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 November Finalist shares how teaching should always be about the students, and how he helps develop his students into self-sufficient techs with a drift car project.
Words by Joel Dufkis
I’ve been working on cars for as long as I can remember. My grandfather owned a service station in Chicago and it almost feels like it’s in my blood. My father taught me a lot about working on cars along with a host of other skills that really helped me to become confident in my skill set. In high school, my auto shop teacher Roger Basrak helped me hone my skills and was a huge influence on me. Little did I know that the lessons he taught me then would lead me to where I am now.
After high school, I worked for the independent repair shop Stephens Automotive, where I worked as a technician under some of the best in the business. In 2007 I decided to change my career path and went into education. I’ve always enjoyed teaching people new things and when I really thought about it, I’d have the greatest impact helping students find their passion and hopefully setting them up for success later in life as an instructor. Fast forward to today and I’m in my 10th year of teaching and 8th year at Rolling Meadows High School.
My teaching philosophy is to create an atmosphere where the students know you’re there for them, that any issue from an automotive one to a personal one, that I’m there. I got into teaching for the students – it’s all about them and helping them further themselves in life. The day it stops being about the students is the day I’ll return back to the industry because it’s not fair to the students if you’re not 100% in it for them.
I run my classes in some unique ways. In my advanced classes we do a lot of live work on staff vehicles. It’s a great opportunity for students to simulate a shop environment and really learn how to function as a team, and it allows them to work on a variety of vehicles with a variety of issues.
In addition to live work on staff vehicles, for the last three years the student have been building a 1999 Mazda Miata AKA Mazdarati into a full blown pro-am drift car. This project started when the Miata was given to me by my brother-in-law. I saw it as an opportunity to build a drift car with my students and to teach them how to get into racing in a legal way and to show them how to build a car on a budget. This build started out very basic with them doing a bunch of safety items on the car and in the first event out I ended up hitting a wall and smashing up the front end. This was honestly one of the best things to happen as it allowed the student to learn how to do a lot of custom fabrication and welding. Last year we worked on improving the power of the vehicle by adding a custom-built turbo kit for the car along with upgrading the fuel system and installing a fully programmable ECU. Students designed and built the piping, and installed the whole kit and got the car running.
Some of them would come to the track where they’d help read the data logs and fine-tune the tune on the car. Then this year was the big one where the students tore the whole car apart, removing everything from the chassis. They prepped the car for the full roll cage, separated the engine harness from the chassis harness and then built a whole new chassis harness from scratch. They repainted the engine bay and learned how to do bodywork on the car in preparation for a new coat of paint. There was literally no nut or bolt that was untouched on the car and it turned out amazing. The students did a fantastic job. It was so good that at the Tuner Galleria of the Chicago World of Wheels it won best Mazda. It has proven itself on the track by being a rock-solid car that has never had a major issue, that’s a testament to the build quality the students put into it. This project has benefited the students in multiple ways. They are able to build a project car without having to spend their own money, learn how to correctly build a car for use on the track by following rule books to ensure the car fits into the class, and most of all, it gave them confidence and pride. The students were a bit scared to start this project for fear of failure or screwing up but as they put in more time and work they were able to overcome these fears and really progress their skills. They also take tremendous pride in the work they have done and it’s given them a new sense of confidence that will allow them to become better technicians in the end.
I’ve also in the last year founded the Automotive Technology Instructor Network (ATIN) as a way to connect automotive instructors from around the nation. As automotive instructors especially in the high school setting we are typically the only teacher in our school or sometimes even district, so this group allows connections to be made so we can share ideas, labs or just ask questions to our peers that we typically wouldn’t have known. With the help of Texas shop owner Jeff Buckley, we have also gotten shops involved so they can connect with schools in their area to hopefully facilitate internships and to join the advisory boards of the local schools. You can find us on our Facebook group by searching for Automotive Technology Instructor Network.
Being named a B’laster Instructor of the Year finalist means a lot to me and my program. I’ve worked hard to create a great program that will set students up for success in the future and this helps prove that I’m on the right track. I’m incredibly grateful to the people who have nominated me, who see the hard work I’ve put into my program day in and day out.
Bio: Joel Dufkis is the automotive technology instructor at Rolling Meadows High School. He has been teaching automotive technology for 10 years and worked in the automotive industry for 7 years prior to teaching. Dufkis has a bachelor’s degree from Illinois State University in Technology Education and a master’s degree from Loyola University in English Language Learning. He is an ASE Certified Master Technician who was worked in both the automotive repair and high-performance fields. In 2016-2017 he was awarded the Outstanding Contribution to Education Award from District 214.