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For someone who has always liked cars but wasn’t raised in a traditionally mechanically inclined family and is a self-professed “shy girl,” teaching automotive technology at a collegiate level may seem to be an odd career choice. Pati Fairchild would beg to differ.
“My family didn’t teach me how to work on cars, so after I was well on my way to a university degree I took an autobody class for fun at a community college,” says Pati, autobody instructor at El Camino College in Torrance, CA. “I wanted to learn how to fix my Minnesota-rusted ’79 Blazer the right way. I’d never really worked on a car before.”
Pati’s road to becoming part of California’s car culture meandered from Minnesota to sunny Southern California on a trip to study art. After a few years in California, she had a few project cars with advanced repair needs. She wasn’t able to find anyone with the scope and depth of skills willing to get the job done and be inclusive. This led her to study and get into the auto collision repair industry professionally. She gained industry experience, credentials, and knowledge that made her highly skilled in multiple areas of automotive collision repair. She not only finished her project cars but the work provided the way for her to be an all-inclusive teacher who provides in-demand skills training for her students today.
“The teachers I learned from were great,” Pati says. “They became my extra dads. Right about the time I’d decided I wanted to open my own restoration shop, one teacher recommended I get a job in industry ‘to learn how to work fast’ and I’m so glad I did. I worked my way up from helper to painter in 4 years and learned so much more than painting.”
She holds a bachelor’s degree in art with a minor in Marketing (Long Beach State University, Magna cum Laude) and Certificates in Collision Repair and German (Cerritos College, Summa cum Laude). In addition, she holds multiple industry certifications from I-CAR (Platinum Level 3: Refinish Technician; Platinum Level 3: Non-Structural Repair and Platinum: Educator) and ASE (Master Collision Repair Technician); and supplier certifications from PPG (Master Refinishing Technician – 10+ years certification) and BASF (R-M and Glasurit Certified Refinisher). In addition, she is a Collision Repair Education Foundation multi-year grant winner including the top prize ($25,000) in 2019, won Best of Show with a customized Scion xB in an all-Scion show of 150 cars and has received multiple other assorted car show trophies, magazine features and ‘thank you’ teaching awards.
Why did she want to become an instructor? “Because they won’t give you the keys to the shop until you teach,” she laughs. “In seriousness, if you would’ve told me in 6th grade speech class that I’d make my living giving lectures and demonstrations to groups someday I’d have told you you were absolutely out of your mind. I am a very shy and quiet person, but it turns out it’s easy to talk about the things you love, and in my case that’s cars.”
Pati says she taught collision repair and painting as a part-time instructor at Cerritos College and Rio Hondo College before accepting a full-time position at El Camino College in 2009. “I am the only full-time autobody instructor at El Camino so I am unofficially the department chair and all department management, outreach, promotion, fundraising and student job placement/tracking duties are my responsibility,” she says.
The outreach and promotion part of her job reads like the resume of a rockstar:
• Founder, So-Cal Auto Draft multi-college student car show and hiring event (coming 2022)
• Founder of ‘Girls in the Garage’ free monthly hands-on workshops for women
• Founder, Girls in the Garage all-female-owned car show
• Two seasons as ‘The Professor’ panel judge on Wrench Wars TV show
• Faculty Advisor, Women In Technology campus club
• Host, Women’s Industry Network Los Angeles/Orange County meeting
• Gasoline Girls car club member
The extracurriculars always drive her back to the classroom as an instructor and mentor. According to her colleague, Edward Matykiewicz, her classroom has so many restoration projects every year it’s difficult to list all of them. “They are all unconventional builds because they are student projects. Projects have ranged from a student restoring his father’s 1972 jeep he grew up in, students living the California dream with ’49-’79 Volkswagen 3Bs (Beetle/Bus/Buggy) and female students finding a fit starting a challenging career in an all-male industry. The students are the most inspiring and promote the auto collision program through the hours of hard work that go into their aspirations.”
The projects pay dividends in multiple ways. “I think it’s critically important for students to work on their own cars if they have one,” she explains. “Some schools are set up so rigidly that there is no time for problem solving or repetition of skills. No time for hands-on exploration or the joy of seeing a project through to completion. No pride of driving your shiny project home to the cheers and jealousy of family and friends.
“I think it would be impossible to fall in love with a trade that is all about craftsmanship and figuring out how to get the job done if all the learning was done by textbook, video and sample activities. Our classes are 5:1 lab to lecture hours, so students have plenty of time to learn with their hands. I also emphasize the business side of automotive repair so the students are aware of how skills, time, money and efficiency are interrelated.
Pati says the inclusiveness of her teaching style seems to carry over to the attitudes in the classroom. “I have been blessed that I haven’t had any real adversity in the classroom. All the students have been nothing but respectful of me and each other, which says something wonderful since our school is so close to downtown Los Angeles and gangs, territory, theft, drugs and race could be issues. Without my even asking, everyone chooses to leave that mess outside. We have a very positive atmosphere here.”
Her passion for teaching goes beyond building a project or the normal efforts of instruction and Pati Fairchild has mastered the art of keeping an entire auto collision program operating to not only provide opportunities for advancement, but also allows non-traditional learners to find a niche in higher education.
She says being named a finalist in the Instructor of the Year contest is a refreshing bit of recognition.
“I’m very flattered! I was nominated by a co-worker who didn’t tell me. Hearing the news that I’d been chosen was a happy surprise on a day I really needed some good news. Teaching can be incredibly draining, especially when you’re trying with all you have to do a great job, so it makes all the difference when someone notices and appreciates the effort. B’laster recharged my battery!”
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.