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As the middle son of a midwestern street rodder, Mark Drelicharz sounds like the typical blue color hero in a rock and roll anthem. His love of all things automotive may sound genetic, but he’ll be the first to tell you, his journey has been a relentless pursuit of technical know-how.
Mark J. Drelicharz, Applied Technology instructor, Fenton High School, Bensenville, IL, was recently named the February finalist in the B’laster Instructor of the Year contest, presented by Tomorrow’s Technician.
“My dad grew up in Chicago in the ’60s and he and his brother hung out at Tony’s Diversey Shell and rented garages all over the city where they’d store different race cars and car parts. They were street rodders who would drag race on the weekends,” says Drelicharz.
“I got the bug because my older and younger brother were always inside watching television or playing sports, while my dad was out in the garage. I’d be out with him, playing with the tools, working on my bicycle and helping him if I could,” Drelicharz recalls. “He was building a ’23 Ford T Bucket and then later on a ’31 or ’32 Ford sedan. He welded the frame himself; he stitched the interior…and I held tools. Usually, I held the flashlight incorrectly and got yelled at, of course.”
It was from those initial hands-on experiences that Drelicharz began to understand the value of non-stop learning in whatever form it presented itself.
“My dad was electrician for the city of Chicago. On the weekends, I’d go and work with him when he would do work at neighbors’ houses or houses of friends in the city. We’d stop in different speed shops throughout the city and I’d learn about cars and parts.
“I got my first car with lawn mowing money when I was 14, a ’65 Plymouth Barracuda. Slowly I started teaching myself how to work on everything through books at the public library, learning by doing stuff with my dad over the years.”
His professional career started at age 18 when he got a job at Wilmette Auto Body in Wilmette, IL. However, Drelicharz says, it was more than just a job. “It was there I learned the meaning of honesty, passion and true leadership in business and industry,” he says. “The owner, Glen, took me under his wing and gave me many chances to succeed, which helped turn me into the driven person that I am today. If I hadn’t started with that shop at that age, I may not have made it as far as I have.”
Drelicharz received his bachelor’s degree from Purdue University in Technology Education in 2005. While studying at Purdue, he says he had the opportunity to study abroad at Griffith University in Brisbane, Australia. “There I was able to take Technology Education courses which would allow me to later bring a worldly view of technical instruction into my classroom. Lastly, I received my master’s degree from Olivet Nazarene University in Educational Curriculum and Instruction to better instruct my students of all backgrounds with my knowledge of the content and subject matter.”
Drelicharz says he chose to become an instructor for the future of all students in applied technology programs everywhere. “Helping to prepare every single student who takes my course for life experiences, not just those heading into automotive careers, is of dire importance. I believe in helping all students become more hands-on, tool-oriented individuals so that they may not only become more productive members of society, but community members who are better prepared for life and careers after high school. Most of us are going to become drivers, vehicle owners and so much more. With that in mind, I do my absolute best to prepare my students for the lives ahead of them to be successful with the many ‘tools’ from my course in their back pocket.”
Drelicharz first began teaching in 2005 at a large suburban high school district west of Chicago. “My three years there were defining, as I learned how to manage leadership that lacked vision and creativity, while not letting it put out the flames of my passion for teaching. From there, I made the best decision of my career; I left and moved to California where I was the head automotive instructor for the Gilroy Unified School District. Within one year, I was able to completely rebuild and guide a defunct program into something truly special, while creating a student led assignment that led to over $70,000 in donations from NAPA auto parts corporation.”
After about a year and a half, circumstances in his personal life changed, requiring him to move back home to the Midwest. Leaving a great situation for the unknown didn’t faze him, he says.
“Moving back home, I found the school that is the perfect fit for my vision, drive and passion: Fenton High School in Bensenville, IL. Having been teaching at Fenton for 11 years now, I’ve brought programs back to life with high student enrollment. I also founded the school’s first ever ‘auto club’ which allows students to come in after school on Fridays to work on their vehicles, in addition to vehicles belonging to their families and friends,” Drelicharz says.
“There is no better way to learn. By having students work on their own personal and family vehicles, it makes the stakes higher – along with the success rate. Establishing value in the experience makes the learning that much more valuable. While the school cannot provide students the parts for their repairs, we can provide the knowledge, consumables, and nurturing environment that builds their confidence and creates success. Additionally, students work on teachers and administrator’s vehicles throughout the year; we aren’t afraid to tackle whatever comes our way,” he says.
