washington state for repairs, so things were far from their busiest, Champion said. But pilots ran training takeoffs and landings at 30-second intervals as sailors, chiefs and master chiefs all worked under the captain's direction.
With his notebook in hand and his phone set to record video, Champion said he took it all in so he could return to Naperville North and share his seaborne experiences.
He shared the most with students involved with the school's robotics, underwater robotics and drone racing programs -- students he sees as more task-driven.
"I think they'd do better in that (military) environment," he said. "Kids who think, 'I'm not just here to read a book and get an A. I'm here trying to learn.'"
Champion also reviewed his carrier tour with Luke Morton, a recent Naperville North graduate and wrestling captain who was accepted into the U.S. Naval Academy.
Morton, who is starting his time with the service academy June 27, said he was interested in the military long before he met "Coach Champ" at Naperville North.
But from Champion, he got letters of recommendation and help navigating the Congressional nomination process necessary to attend a military academy. He got experience leading as a captain on the wrestling squad, helping to establish a structure and "make the guys more invested in the team."
Champion missed a couple of days of wrestling practice in December for the ship tour, something he said he's hardly done in 22 years of coaching. And when he returned, Morton said the coach's excitement about aircraft carrier technology was evident.
"He wouldn't stop about just how high-tech it was, how interesting all the applications of an aircraft carrier are beyond just a projection of force," Morton said.
"It's so much a floating lab, not necessarily just a boat bristling with weaponry. It was interesting to see it in a new light."
The tour also highlighted one of Champion's thoughts on the future of education: it must be hands-on. In his biology classes, it is, with exercises such as analyzing the DNA of shark steaks from a Korean grocer to determine the species of shark.
"Classrooms can't be a place anymore where kids come just to get information," Champion said. "There has to be more for them to do when they come to class than just learn facts."
Tom ChampionName: Tom Champion
Family: Married with four children ages 20, 17, 14 and 12
Education: Bachelor's degree in biological science from Loras College; teaching certificate through North Central College
Career: Biology teacher at Naperville North High School for 21 years; wrestling coach at Naperville North for 22 years