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TILLMAN TUESDAY: From a Green Beret to Teaching, Joshua Tarsky Has a Passion for Education

Pat Tillman Foundation Communications   |   By Jill Walsh   |   July 28, 2015
2015 Tillman Scholar Joshua Tarsky (center) is in his third year influencing students through teaching English at Lawrence High School in the Boston area

Pat Tillman Foundation can’t fulfill its mission to empower military veterans and their spouses without the generosity of our supporters across the country. Nationwide, over 400 Tillman Scholars are striving to impact our country and communities through their studies in medicine, law, business, policy, science, education and the arts. Every “Tillman Tuesday,” we are committed to highlighting the individual impact of a Tillman Scholar, focusing on their success in school, career and community—all thanks to your support. This week, we feature the second scholar from the Class of 2015, Chicago native and Army reservist Joshua Tarsky. Now in his 11th year serving in the U.S. military, Josh also works as an English teacher at Lawrence High School, 30 miles north of Boston, while pursuing his law degree at Suffolk University. In the Army, he was a Green Beret Special Forces Medic (18D) and served three deployments – twice to Afghanistan, once to Honduras.

What motivated you to join the military?

“I was accepted in to Yale University and my first day on campus was September 1, 2001. Then 10 days later I was in my Dean’s office for the first time and saw the towers fell. Something felt like it was irresponsible of me to keep going through school while there was a major, national tragedy happening. Still, I decided to keep going, especially because I was a transfer from a community college, so I didn’t have to do the full four years – I knew I could get out of school a bit earlier. I decided from that moment, I was going to join the military, but wrap up my degree first.

I joined for several reasons – some of it was patriotism, some of it was feeling a sense of responsibility, some of it was a desire to be tested and have those experiences. I read a lot so I felt it would be challenging to understand history and literature without knowing what war was like.”

Still currently serving in the military, how long was your first enlistment contract and what is your current rank?

“My active duty component was initially five years and then I extended to go on one more deployment so it was a total of six years and one month. I then joined the National Guard and have been with them ever since. I’ve served for a total of 11 years and am currently serving as a First Lieutenant.”

What did you learn about yourself while you were serving and was there a moment where you got answers to the questions you had about war?

“Throughout my service and deployment I feel like I learned a lot and changed a lot. I learned the imagination is different than the reality (of war) as far as what I thought it would be like. During my first deployment there was an IED blast, a horrible scene, and the Sergeant Major pulled me aside and said, ‘Tarsky it’s not like the movies is it!?’ That moment sticks in my head when I realized there was a division between what I thought it would be and what it was. It was a slow grind, at times boring, sometimes exciting. There was a lot of camaraderie and it was a very unique experience.

I enjoyed a lot of my experience – it taught me patience, and a lot about what the enemy looks like. I learned a ton about medicine, infantry tactics and feel like I learned my craft. The intelligence piece was interesting, learning what is done with information once it’s collected and the importance of war.”

Did you always want to be a Green Beret in the Army?

“I had just finished my undergrad and I felt their education pipeline was the most robust of all the Special Operations groups. To become an 18 Delta or Special Forces Medic was like a master’s degree in the military. Once I read everything about it, the war, the missions, I just thought that unconventional warfare sounded so awesome. I thought it was a really unique pipeline.”

Tarsky1 

How did you learn about the Tillman Scholar program and why did you decide to apply?

“I’m currently a high school teacher. I spent one year at Harvard Education School so I had cut into some of my GI Bill benefits. I was worried if I went through four years of law school at night though, I wouldn’t make it financially to cover childcare and other expenses not covered by the GI Bill. As a result, I did some research. I had heard about the scholarship program before and had been a fan of Pat Tillman way before I knew the foundation existed. After having missed the application deadline last year, I applied right away this year!”

When you received the call that you had been selected as a Tillman Scholar, what was your reaction?

“I was very excited but tried to remain really cool – it was a very big deal for me! Attending the Pat Tillman Leadership Summit was also a great experience getting to meet some truly exceptional individuals. My fellow scholars are quite an accomplished group.”

What is next for you? What is your goal with law school?

“I’ve come to believe that the biggest civil rights issue we have today is fixing public education in this country – it’s just not done well. I need to learn how to be an exceptional teacher and administrator, but I think it comes down to policy and that’s where I’d like my law degree to come in to play. It will give me access to other areas. I feel like you need good policy to fix public education in this country.”

Five years from now, where do you see yourself?

“I hope I’m still teaching as I really enjoy teaching at the high school level. I could see myself as a local politician, maybe administrator, something along the lines where I could be affect policy in the community and benefit the kids in the area – not only with direct instruction but enhancing some of the mechanisms that lead to good education.”

What’s the biggest challenge that comes with teaching English to high school students?

“I think the biggest challenge is showing kids that learning matters and that it can be fun. I don’t know if technology has totally caught up with some of the school systems. However, I do feel there is so much value in opening a book and understanding what you read and being able to express your thoughts clearly.”

What do feel is more challenging – teaching English to high school students or deploying as a Green Beret to places far too many of us don’t realize exist?

“My first year teaching English in an urban high school was among the most challenging years in my entire life – you could lump that with any experience I’ve had, and there’s been some rough years throughout my life. I was under siege as I was hired two days before the school year started and had no training and didn’t know what I was doing. I was handed my class and was told, ‘good luck!’ Even during my first deployment I had training for well over two years. Teaching high schools kids who are strangely against you in many ways… you have nothing to fall back on. My first year was an absolute nightmare! I challenge anyone no matter how smart, how accomplished they are, to go in to an urban classroom and try to do a good job – they will struggle, I don’t care how good you are.”

Upon graduating with your law degree from Suffolk University, what is the next step in your career?

“My degree from Harvard is in International Educational Policy with the goal of learning how to make all the players in a war zone play well together and fix the system with all the resources we have. I realized though that we’re as needy as places like Afghanistan in different ways – we may have much better security for our schools, but the challenges of finding and keeping good teachers is a big problem. Closing the achievement gap is a very difficult thing. Fixing education is super challenging and it’s a shame that there are not more people volunteering to go into teaching. I hope to help change all of that.”