CAMDEN, NJ – Andrew Anderson was in his early 20’s when he jumped out of an airplane.
It wasn’t the first time he’d done it.
In fact, Sgt. Anderson had been making jumps for years at that point as a para-professional and member of the US Army’s 82nd Airborne. That day, a routine training operation at Fort Benning, a US army outpost that straddles the Alabama-Georgia border, should have gone without a hitch.
But after what he called a “weak exit,” Anderson would break a leg and herniate discs in every section of his back – injuries he still deals with today.
“It's a relatively dangerous thing to do. To jump 1,300 to 1,400 feet. You're only in the air for about a minute so it's actually really common for people to get hurt,” Anderson told TAPinto Camden. “I have a lot of lasting effects in my back and have to go to a chiropractor pretty often. Could I return to active duty? On paper, yes. But I would destroy my body if I did.”
Instead, he would ultimately go a different route: education.
Anderson, now 35, currently serves as an assistant principal at the Mastery High School of Camden – located in the northern part of the city. He lives in Cherry Hill with his wife, Meghan, 4-year-old son, Mick, and 3-month-old, Charlie.
Lessons from serving
Anderson, who is originally from Staten Island and grew up in Freehold, NJ, was interested in teaching even prior to coming to Camden.
He earned an undergraduate degree to teach history but soon joined the Army and was quickly deployed to active duty in Afghanistan. Anderson would spend a year there, and in all serve eight – four with the Army and another four with the National Guard after coming off active duty following his accident.
Anderson served in the 50th Infantry Brigade Combat Team based out of Lawrenceville, NJ, as well as the 112th Field Artillery Regiment in Tom’s River. When he stopped serving around 2013, Anderson moved from Fort Bragg, in North Carolina, to Mount Laurel Township in New Jersey.
He said finding teaching jobs wasn’t easy.
“I applied to about 30 schools and only had like one interview in the first five months after coming off active duty. I literally only had one in-person interview, so it was very discouraging. And then one day I heard from TFA.”
The non-profit, TFA – Teachers for America – boasts their mission is to "enlist, develop, and mobilize as many as possible of our nation's most promising future leaders to grow and strengthen the movement for educational equity and excellence."
TFA sent Anderson to the University of Pennsylvania to earn his master’s degree in special education. Afterward, he would teach at Freedom Prep Middle School, a charter school in Camden, followed by another move to the Mastery High School of Camden – a renaissance school – where he’s spent the last four years. Renaissance schools are neighborhood schools managed by nonprofits.
Anderson began by teaching special education and literature classes at the Mastery school, which he says continues today, but expanded into in an administrative role to help a wider breadth of students.
“I would say discipline and managing others are habits I’ve carried over to teaching,” said Anderson. “In the Army as an NCO [noncommissioned officer], every day you’re checking to make sure people are doing the little things like brushing their teeth, maintaining personnel hygiene, as well as organizing their equipment and knowing where they’re assigned. It made me really good at multi-tasking.”
Anderson, who became an assistant principal within six months of joining the school, said his role as a leader at Mastery is made easier with the school’s clear-cut mission: “to bring students rigorous, engaging instruction in a fun, joyful environment…through a relationship-driven classroom culture, thoughtful use of data and a continuum of student support.”
He feels his emotional barometer allows him to jump from task to task, as well as allow colleagues in need to rely on him whatever the task may be.
“Things that stress other people out don’t necessarily stress me out because of my experience,” he said. “It may be a struggle for some depending on the circumstance, but I have an emotional kind of consistency I’ve developed. Regardless of what it is I treat the task in front of me as my mission.”
Because of his prior experience, Anderson said he has found it rewarding to aid the students that require ESL services - which make up 21 percent of the school and include students who are attending class for the first time ever in the U.S. and are just starting to learn English.
Entering another school year, Anderson said he is looking forward to the Mastery High School of Camden’s first graduating class - set to don caps and gowns and take the stage in 2020.
The school, which serves approximately 650 students, will have a graduating class of about 80 kids.
Anderson said nothing was more apparent during his transition into civilian life than the misconceptions held by the public.
“I think people don’t know what it actually means to have deployed, to be sent to a war zone,” he added. “I’ve been asked by adults and kids alike if I’ve killed anyone or if I have PTSD. I think everybody has different experiences and it’s an ‘everybody’s broken’ kind of thing.”
Anderson maintains communications with military members from both the U.S. Army and the National Guard. He said he gave his son the middle name James, in tribute to a childhood friend and Army member, Douglas James, who was injured while serving.
In addition to keeping in contact with non-active and active members, “there’s also somebody from Utah who will occasionally call at like 2 in the morning because they just need somebody to talk to,” Anderson said.
Despite the trauma he’s experienced from having friends die by suicide or memories of fellow military members lose limbs, Anderson said he would never trade what he endured.
“Nope,” he continued, “I wouldn’t take away one minute of the experience.”