“Most recently, I have set up the ‘Jr. Technician Program,’ in which we have partnered with Scooterworks Chicago. Students are able to take my courses, train on new scooters and engines supplied by Scooterworks, and later on apply for a position at their dealership. It’s been a lot of work, but incredibly exciting to get a program like this off of the ground in these uncertain times.”
Uncertainty is certainly not a new factor in the educational community, and Drelicharz says he knows that the concept of “teaching” has evolved to meet the changing needs of his students.
“Adversity in the Applied Tech classroom is commonplace,” he says. “Students are from all different backgrounds and each of them having different expectations is an acute reality. It is with knowing this that I have become involved with my district/school’s SEL (social emotional learning) committee, in addition to the DELT team (district equitable learning team) to aide my journey in providing all students with the most valuable instruction possible. With our ever-changing and diverse world, I am doing my absolute best to meet the needs of all of my students. The school I teach in is incredibly diverse. Students’ socioeconomic backgrounds, race and gender all come in to play in balancing a classroom and enabling success for our students.”
Drelicharz say empathy is the first step. “It is usually on the first day of class that I tell students we’re in this together, and we’re a family. As cliché as that sounds, it brings everyone together with the respect of our different backgrounds acknowledged and our ability to work as a single unit. A lot of people are comfortable with their family, and it soon transformers my classroom environment into one of equitable learning and a break to their day.
“Learning can and should always be fun, and year after year students will always tell me how if it weren’t for my class, they may not even come to school,” he says.
Drelicharz says the challenges brought on with COVID-19 have been dramatic and transformative, particularly as his school adopted a totally remote learning model.
“For me, the huge adaptation of going remote made it feel like my first year teaching again, which was exciting. But at the same time, it took away my place of relaxation, which is my home. I’m a very big fan of work stays at work. Trying to teach with two young daughter at home was very challenging. But I made a website with all of my curriculum and the material for the kids by each class.”
Drelicharz says he modeled his online classroom off of his grad school experience with an online master’s program, yet he’s unwilling to take all the credit for his program’s continuing success.
“I’d say the huge successes are the kids who are doing the work. I’ve had counselors call me and say ‘We have kids who literally would crawl through a playground of broken glass to take your class now because of how you are handling remote with still keeping them engaged.’” he says.
“I’ve been making tons of videos. I go live with a webcam and disassemble the engine, and anything and everything I can to keep them interested. Now I’ve got kids emailing me, saying ‘Hey, I pulled a snowblower out of the garbage, how do I get this going?’ And we’re coaching them through it. And these kids are getting the hustle and I’m actually getting tons of engagement – my attendance is amazing.”
The attendance and engagement are the unexpected benefits, Drelicharz says. “Even if I can dismiss them 20 minutes early because we don’t use the full hour, they still want to stay and talk and ask questions. And that’s huge, because they could literally close their laptops and go play whatever videogames are hot right now. Instead, they’re choosing to stay and learn more and talk.”Drelicharz says words cannot describe how excited he is to be named the February finalist for B’laster’s Instructor of the Year.
“After teaching my first year, I realized quite quickly just how important it is to get information about our programs out there. Being a finalist, I will now (hopefully) be able to better spread and share the word of the amazing product and the importance of CTE/Applied Technology in schools everywhere. So many schools are cutting these programs, but what you’re doing is helping to keep it alive through spotlighting the individuals who work tirelessly on the forefront, proving that we’re out there and we’re training the future individuals who will literally keep the world turning! Just this nomination alone has lit a fire beneath me, motivating me now like never before, I cannot imagine what winning could possibly feel like. Thank you, again, for this honor.”
Mark Drelicharz says he can sum it up in four words: “Work hard, play hard. That’s the best philosophy in teaching. The world of cars has something in it for everyone: artists, musicians, designers, technicians and so much more. Why not tap into the full potential and REALLY enjoy it?”
The B’laster Corporation – makers of the penetrant, PB B’laster – is again searching for the third annual automotive technology B’laster Instructor of the Year. In partnership with Tomorrow’s Technician magazine, B’laster will again recognize 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 will choose an instructor story to feature in an online interview format. Seven instructor stories will be 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.
Automotive technology instructors are invited to nominate themselves, or students and community members can nominate their instructors that are doing an exceptional job. Nominations can be submitted here.