What Apopka HS Lost in Auto Tech

I taught Automotive Technology at Apopka High School from the year 2000 through the year 2013. Every year Teachers have that one chance to make a first impression. As was customary, I would stand in the doorway and greet the students as they entered the classroom for the first time. I would say “Good morning! Welcome to Automotive Technology.” On just such a morning, a young lady approached my door, and I could only describe her looks as part She-devil and part Rebecca from Sunny Brook Farms. Now this might be an inappropriate description to some, and even now I admonish myself for gleaning this description. Yet, it is the only way I can endeavor to describe the young lady that approached me that day. She had one side of her head shaved clean, and the other was long beautiful hair. She had a combat boot on one foot and a nice slipper on the other. Her clothes were a mixture of Gothic style on one side and the conservative Rebecca style on the other. She looked as if someone had vertically cut two girls in half and assembled the opposing halves. Keeping my observations respectful, quick, and hopefully unnoticed, I smiled and gave my good morning greeting. As soon as I was finished, she put her hand on her hip and stated, “I just want you to know that I hate school, and I hate you and everything you stand for, and I’m going to give you pure hell the whole time I am here”. Not really knowing what else to say I said, “Well, if you’ll take your seat, then we’ll get started”. She gave me a funny look and entered the classroom. After the rest of the students arrived, the first day of class began. Now it was time for my annual beginning lecture designed to help students realize that my class had something for everybody and ran something like this:

“Once again good morning and welcome to Automotive Technology. Now some of you want to be here and others do not and were just put here because all the other electives were full, or my class appeared to be the lessor of the remaining evils. However, today I am here to tell you that I have something for each of you. No matter who you are or what your interests, you can benefit from this class. We all have something in common here. We all want to drive. Since we all want to drive, sooner or later we will experience some sort of repair issue with our vehicles.” My interesting new student spoke out saying, “We’ll just pay someone else to fix it. We don’t need this class”. Recognizing a teachable moment, I replied, “But how do you know that you actually need that expensive repair, maybe you just need a new set of sparkplugs. How many of you have heard complaints from your parents or others about being overcharged?” Several replied, and to drive my point home, I let the chatter run for a bit and then called for everyone’s attention. I continued by saying, “I can help you with things like that. I can help you avoid rip-offs, teach you to fix your own vehicle, help you girls change your own tire on the side of the road to avoid danger, and can even start you off on an exciting ever changing career in the Automotive field. The starting salary is 35K a year and can reach as high as 120K a year depending on your ability and your choice of positions.” Once again my interesting student spoke out contesting the pay, and I challenged her to look it up and ask around at local dealerships. I told her, “I tell you what, I’ll call a local dealership and set up a visit for you to talk to the technicians, and you can quiz them directly.” I could see a change in her look. Her facial expression became one of interest instead of doubt. I continued, “I have something for each of you if you will accept it.”

There are several ways that I can help you in this class:

  1. We can work together to get you that passing grade. You’ll receive the elective credit to help you graduate.

  2. This class will save you money by teaching you to do some repairs yourself, and/or when to take it to someone else for repair.

  3. It will give you knowledge so you will be better prepared to know the difference between a needed repair and a repair rip-off.

  4. It will train you to enter the Automotive field as a mechanic or prepare you to enter an advance training facility to specialize in BMW, Mercedes, Ford, or Chevrolet…these types of specialty training.

Whichever path you choose, I will not change what I do which is to try to give you all of the automotive knowledge I can and make you a better informed automotive enthusiast or owner. Now I have a question for you, “Will you change and pull yourself out of your comfort zone to reach a worthwhile attainable goal? Don’t give me the answer. Answer the question for yourself. I’ll know by your attitude, motivation, and achievement levels what choice you’ve made”.

Back to my interesting student. She began to change in a most rapid, profound way. In the early days she tried to disrupt, but was consistently redirected to the task(s) at hand. It didn’t take long for this type of behavior to change from one of disruption to one of interest. She still questioned but turned her questions from a disruptive nature to high level questions that sought knowledge, later stating, “This isn’t that hard and really seems to make sense”. She completed my class and entered the advanced training classes. She in fact changed so much that the last word I heard of her, she had accepted a position as service manager at a high volume dealership in another state.

