Katie Peterson | Staff Writer
Marine Corps Lt. Col. Tom Chhabra, an assistant professor in the Department of Joint, Interagency, and Multinational Operations, has been named the Command and General Staff College Military Educator of the Year.
Chhabra was chosen as the top military educator from six nominees.
Instructors are nominated by their department and are evaluated by CGSC board members representing six departments on nominee packet submission, instructor observation both in-person and virtual, and an instructor interview.
“It’s humbling (to win), but the credit doesn’t go to me. The credit really goes back to the students,” Chhabra said. “If the students weren’t there then there’s no reason for education to be there.
“If I had to draw concentric circles with me in the middle, right next to me is all the students, then the next layer is my teaching team colleagues, the next layer is my department and so on,” he said. “It’s really a team effort to get there so I appreciate the recognition, but it is very humbling to know that others view me as the top educator in the college.”
Chhabra has taught at CGSC for nearly two years. His prior teaching assignments include the Marine Corps Low Altitude Air Defense School and distance education programs through Marine Corps University.
He completed his undergraduate education at Penn State University, has earned three master’s degrees and is currently working on his doctorate of education in organizational change and leadership from the University of Southern California. He also completed the Marine Corps equivalent of the Command and General Staff Officer Course through a distance education format.
Chhabra said he views himself as a facilitator, not an instructor.
“Actually, what I tell my students early on is that I’m a co-facilitator and they are also co-facilitators,” Chhabra said. “There are a lot of qualified, very smart students. They got here for a reason, so I don’t really need to run the show. I just need to facilitate the discussion based around the curriculum and really leverage their expertise for classes.
“As a Marine, having a complementary perspective of Army operations … is also good to get those points across in discussion,” he added.
Chhabra said that co-facilitation method of instructing didn’t change when COVID-19 precautions forced distance learning and more technology use.
“My background from Marine Corps University and also the intersection of education and technology is an area that is very interesting to me. I didn’t look at it as a challenge,” Chhabra said. “I looked at it as an opportunity to see what we could do and what the limitations are.
“I think our staff did a really good job over the last few months integrating collaboration tools and technology to facilitate our educational journey,” he said. “It’s unique to this year because of COVID-19, but some of those things I probably would’ve worked with anyway because I like that intersection of education and technology.”
Chhabra said he enjoys teaching at CGSC.
“What gets me up in the morning is going there and working with the really high-caliber students and my colleagues,” Chhabra said. “(Teaching is) about co-creating knowledge. That’s not just the students learning from each other and from me, that’s me learning from them.
“As a lifelong learner or educator, I’m still learning,” he said. “The last two years, I’ve had really good students that were bringing their best game to the classroom and that helps me get better, so it’s that cycle. That’s what I enjoy the most, the co-creation and knowledge to learn from the students, learn who they are, learn their background and see how they progress through their career. It’s reciprocal.”
Chhabra’s students agreed that he deserved the recognition and weren’t surprised by it.
“He does a nice job of tailoring the coursework to the needs of the staff group while making considerations for what parts of the lesson are most interesting to the students,” said Air Force Maj. Robert Hetherington. “This fosters a learning environment where it is fun to learn. He is also great about encouraging feedback from the students, and as a result, the students stay engaged and the coursework improves.
“He continues to pursue his own educational opportunities and then shares some of his recent experiences with the class as they are relevant to the coursework,” he said. “This encourages students to continue their own self-development and perhaps pursue further educational opportunities available at CGSC which are beyond the minimum requirements.”
Maj. Katie Baumann said Chhabra’s passion for his students is evident.
“He is the type of leader that remembers the names of your family members, your hometown and what you like to do in your free time,” Baumann said. “He motivates our group and challenges us to get out of our comfort zone.
“Lieutenant Colonel Chhabra is the main reason our small group gets along so well, and I can say with confidence that we are all very excited and happy for him,” she said. “He draws upon our experiences in the military and creates an environment where all of us can learn from each other. His teaching style has absolutely prepared our class to make the transition for our formative key developmental major years.”
Chhabra will go on to represent CGSC in the Training and Doctrine Command Instructor of the Year competition.