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December 12, 2005
Posted online January 7, 2005

Veteran starting second career as a teacher

By Pete Rosenbery

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- Standing in front of a classroom is the last place Cleo D. Robbins envisioned himself after graduating from high school.

Now, as he prepares to graduate from Southern Illinois University Carbondale on Dec. 17 with a bachelor's degree in elementary education, the 42-year-old military veteran and father of three knows the classroom is his calling.

"I feel self-fulfilled when I am working with them," Robbins said during a break at Marion Junior High School, where he is a student teacher. "I'm doing something that matters for the world. I get more out of working with them than I think they get out of working with me."

It is that same drive that transformed the 20-year U.S. Air Force retired master sergeant from a "quiet, disorganized daydreamer" who disliked school as a child into a non-traditional high honors college student. Along the way Robbins moved his family 1,000 miles to pursue a dream – now helping sixth-grade students master language arts, science and keyboarding classes.

Robbins "has got it more together than just about anybody who walks in my door," said Robert L. Simpson, Robbins' academic advisor in the College of Education and Human Services. Simpson answered Robbins' initial telephone inquiry about SIUC more than one-and-a-half years before Robbins started classes in May 2003 and has advised him since then.

"He's known from the start what he has wanted to do. He's never been afraid to dig in and do what needs to be done," Simpson said.

Education wasn't emphasized when he was growing up, said Robbins, who graduated from Pekin High School a semester early in January 1981 because he wanted to get out of school. He first moved to Arkansas where he lived with relatives and worked as a lumberjack in a sawmill, but returned to Pekin about a year later to work in a sawmill there.

At 19, Robbins joined the Air Force, starting as a radar technician; he ultimately decided to make the military his career. While based in northern Maine, he heeded a friend's advice to attend classes provided at the radar site by the University of Maine at Presque Isle. It was there that Robbins enjoyed initial academic success in a subject he disliked as a youngster – language arts. That also was the point at which Robbins started thinking about career choices for life after the military.

A few years later, while stationed at Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana, Robbins began working as a parent volunteer in his oldest son's kindergarten class. He tutored students in his son's classes individually three days a week, kindling his desire to become a teacher.

"That is when I really got hooked on it. It became my goal then," he said.

Robbins earned two associate degrees from the Community College of the Air Force, and finished his last four-and-a-half years in the military teaching classes in effective writing, public speaking and team dynamics to mid-level enlisted personnel.

Robbins contacted and researched numerous universities beginning about three years before his discharge. At 37, he had "no idea" what was involved in becoming a college student, but he also wanted an environment that was safe and healthy for his family.

When he began calling, some universities questioned why he was calling so far in advance of becoming a student and "wouldn't give me the time of day." That didn't happen at SIUC, however, Robbins said.

Simpson "told me A to Z here's what you have do," provided a likely time scenario for graduating as a full-time student, and offered advice about the local area, Robbins said. The family traveled from Colorado Springs to visit the area about a year before he enrolled.

"I may not be in school if it wasn't for Bob Simpson," Robbins said. "When you have a family … you can't dilly-dally with this whole thing. I had to know what was happening before we left and came here. He just made it so possible."

Robbins and his wife, Patricia, live in Carterville. Derek, 18, is a freshman at John A. Logan College; Drew, 13, is in eighth grade at Carterville Intermediate School; and David is in kindergarten at Tri-C Elementary.

Robbins said his family "really sacrificed" in terms of money and family time. He recalls a family meeting he called during his first semester at SIUC because of his concerns that he was neglecting the family. Robbins suggested finishing out the semester, getting a job and doing "something else because I thought they were suffering with my time considerations."

But Patricia Robbins, who works at SIU Credit Union in Marion, provided reassurance, emphasizing that the decision was one the family had made together and they were sticking with the plan, he said.

As he prepares to graduate, Robbins is confident this decision is one he didn't "stumble" into, such as the sawmill or military. Recalling his own school experiences Robbins said his drive is to help his students. Robbins sees positives even on those days when interactions with a student might initially be discouraging.

"I know I am the one who is supposed to be giving to them but that's just not how it works," he said. "I get fulfillment from them."

Robbins' cooperating teacher, Jenna Fletcher, said she recognized the first day Robbins' walked into the classroom he will be a good, highly sought-after teacher. A male elementary education teacher with a middle school language arts endorsement is not very common, but Robbins "also didn't sit back and wait for you to ask him to do something. He just jumped right in and started doing it," she said.

Robbins also brings a different perspective to the classroom than other student teachers – some who are 20 years younger – because of his life experience and having his own children, she said.

In turn, Robbins credits Fletcher's contribution to helping him realize his teaching goal. The support he received from her is "exceptional," he said.

"She provides the best of both worlds," he said. "She allows me the opportunity to plan my own activities and lessons but she is always there to ensure the students' learning isn't negatively affected by my ‘rookieness.' "

Robbins graduates with other December College of Education and Human Services graduates in 9:30 a.m. commencement ceremonies at the SIU Arena.

Robbins was a Highest Honors in Elementary Education scholarship recipient in May. Non-traditional students are highly motivated, said Simpson, and in many respects are easier to work with. They are highly motivated and better time managers, he said.

Academic advisors also want to provide students with as much information as possible.

"If every student was like Cleo Robbins my job would be too easy," he said. "I've tried to take care of him but he has done such a good job taking care of himself he made my job easy."

Providing high-quality, comprehensive undergraduate education is among the goals of Southern at 150: Building Excellence Through Commitment, the blueprint the University is following as it approaches its 150th anniversary in 2019.

© 2005 The Cairo Gate