I noticed that a certain portion of the students that entered the Automotive class had troubled backgrounds in school and home. A large portion of those came in flunking their other classes. Some turned around and passed my class, and yet others passed not only my class, but began to pass their other classes in route to an Automotive career. Reports from Guidance counselors and other teachers gave evidence that students enrolled in Automotive classes were beginning to change for the better. Some told me that they found something to believe in and could see a way towards a better future. In my class I always tried to relate what I taught to their current academic studies and to the skills and attitudes needed by a technician in real world situations. Consistently asking what the student would expect from someone if the roles were reversed. This, coupled with real world experiences provided evidence needed to drive my points home.

I had a student who lived under a bridge because they were kicked out of the family home. This student’s plight was unknown to me until the last year in Auto. I was thanked and told by this student that they were looking for something, some way to begin their life. Taking Auto Tech was the only reason that they stayed in school, and every day this person was so thankful to have had the opportunity, because without it, this student didn’t know what they would do. I lost track of that person, but I know that somewhere, there is a motivated technician working as hard as they can and that now, there is a bright future. To have lived under a bridge, using any bathroom that could be found to clean up and get ready for school, now that’s motivation. I found out because one day this student came in wearing one of my old shirts I had donated for just such a purpose. I asked around and found out about the students’ plight but never let on I knew. I am so proud to have been a part of this story. It is successes like these that let me know that teaching is so important.

I had another student that told me that he would never go in to any mechanical repair field and was only taking my class because it was interesting, and he needed elective credit. The student took all four years of Automotive and graduated. Later he came back to say “Hi”, and to tell me that he had decided to go in to the mechanical field and that the reason was because of my class. As I have told so many students before, “You are in a transitional period in high school and most of you aren’t sure what you will end up doing. This is why we have so many different types of study to help round you out and give you experiences that will help you find your interests.” He went in to Motorcycles, but I told him that is where I started, and it is a small jump to Automotive. We’ll see what the future holds for him.

Yet another student told me he wasn’t going into Automotive and was instead going in to the Medical field. I didn’t find out his situation until after I had retired and went to the doctor and discovered his Physician Assistant was this same medical career-seeking student. He told me he used the Automotive training by working two jobs at once and that doing so made his life very good. He actually thanked me for talking him in to the training and that it was true my class was very beneficial.

In the years that I taught I have had so many students come up and tell me how my class has changed their lives. One student hated me, and it ended up that one day I had to have him removed from class for good, not something any teacher wants to admit, but my own safety was a concern. Later, the following year, that same student came walking through the shop area. Upon seeing the student, I immediately started for the phone to call security. He pleaded for me to stop, saying that he only wanted to talk for a minute. “Please,” he began by saying, “I hated you and really wanted to hurt you. You wouldn’t stop and kept after me and never stopped. I have come to realize that you were telling the truth all the while, and I hated you for it. I didn’t realize that you always told me the truth. You told me that if I was really interested in becoming a technician, that one day, I would pay good money to learn what you were trying to teach me right now for free. Well, I just finished my first semester, and you know what they taught me? The same exact things you were trying to teach me all along. Others told me what I wanted to hear just to keep the peace, but you never did. You always told me the truth even when I didn’t want to hear it. You didn’t care about your own safety. All you seemed to care about was telling me the truth. I just wanted to thank you and say I am sorry for all the grief I gave you”. With that, he turned and walked away. I felt something well up inside me, a sense of pride, of accomplishment. You see, as teachers we don’t always get feedback on our efforts and this feedback had no equal. No award, certificate, or at-a-boy could match how that one encounter made me feel.

A young girl came to my class, and for the biggest part of the year, I couldn’t get her to dress for the lab or even put a wrench in her hand. She always said that cars were too messy. But one day we were all in the lab working on several projects and had more work than we needed. The students loved it, and they all voiced commitment to getting them all done. As I made my rounds from project to project, I heard this voice calling me to come take a look. Upon my arrival there, she was standing in front of a vehicle with grease all over her face and hands with the biggest smile on her face. As I approached, she stated that I was right, and it didn’t kill her, but she was upset because she broke a nail. I smiled and said, “You’ll live,” while laughing. She very proudly stood up and reported that she had just fixed this one, and it wasn’t that hard. I don’t know if she ever went to work as a technician, but the last I heard, she was helping her boyfriend fix his car on a regular basis.

