“You want to have that impact on kids that helps them understand how great they are and how great they can be. To be able to do that with even just one—that has great ripple effects.”
High school senior Jaden Schmidt can’t remember exactly how many schools he has attended: “At least six,” he says. Born in Germany into a military family, Jaden has attended schools in Georgia, Hawaii, California, and Arizona.
After his freshman year of high school in Georgia, Jaden’s family moved to Sierra Vista, Arizona, which is the home of the United States Army Intelligence Center of Excellence at Fort Huachuca, the principal training center for Army intelligence personnel.
Changing high schools was a particularly difficult transition for him. “It’s a lot of pressure going to a new school,” Jaden says. “You don’t want to mess up—and you do. You don’t want to be that weird kid. You don’t want to be the kid that no one likes or wants to be around.” He felt overwhelmingly shy, but went ahead and enrolled in Buena’s Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps (JROTC). JROTC had been a constant in Jaden’s life as he moved between schools; but even though he’d had experience with the program, he had never met anyone like Buena’s JROTC instructor, Sergeant First Class Centoria Louden.
“Sergeant Louden has a way of making every kid she talks to feel important. And actually every adult that she talks to, too. She just has a way of being able to reach every single kid.”
Greg Duce, Vice Principal of CTE at Buena High School
Louden is an Army combat veteran who spent 20 years as a human intelligence officer and military interrogator; when she was ready to change careers in order to find a way to be home with her family more, she transitioned into a teaching career. Jaden’s first year at Buena happened to be her first year teaching as well.
Though her Army career had exposed her to the danger of battle zones, Louden jokes that leading a roomful of teenagers has perils of its own. As she adjusted to the classroom in her first year of teaching, Louden says, “I had myself mentally set that, okay, no matter what, I will remember that each one of these children is fearfully and wonderfully made. Period.” After finding her stride as a teacher, her philosophy evolved: “And now, my mindset is, not only are they fearfully and wonderfully made, but I want them to realize that for themselves.”
The pain and sacrifice of her time in the Army, including the stress of combat and long separations from her family, gives her a sense of purpose and perspective when she’s in the classroom with her 150+ students. In addition to framing her mindset, her time in the Army gave her expertise in interrogation that Louden says she relies on with surprising frequency in the classroom—but not quite in the way you might expect. Successful interrogation is actually about empathy, and it is that same empathy that Louden relies on to build connections with her students.
Greg Duce, the Vice Principal of Career and Technical Education at Buena sees that empathy in action every day: “Sgt. Louden has a way of making every kid she talks to feel important. And actually every adult that she talks to, too. She just has a way of being able to reach every single kid.”
Louden says she tries to enter the classroom focused on the needs of her students. She is acutely aware of the pressures her students manage each day—pressures both self-imposed and societal.
“They’ve got AP classes, some of them here take college classes on top of their AP classes. They’re playing three sports, and then they go home and work a job, and they’re helping their parents, and they’re just doing so, so much. And they’re handling it fairly well, given the fact that they’re teenagers.”
When her students face the inevitable pitfalls that come with growing up, Louden reassures them: “There is nothing that you’re doing that hasn’t been done before. So no matter how royally you mess up, you’re doing something that someone’s already done”—and gotten through to the other side.
Louden draws on her personal life as well as her military training to connect with students. Like Jaden, Louden grew up in a military family and experienced frequent transitions in her schooling. She also had special insight into the experience of being bullied: “I was teased a lot in high school. Just putting that out there,” Louden says. Louden has lived the experiences her JROTC students are going through, and she uses that connection to relate to her students personally.
“She is the educator all students hope to get."
Jaden knows from experience that JROTC can be dull in the hands of the wrong teacher. The teacher sets the tone, and Louden’s personal and professional experience brought both energy and rigor to her classes. Jaden says Louden creates a warm and fun atmosphere in JROTC, where students can joke and be themselves.
When you’re new in school and shy, there is an instinct to just blend in, to fade into the wallpaper. It’s easy to go unnoticed. So Jaden was frankly surprised, he says, that Louden took the time to really listen to him, and that she paid so much attention to him, and somehow every other one of her students as well. As Jaden began to feel more comfortable, he found himself beginning to be able to laugh along with his fellow students in class. Little by little, Louden’s energy and enthusiasm helped Jaden come out of his shell and find his home at Buena.
With Jaden thriving in JROTC, Louden suggested that Jaden join CyberPatriots, an education program that was started by the Air Force to engage young people interested in cyber security. The Buena JROTC program established a CyberPatriot team (called the Buena CyberVengers) in 2009; their team won the national competition in 2011 and 2014. As Louden told the Cochise County Herald Review, it’s more important than ever for students to learn about cybersecurity as technology and its accompany risks expand into nearly every aspect of modern life. “I think it’s important tat we have these conversations so that people can build these skills just in general as a population, but also it gives an opportunity for kids to realize, ‘Hey, I’m really good at this and this is something I may want to do in the future. Because there are jobs in it.”
Jaden enjoyed the CyberPatriots team so much that he sees himself continuing in tech and going to college. He might not have joined, he says, if Louden hadn’t encouraged him. “I don’t think I ever had a teacher like that,” he says.
Teenagers are loath to give compliments. In many ways, you need some life under your belt to truly be grateful. But now to the end of high school, Jaden has learned from experience exactly what it takes to be a transformational teacher. That’s what led Jaden to nominate Louden for the Honored National Teaching Award. Jaden’s words in his nomination brought Centoria Louden to tears: “She is one of the finest teachers, coaches and leaders I have had the pleasure and the opportunity to have in my life. She has worked diligently during her time as an educator and has sacrificed her personal time on a consistent basis. She has personally changed my life by coaching me to be a better leader.”
It’s truly amazing how much impact a teacher can have on a student. So often it’s not the math problem they teach you to solve, or the fact you pick up in a class. What made the difference for For Jaden, it was simply having a caring teacher who took the time to engage students on a deeper level. “She is the educator all students hope to get,” Schmidt said in his nomination.
Louden says she never expected to get this kind of feedback from a student, and certainly not this early in her teaching career. “It’s the feedback that says what you’re trying to do was accomplished,” she says. As she blinked away tears, Louden says this award makes her know she’s having an impact beyond what she can see in front of her. “You want to have that impact on kids that helps them understand how great they are and how great they can be. To be able to do that with even just one – that has great ripple effects.”
Photos by Jesse Jackson
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