Guardian Teacher: Local Educator Balances Two Careers
Writer / Joshua Deisler
Kelly Townsend was sitting at his desk, watching as his students gave presentations when his mobile phone rang. The calls kept coming. Perhaps it was the hospital, he thought. Perhaps his infant son had come out of NICU. Soon came a knock at his classroom door. The messenger’s words came as a surprise: “You need to call your commander.”
He soon found himself on the phone with the National Guard and then in his principal’s office, telling him he wouldn’t be back. It was April 2004, and Kelly was being deployed to Afghanistan.
“There was always something in the background pulling me toward serving my country,” says Kelly, a North Central teacher for over 20 years. Indeed, the military has long been a family affair: his grandfather served as a bomber in WWII, and his father fought in Korea and Vietnam. Kelly remembers his father’s long absences – hot summers of playing soldier and opening packages of cassette messages from his dad.
Kelly lived his childhood at different military bases; in fact, he spent his high school career in Japan. After his family moved to Ft. Harrison, Kelly took an ROTC scholarship at Notre Dame, hoping to eventually work as a journalist. “When you grow up in military culture, you are very conscious of what’s going on elsewhere,” he says.
Kelly soon was placed on active duty and deployed to Iraq in the first Desert Storm where he served on the frontlines against enemy tanks. When he returned from Iraq, he entered the Master’s program at IU to obtain his teaching degree and eventually joined the National Guard.
In the wake of September 11, Kelly spent his weekends training with the National Guard and his weeks teaching everything from AP English and British Literature to speech and critical thinking. After several months of training in 2004, Kelly was soon saying goodbye to his wife and infant son.
“The beautiful thing about the Guard is when we go somewhere to do something, we’re bringing our jobs with us,” says Kelly, who was assigned to teach and train Afghani troops in infantry, tactics and operations. Throughout his deployment, recalls Kelly, the most challenging part was not desert terrain. “I felt very at home in the dry heat,” he says. Rather, he says it was the cultural and ethnic nuances of Afghani society.
Perhaps Kelly’s most treasured memory of his deployment is returning home on leave. His wife, also a North Central teacher, notes that their son, Levi, waited until his dad arrived home to speak his first words and take his first steps.
But Kelly was not finished with the National Guard. He soon was activated again and traveled around the region to train Military Police. Years after Afghanistan, Kelly was again scheduled for deployment, this time for Iraq, where he worked in messaging and communicating with the Iraqi army. Kelly wasn’t too worried about leaving school again. “They were used to it,” he says.
When Kelly returned to North Central, he began working to help students pass language arts ISTEP. He recalled his missions in Iraq and how he used targeting and communication to help others improve – he applied the same principles to his students.
For Kelly, the greatest thing about having two careers – three counting his family – is the unique experience he brings to the classroom. “Whatever these kids are interested in doing, I know a guy in the Guard who does that job,” says Kelly. When his seniors write their final papers and look for experts to interview, chances are Kelly knows someone who can help.
Kelly strives to bridge the gap between the classroom and the real world. As he was co-teaching an American Studies class, students were studying the novel, “The Things They Carried.” He then took his class to an Armory Guard to observe Vietnam Era weaponry.
After 22 years in teaching and over a quarter century in the military, Kelly keeps guard not just over his trainees and fellow soldiers, but also over his students. To Kelly, the National Guard is simply an extension of what he does best – teaching and training. And now, some of his students have followed his example and become guardians themselves.