Student at Penn GSE Cruises From Coast Guard Officer to High School Teacher

Robin Williams’ performance in “Dead Poets Society” inspired Carl McLaughlin to become a teacher.

Now a student in the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education, the 27-year-old from Northeast Philadelphia is on his way to inspiring the next generation.

After attending George Mason University and earning an undergraduate degree in global affairs in 2009, McLaughlin went onto serve in the United States Coast Guard for four years.

“An often overlooked service branch, the Coast Guard performs thankless but essential missions during war and peace,” McLaughlin says.

As a boarding officer in the Coast Guard, he was responsible for law enforcement duties like drug patrols. McLaughlin rose to the rank of lieutenant and continues his military commitment on the weekends as a part of his military reserve obligation.

But, thinking back to his many nights of watching “Dead Poets Society,” he believed that he could do more and decided to make a difference in the lives of young people through teaching.

Specializing in social studies, he is a student in Penn GSE’s Teacher Education Program, a full-year student teaching program that involves taking courses while also teaching in Philadelphia’s public schools.

McLaughlin teaches at the Academy at Palumbo, a magnet school in South Philadelphia’s Bella Vista neighborhood. This semester, he’s teaching 9th grade world history. In the spring semester, he’ll also teach U.S. history to 11th graders.

“It’s extremely rigorous and my time in the military definitely helps me cope with the schedule and workload,” McLaughlin says.

When it comes to the challenges of working in an urban environment, McLaughlin takes issue with the misconceptions associated with teaching inner-city children.

“It’s perpetuated by the film industry to make urban students seem unruly or resistant to learning. I haven’t found that at all,” he says. “My students have been nothing but respectful and eager to learn. That’s our job as teachers –- to make the material interesting and engaging.”

This year, his goal is to instill in his students a lifelong passion for learning and a habit of critical thinking. He wants for them to step out of the box and question everything, just like Robin Williams’ character did for him.

McLaughlin will graduate in May with an M.S.Ed, as well as a certification in social studies, once he passes the Praxis II content area exam. He’s also looking to stay in the military, but he’s hoping to do something a little different.

“I got the chance to work with some Green Berets a few years ago, and it really lit a fire in me,” McLaughlin says. “Luckily, teaching is a profession that meshes well with continued service in the Reserves or National Guard.”

After Commencement, McLaughlin plans to immerse himself in the training that’s required to be a part of Special Forces

While he has leadership experience, he admits that his maritime experience may not translate well and that he needs to fine-tune his skills as a soldier.

At this point, the future is wide open.  

“I plan on teaching for a few years and then running for some level of public office,” McLaughlin says. “Most people with political ambitions tend to become lawyers because of the connections. But I think teaching is a great way to get involved in the community and work for social justice at the same time.”

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