Chris Clary remembers sitting in his high school math class wondering if what he was learning in school would be useful in life.
Fast forward 20 years and Clary will tell you that as he has advanced through his military and government career, he’s used his public school education almost daily. As a product of Oklahoma’s public education system, Clary has relied on the knowledge he gained from teachers who invested in him.
“No matter the location or circumstances, dedicated public school teachers are changing the world for good. “They are having a positive impact on not only this state but also the nation and the world.Chris Clary, U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs Senior Partnership Officer
“I am fortunate to have had teachers who were passionate about sharing their areas of expertise,” Clary said. “But, it is not just what teachers taught me, it is also what they showed me by being a positive role model. The attributes and qualities I saw in my teachers are the attributes and qualities I have seen in every impactful educator I have worked with around the world from the United States to Afghanistan to Vietnam and Romania .”
Clary is the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs Senior Partnership Officer, responsible for developing public-private partnerships to support public diplomacy programs and academic exchanges worldwide.
Previously, he served as an Afghanistan-based project manager for an international nonprofit organization, implementing humanitarian efforts in Europe, the Middle East and Asia-Pacific. Prior to his international work, Clary served in the Army as a Special Forces soldier deployed three times to Afghanistan.
“No matter the location or circumstances, dedicated public school teachers are changing the world for good,” Clary said. “They are having a positive impact on not only this state but also the nation and the world.
“I can personally connect so many of the decisions I have made to the investment my teachers made in me. My teachers in middle school and high school taught me skills like time management and how to study. Those skills were invaluable as I began the journey to become a Special Forces soldier.”
Special Forces soldiers are legendary for taking on the most sensitive mission in the Army. Clary explained that to make it onto a Special Forces team, each soldier must graduate from a qualification course. This could take two years, depending on the training requirements.
“During those two years, there are a lot of self-study assignments, homework and tests,” Clary said. “One specific portion of the course I took consisted of mandatory tests every Friday. Depending on the test, if you failed you would have a chance to retake it, start that portion of training again or be cut from the program.”
Clary found himself at an advantage due to the effort of his public school teachers. “The course was challenging but for my classmates who had not learned how to study, manage their time or prepare for tests, the course was extremely challenging,” Clary said. “Many did not make it to graduation day.”
He graduated and became a Green Beret. For his service, Clary was awarded two Bronze Stars and the Army Commendation Medal, among other honors.
Because of his military career and humanitarian work, Clary had the opportunity to see education from a global point of view. He observed how creative educators can be and how educators persevere through the most difficult situations.
In Romania, Clary worked with a rural school that didn’t have funding to purchase the latest text books.
“The teachers were willing to think creatively to find sustainable solutions to meet the needs of the students. The teachers shared that if we could provide laptops and projectors, they could get digital copies of the latest text books,” Clary said. “So that is what we did. We provided laptops and projectors. Because of the teachers’ creativity when it came to problem solving, the students now have access to the latest information.”
Clary found that same creativity in central Afghanistan.
“There weren’t any formal schools built in the area because it was not safe for children to go to school. Working with teachers, we provided the supplies needed for mobile outdoor schools such as rugs, tents, chalk boards, backpacks, and pens and paper,” Clary said. “The teachers’ creativity allowed them to overcome an extremely challenging situation in order to make sure that children in a war zone could continue to learn.”
Safety was also a major concern for teachers in Afghanistan.
“I worked alongside teachers and administrators as they intervened for the safety of their students. The teachers heard that criminal organizations were attempting to recruit the young men. The teachers wanted to create a safe place for the boys to be around positive role models where they had accountability,” Clary said. “We created an after school soccer program. There was real danger outside the school walls, but inside, the students found safe relationships and an alternative to what was being offered outside.”
While working in Georgia, Clary saw teachers who provided leadership in an ethnically diverse region of the country.
“The school in a small Georgia town was more than a school, it was the centerpiece of the community, but the gymnasium deteriorated to the point that it was no longer usable. Working with the school staff,” Clary said, “we refurbished the gym so that children and their families from very different backgrounds would have a place to build community together.”
Clary is grateful for his time spent in public school classrooms. He learned skills he could use around the world. At the same time, what he observed in educators around the globe made him that much more thankful for the impact educators at home had on his life.
He recently served as the keynote speaker for the 2022 Excellence in Education Awards Banquet, sponsored by the Professional Oklahoma Educators Foundation. Clary shared the following appreciation with educators, administrators and support staff in attendance.
“Those of us outside the classroom may not always see or may not always be aware of struggles in the classroom, but we see you as an educator show up, each day with a smile on your face,” Clary said.
“Teachers have the privilege of helping children from diverse and disparate backgrounds navigate interactions. You model healthy interactions and conflict resolution on a daily basis. You find creative ways to reach students, to engage families, to acquire supplies…whatever is necessary to help students succeed. And, regardless of the external pressures, interruptions and distractions from outside your classroom, you persevere.”
Clary is a native of Norman, Oklahoma and an Eagle Scout. He attended Norman Public Schools and graduated from Norman North High School. He completed an independent study abroad in Kenya and received his Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Oklahoma. His father, Hal Clary, retired from teaching after 40 years at Noble Public Schools.