A teacher in a classroom and a Lt. Colonel in the Wisconsin Air National Guard. They may not seem to have a lot in common. But Shelley Joan Weiss knows they do — she’s been both.
This summer, Weiss saw teachers team up with Wisconsin Air National Guard members to learn how to be leaders at the Educator Leadership Rendezvous at Fort McCoy. They slept in barracks, climbed up a rope on a 50-foot tower, and ate MREs.
“Within minutes they all realized that they were working on the same thing, trying to support young people to be their best,” Weiss said.
That’s what Weiss has done all her life: lifting up others to achieve their potential both in education and in the military.
Being a leader
Weiss was motivated by her father, Willard Weiss, an Army and Army National Guard veteran who served during the Korean War, Berlin Crisis, Cuban Missile Crisis and the Vietnam War.
He told his daughter to think big when considering a career in the military: “Wait until you can get an officer position.”
Weiss kept that in the back of her mind as she graduated from Columbus High School and headed off to the University of Wisconsin to get a degree in education.
She paid her way through college by cutting hair at Truax Field and it was there that she heard about a position in the Army National Guard.
After scoring high on the military aptitude test, a general told her: “Get in here now, we are taking you.”
Always adventurous and eager to learn, Weiss found the military was the place for her when she enlisted in April 1981.
After graduating from Officer Candidate School, she began teaching at the Academy of Military Science at McGhee Tyson Air National Guard Base.
By the time Weiss retired from the Wisconsin Air National Guard and United States Air Force in 2010 as a Lt. Col., she had been a Chief of Military Equal Opportunities, Officer in Charge of Human Relations, a faculty advisor, an executive officer and an Inspector General. She even learned how to weld, so she could be stationed in the Middle East.
“The military offered me so many things—that I can’t even begin to tell you—it offered me so many relationships with people that I never would have met,” Weiss said. “It also offered me adventure; the opportunity to travel and learn.”
The military also taught Weiss to be a leader.
“I think people would be amazed at the different levels of leadership in the military,” Weiss said.
“That old-fashioned leadership, like Patton ‘we are going to beat the hell out of you,’ is so gone,” Weiss said.
“The military is a huge organization and it recognizes that one style does not fit all leaders,” she added.
“The leaders who respond to the situation are the ones that are going to succeed and rise to the top.”
Weiss says her skill is recognizing the talent and strength of people around her.
She’s used that skill in her civilian career in education as a DeForest teacher, a Waunakee Middle School principal, educational consultant, and also her current role as Sun Prairie Area School District Director of Summer School.
Weiss is most proud when teachers and staff on her team succeed.
“So many people have a lot to offer but we overlook them because they don’t have a title,” Weiss said. “I look for the good ideas that benefit the most people.”
Honoring and helping those who served
Weiss melds her educational and military career in her current role as the Wisconsin Commissioner for the Interstate for the Education of Military Children. When Wisconsin State Superintendent Tony Evers offered the position to her in 2010, Weiss was beyond ecstatic.
“I told him how many cartwheels can I do when I say yes,” Weiss recalled.
Weiss is an advocate for military families that face challenges in the education system with frequent moves to new cities, bases and homes.
She removes barriers so military children can get equal treatment under the law.
It’s important to Weiss to support the men and women in military service now, the veterans who served, and honor those who have died.
Her father, Willard Weiss, designed and developed the site for the Columbus Veterans Memorial.
With her father in his 90’s, Weiss helps with the memorial, along with assistance from her husband Eugene “Brownie” Ehlers, a retired Wisconsin Air National Guard Lt. Col.
Among the bricks at the Columbus Veterans Memorial, are the names of Weiss’s sisters and other relatives who served in the military, showing the family’s commitment to their country.
Weiss can’t imagine her life without the military and the chance it gave her to lead, travel and make connections with other people.
When young people ask Weiss about career options in the military and education, she offers this advice.
“Everyone has got to find out what they want to do in life and see what that will offer,” Weiss said. “My path is not your path-finding your own way—that is so important.”