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Salem High School Instructor Named October Finalist For 2020 ‘B’laster Instructor Of The Year’

Our October Finalist shares how he teaches his students respect and service through a special program that provides veterans car repair.

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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 October Finalist shares how he teaches his students respect and service through a special program that provides veterans car repair.

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Words by Derek Wray

I worked at my first automotive job in Oakland, California, when I was a sophomore in high school. I cleaned cars and moved cars in and out of the shop. This inspired me to take auto mechanics in high school. When I moved to Northern Virginia as a junior in high school, I worked at a Goodyear tire store. After high school, I moved to Houston, Texas, to attend Universal Technical Institute where I earned my associate degree in Automotive and Diesel Technology. After graduation, I began working at a dealership until I worked my way up to a shop foreman position at an independent repair shop after 10 years in the industry. 

I received a phone call at work one day from a local high school technical center. The principal told me that they hired a new automotive teacher that was called to active duty on the first day of his first year of teaching. He explained that the school had been calling dealerships, shops, tool reps, and everyone they could think of asking them who they would recommend to fill this job for two years until he returned from overseas. The principal told me that over and over again my name kept being mentioned as someone who would make a good automotive teacher. I immediately wanted to do it. I love a challenge and I had always wanted to give back in this way to help young people succeed. After that teacher came back from deployment, I luckily found another position at a neighboring school division (Salem High School) and have been there ever since.

My teaching philosophies begin with respect and service to others. I treat all of my students with respect. I have found that works so much better than being the dictator in the classroom. When they feel respected, they always return that same respect. I also teach my students to always help their community and all the people around them, and that we are dependent upon each other in this world. None of us can be so selfish that we can just do everything by ourselves and for ourselves. I want them to be productive members of society, not just superstars at their careers. So, with that in mind we work as a team, and we always look out for each other, and help each other in the classroom and in the shop.

Real world experience is a priority for my students. We use a “simulated workplace” model of instruction in my automotive classes. The students actually run a real repair shop in our high school. Each student is a technician and works on cars, but they also have another specific job titles with the company, like service manager, service writer, parts manager, etc. They talk to the customers, perform the repairs, and even collect the money and turn it in to the bookkeeper. This experience has been so incredibly valuable for the students. It has helped prepare these students with technical skills, and workplace readiness “soft” skills as well. 

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We teamed up with the local Veterans Administration and did a project for elderly veterans who needed car repair assistance. We won a grant to cover the price of parts and materials and students performed maintenance and repair work on the veterans’ vehicles for free (We also used B’laster on some of these vehicles).

I started this project 15 years ago at a different school district and I brought the idea here to Salem to help build my students character and their community service hours. I just think it’s so important for them to know what it feels like to give back and to help others in need. It turns these boys into young men, and these girls into young women. It prepares them for the world by changing them for the better. They become a little less self-centered, and little more appreciative of things that they have when they help others in need, especially those people who have given so much themselves, like the veterans.

The project just got revamped last year because of our workplace simulation shop environment. So, initially we have helped a handful of veterans by repairing and servicing their cars, but we have also serviced the Veterans Administration buses that are used to transport the veterans who don’t drive anymore. This year specifically, we have arranged to expand the program, and use the social workers for the Veterans Administration to spread the word about what we offer to those who financially need it the most.

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I just hope that this recognition helps shine some light on these amazing students for all of their hard work. They are the reason for all of this, and I hope that whatever the outcome is from these recognitions, that the students will be proud of what they have accomplished. 

Bio: Derek Wray has been teaching Automotive Technology for 16 years. He has an associate degree in Automotive and Diesel Technology from Universal Technical Institute in Houston, Texas, and worked as a professional automotive technician for 10 years. Mr. Wray is an ASE Master certified in Automotive and is also ASE certified in Heavy Trucks and Collision Repair. In 2005, Wray won the Golden Apple Award for Teaching Excellence from Roanoke County Schools. In 2016, Wray was the Teacher of the Year for the entire Salem City School District. Wray is also a published author. In 2010, he wrote an ASE Test Prep Study Guide for Automotive Engine Performance and Driveability. 

For more information or to nominate an instructor for the B’laster Instructor of the Year program, visit TomorrowsTechnician.com/instructor-of-the-year.

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