Tomorrow’s Technician and B’laster are once again looking for instructors who “think outside of the toolbox” with the second-annual “B’laster Instructor of the Year” program. Our August Finalist shares how a cancer diagnosis changed his perspective on teaching and inspired him to create a breakfast program for students in need.
Words by Ed Martin
I’ve always enjoyed working with my hands, and I knew in high school that my future would most likely involve doing just that. After nearly 30 years of turning wrenches for a living, I decided to become an instructor. I really wanted to pay back the industry that had provided for my family, and I wanted to do it in a meaningful way.
The reason I chose teaching was because the last 15 years in the shop, I had become a teacher, coach, and mentor to many apprentices. Many of them told me that I explained things in a way they could remember and that made sense to them. This led me to believe that I could reproduce this in a larger scale by pursuing classroom teaching.
I approached my local technical college and asked them how I would go about getting a teaching job, and it just so happened that they had an opening. Eleven years later, it is still the best career decision I ever made.
I’m telling my story in hopes of inspiring others to reach out and make a difference in the lives of their students. In my first year of teaching back in 2009, I was diagnosed with cancer. It really took a toll on my body and my emotional well-being. By the time 2012 rolled around, the cancer had returned twice and I ultimately lost half of my tongue and all of the lymph nodes in my neck.
My doctors were very concerned and encouraged me to undergo further chemo treatments, which I politely declined (I had been through enough). It was at this point that the doctors estimated that I had anywhere from 12 to 18 months to live. Getting news like that changes how a person thinks about things.
From that point on my perspective on life changed, I was no longer concerned about material things, but more on building relationships and serving my students to the best of my ability. I started making a conscious effort every day to be a better leader in my program.
Fast forward to the Tuesday right before Thanksgiving in 2016, I overheard a couple of students talking and what I heard broke my heart. One student mentioned to the other that he had not eaten in three days. I really felt this because with all of my cancer treatment and side effects, it has left me to support myself on mostly liquids and some very soft foods, because of this I find myself hungry more often than I care to admit.
I made a decision in that moment that I would do whatever it took to make sure my students’ basic needs were met. I started out small by simply showing up the next day with several boxes of cereal and some milk. All of it disappeared and many of the students were very thankful for what I offered. I have not missed a day since, and I feed over 100 automotive students breakfast and lunch every day. I call it the Breakfast Club, and it has grown beyond anything I could have ever imagined. It has actually grown beyond anything I could do on my own. Along with my own contributions, the members of my church often do fundraisers to help me keep it going.
What I love about doing this is seeing the side effects I hadn’t thought of. For example, attendance improved dramatically. I saw less tardiness, and I also saw higher completion rates in our program. The students also can and do donate to the Breakfast Club financially, and they help clean up the room every day.
My teaching philosophy is simply this: I will use any means to help the student understand the concepts that I am trying to teach them. Often that means trying many different strategies and approaches to learning. For example, when teaching the automotive battery, we go out in the shop and I hand the students a card that has a part of the battery on it. They assemble themselves into a battery and we discuss the various parts in detail. When it comes to completing NATEF tasks, I use the approach: “I do, we do, you do, then, you teach.” If I can get them to the level of being able to teach or demonstrate a task, they have a far better chance of remembering it later.
I am an example of how a person can overcome something very difficult and still contribute to the success of others. I had to learn how to talk, and how to eat all over again. The chemotherapy and radiation treatments left me 100 pounds lighter and barely able to walk. It left me with going on 10 years of continuing side effects, but I have never given up. I give all I can every day and my students notice my efforts.
One day a student came up and handed me a paper he had written for a class he was taking in his home high school.The assignment was to write about someone who they admired most in their lives, the paper was written about me and it brought tears to my eyes. He wrote specifically about how he would never give up because he had seen me overcome so much and still give 100%. This is exactly the kind of impact I wanted to make. I know now that my efforts are paying off and that by investing in building relationships with my students, they now know they have value, and that they are loved.
For more information or to nominate an instructor for the B’laster Instructor of the Year program, visit TomorrowsTechnician.com/instructor-of-the-year.