While counseling a student on becoming more involved in class, she reported that, “I’m not going in to the field so why should I?” Of course I reiterated the benefit of elective credit and GPA. I also stated, “What if you had a flat while on a desolate road? If you knew how to fix it, you would be safer. If you didn’t know, you might be stranded or at some strange person’s mercy.” With that motivation in mind she progressed with average effort. One morning she approached me and told of a story where she and a couple of girlfriends were on their way to the beach and got a flat. During class one day I had given instruction on using personal equipment in an emergency. She told me all about how she saved the day by jacking the car, removing and replacing her tire. She said some strange person came by but she felt very uncomfortable and sent them on their way. She endeavored to quickly finish so they could get back on the road for fear the strange person might return. Her girlfriends were amazed, and she beamed with pride at her accomplishment as she related the story. Just as not all will become Math Majors or Scientists, not everyone will end up in the Automotive field, but all will reap some benefit from the training. Preparing students for the world of work has inherent benefits.

High School is, rightfully so, a place where students get a variety of experiences. I always explained to a student that the multitude of classes offered were to open their mind to experiences so they can find out what interests them. The more things you experience, the more you learn about yourself and your capabilities. Today there are more vehicles on the road than ever before. There are gas, diesel, hybrid, and electric vehicles and the field of Automotive Technology is wide open. There are many jobs in the automotive area: Technician, Service Manager, Salesman, Automotive Designer, Automotive Engineer, Automotive Instructor, Title Clerk, and a host of other supporting positions. The automotive industry is looking for a higher level of student that takes core classes seriously. Today’s technician is more motivated and achieves at a higher level than ever before.

Students would stop negative behaviors and show better progress in their other classes because they could see where these skills were needed as a technician. The increased use of computers along with the increase of electrical components requires more training and concentration. The biggest complaint I received from students about High School was that they couldn’t see where they would use the knowledge they were being taught. Automotive Technology bridges that gap by showing the student exactly where the knowledge is needed and has them utilize it on a daily basis. It reconnects the student to the core classes and resets their motivation level. Automotive Technology classes go a step further by setting the bar even higher, causing students to seek a higher achievement of their basic skills in order to augment their chosen career path.

During my last days in Auto Tech, I had a student approach me and tell of their disappointment at the closing of the program. There was the usual “I’ll miss you”, and a statement of how strange it would be for there to be no Auto Tech program. There was one thing that touched me the most, and it was when this 15-year-old student stated that she felt it was a disservice to all of the students that would follow. The student told me that Auto Tech was the only reason she stayed in school and that she wanted to quit. As always, I turned it into a teachable moment and told her not to let anyone steal her dream and that there was only one more year left, so make me proud and graduate. As the conversation progressed, the student said, “We need this as much as any other class”, further stating, “You know cars are everywhere, and it’s a good career. Auto Tech gives us a head start on entering the field. What will we do now?” Her own self-interest came last as I was quizzed on how she would finish her training. All I could say was for her not to give up and keep looking for a way to achieve her goals.

The Automotive industry uses a variety of skilled technicians: Plumbers, Electricians, Computer Technicians, TV-radio Technicians, Air Conditioning Technicians, Welders, Bookkeepers, Automotive Engineers. Each student also realizes that the very skills they are learning in High School are an integral part of the performance of a skilled technician. We need the science, the physics, math and English skills/knowledge that the other Teachers disseminate in their classes. These skills are intertwined in almost every Automotive lesson. Something as simple as why a tire’s air pressure needs to be checked regularly due to the expansion of the rubber in response to temperature changes, or figuring out horsepower and engine displacement. What happens to the boiling point of coolant when you pressurize it, and what is a power-to-weight ratio, and why is it important? The technician has to use math to calculate clearances and figure his pay on the flat rate scale. They must also have good communication skills both verbal and nonverbal. They also have to be able to talk to customers, fill out reports, and do so in a manner that sets the customer at ease with their level of competence. Students have to be able to troubleshoot and form a hypothesis as well as plan and execute a repair strategy. Of course all of this must be relayed to the customer in a concise understandable manner. It is important for the student to also teach the customer which helps gain their trust. They were asked, how would you feel if someone wanted to repair your car and referred to the part as a thing-a-ma-bob, or couldn’t explain the procedure, and charged you way too much because they were having trouble calculating your bill? This point had a profound effect on the students and gave them a sense of pride and more motivation to become competent. Auto Tech tied into their academic skills and knowledge and demonstrated a viable route to a productive future. It can never be said that knowledge isn’t important. Yet we fail to realize that skills are equally important and needed more now than ever before.

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Political advertisement paid for and approved by Matthew J. Fitzpatrick, Non-Partisan, for Orange County School Board Chair


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