Since he was a boy, Jeff Wiseman knew he had a future in the automotive industry – he just didn’t know which direction his passion would take him. Luckily for family and his students, that path turned out to be circular.
Jeff Wiseman, Automotive Technology instructor at Rockbridge County High School in Lexington, VA, was recently named the April finalist in the B’laster Instructor of the Year contest, presented by Tomorrow’s Technician.
“My grandparents owned a dairy farm,” Wiseman says. “My grandad was an electrical engineer who worked with DuPont and my dad ran the farm. My mom and dad worked side-by-side for 27 years in a milking parlor. I have so much love and respect for them because they’re so dedicated to each other.”
Wiseman says he had dirt bikes and four wheelers growing up and eventually got tired of them breaking. By the time I was about 12 years old I started trying to rebuild a carburetor and change tires by myself. It took me hours, but my dad and grandfather showed me a few things.
“I knew how to do basic stuff, like rotate a tire or maybe change the oil or something. But what really probably pushed me into the automotive field was one of my dad’s favorite sayings whenever we would have a problem with the car. He would say, ‘Well, keep driving – You’re not a mechanic and neither am I.’ I’ll be honest – it made me want to become a mechanic!”
Wiseman says he still figured his career would be agriculture-oriented until his grandfather announced he was planning to retire, and his father’s rheumatoid arthritis made it impossible for him to continue running the family farm. “I mean, one of the hardest working toughest men I know just couldn’t do it anymore. So, we sold the farm and during high school I thought, “Man, what am I going to do now?”
Wiseman’s high school career led him to Valley Vo-Tech in Fishersville, VA and, in his senior year, started working at a local Ford tractor shop.
“I started fixing small engines, working on some of the smaller stuff and then graduated up to some of the four cylinders and beyond.”
Following high school, Wiseman served in a variety of automotive location, including Hyundai and Toyota dealerships. During this time, he was able to get training through the dealers’ schools, eventually earning his apprenticeship certifications and Master ASE Certifications.
“I went to the Augusta County Bus Garage, working on school buses and dump trucks for about three years,” Wiseman says. “It was a really good job, but I ended up needing major back surgery.
A debilitating spinal condition called Scheuermann’s kyphosis disease forced Wiseman to again reconsider his career options. “My
doctor said, ‘You can put off the surgery for a little while, but by the time you’re 60 or 70 …’
“Well, I realized I can’t bend over a car hood all day anymore, but I wanted to take all this information that I have and pass it on and try to help the next generation.” As it turns out, he had been already been leading the next generation without realizing it.
“Looking back, it’s kind of interesting,” he says. “Whenever we had a new guy start at a shop my bosses would put them with me and I would train people. I think it’s because I’m a pretty personable guy and I can talk. So, without realizing it, I was preparing to be a teacher.”
While he was working at the Augusta County Bus Garage, my boss approached me and said, ‘We have a special needs kid – his mom’s wanting to know if we can have a spot for him here.’ And I told him, I’d be happy to help him out. I showed him how to check air pressures and drain oil, rotate tires, and wipers – the basic stuff. His parents were so excited, and I still count that experience as one of my personal success stories.”
Wiseman says “I’ve seen so many people come and go in this industry, and I just remember thinking there’s such a huge need for automotive technicians. I find this career to be pretty rewarding. I like the challenge and I like to have something different every day. When I started dating my wife, who is a teacher at an elementary school she told me how rewarding it is working with kids. As it turns out, she was instrumental in working with me as well.”
With a degree in Automotive Analysis and Repair from Blue Ridge Community College and convinced that he was making the right career move once again, Wiseman applied for a part-time position teaching automotive technology to adults at night. “The job was at the same vocational school I attended in high school. I worked really hard, made my own curriculum and things worked out very well. I was able to get several students from my classes jobs in the automotive field. I did that for about five years,” he says.
During this period, he was also a shop foreman with the Harrisonburg Department of Public Transportation. “The lead instructor for Valley Vo-Tech retired, so I applied for the job. Though the school was extremely happy with his adult classes, the full-time job went to another instructor who already had his teaching license and several years of classroom experience. “I’m not going to lie – I was a little bit disheartened about not getting the job. Well, there’s no guarantees in life and it’s just not, in my opinion, what God had in plan for me at the time.”
Wiseman says it wasn’t long before his current school came calling – but making the full-time jump to the classroom took a leap of faith. “I’ve worked really hard my whole life at dealerships, independent shops and then also moonlighting at my parents’ garage for years. And I finally got to the shop foreman position. It was a pretty big decision, because I’ve never taught high schoolers before.”
As it turns out, Wiseman found he loves it. It’s not easy, the shop setting isn’t perfect and the current schooling situation could be a lot more stable, but his passion and innovation have helped him succeed far beyond his imagination. And both of those attributes have been tested over the past year.
“At the very beginning of the year, we were trying to figure out how to reach the kids. This is a hands-on class and I can teach theory about automotive all day long, but everybody who’s in this business knows you’re not really learning unless you get your hands dirty.”
Though his school was not offering in-person classes, Wiseman gives praise to his school for its adaptability. “Rockbridge County Schools is a great place to work and they are not afraid to try new things. I feel this school system has thought outside the box and has done everything it could to get the best education possible for these students in these crazy times,” he says.
Wiseman developed a program that allowed students to sign up for half-hour training sessions in the parking lot. “I would have two cars, socially distanced away, under canopies. I’d have the tools and the kids could just go through and take the spark plugs in and out of a four cylinder.”
Wiseman admits the concept only went so far – “We were able to do it until the weather got bad,” he says. “After that, I realized the kids are sitting in front of the computer screen while conventional classes like history and science load them down. I wanted to get them away from the computer screen as much as I could.”
His solution was simple – and genius. “I bought a bunch of plastic engine kits online and passed them out to the students. I sat with a camera strapped to my chest or my forehead and I made five- or ten-minute assembly videos. I then put those videos on YouTube and put a Google Classroom link to that. They watched the video and assembled the engine themselves. They had to take a picture of their progress and submit it to me. I’d check the picture and give them a grade. Once the whole engine was built you could push a little button – it makes engine noise and lights up and the valves kick and everything. And it’s not perfect by any stretch, but at least it’s just a basic understanding that shows ‘here’s how the crankshaft fits to connecting rod, which goes to a piston that goes up and down.’”
The students all got to keep their engines – Wiseman admits he has no use for that many tiny plastic pieces in his shop. “They’ll have a nice paperweight for their desk one day or something – maybe the first engine they ever built.”
For his more advanced students, Wiseman says his classroom had been cluttered with dozens of old Honda push mower engines, like from a small engine course taught years before.
“These were Honda GXV160 engines and I did the same thing with them. I took it apart and made about 11 ten-minute videos. The students got the engine and a toolbox with instructions to watch the video and, every 10 minutes, stop where I stopped, take a picture and show it to me.”
Success was immediate. “It got the students away from the computer and had them using their hands. As I took things apart, I would explain things to them. Then then I had them put it back together. It was a case of ‘Let’s think outside the box. And how can we get these kids using their hands, turning wrenches?’”
Wiseman’s newest hands-on teaching technique involves plastic circuit boards and low-priced multimeters to explain the basics of electricity. “It’s been going well,” he says. “I’ve had a lot of good feedback and a lot of parents are happy that we’re doing these things. We’re back to a hybrid education plan now, but I continue to just try and do whatever I can to promote my program.”
Wiseman says friends would confirm that he’s proud of what he has accomplished in only 3 years at Rockbridge County High School. “Well, I’ll be honest with you; I jokingly pretend like I’m the best around but being nominated as a finalist for the B’laster Instructor of the Year is very humbling. I do try really hard and I’m very passionate about my job. I want my kids to succeed.
“I just know there’s so many great technicians and instructors out there – I’m only in my third year of teaching. But I’ve already learned so much and I just can’t wait to learn even more.”
The B’laster Corporation – makers of the penetrant, PB B’laster – has been searching all year for the third annual automotive technology B’laster Instructor of the Year. In partnership with Tomorrow’s Technician magazine, B’laster has recognized exceptional automotive technology instructors at high schools, vo-tech programs and community colleges across the United States.
Each month, Tomorrow’s Tech and B’laster chose an instructor’s story to feature in an online interview format. Seven instructor stories have been chosen from November 2020 through April 2021, and those instructors will be entered into the final round to be named the B’laster Instructor of the Year in May 2021.
For more information about the program or to read the stories of past finalists, click HERE.