Kathryn Worley and Jeff Bearinger, two past winners of the Harbor Freight Tools for Schools Prize for Teaching Excellence, have a combined 55 years of teaching experience. As they retire, we asked them to share the most important lessons they have learned after many years in the classroom. They also shared how they helped their schools prepare for the future without them.
What do you wish you knew when you started your career as a skilled trades teacher that you know now?
KW: When I started, I had not been in the industry for five years. I did not have a group of industry advisors to help me. Instead of asking around or going into the community, I tried to develop a program on my own. I wish I had known that the community wanted to be a part of our program and that they didn’t care what I did and didn’t know. I just needed to ask and let them in.
JB: A few years into my teaching career I read a book by John Maxwell entitled Encouragement Changes Everything. The thesis of the book is that everyone needs encouragement, and it changed the way I approached my classroom. When I began to take a moment to notice and encourage my students daily my classroom changed. The students knew I was in their corner and in turn they felt motivated to take risks and make a difference. Do I still have problems? Yes, but making my students feel valuable allows them to persevere through tough times and strive for their best. Each of us, including our students, is at the beginning, in the middle or at the end of a life issue. It’s how we approach the answer and encourage each other that will get us through.
What are a couple key strategies you’ve used to take your prizewinning program to the next level?
KW: I have forged more partnerships with different businesses in my part of the county. To be honest, many did not know about the Harbor Freight Tools for Schools Prize for Teaching Excellence. They just wanted to help and hopefully gain some new employees to take to the next level. We also were able to use our momentum to become a registered pre-apprenticeship program with the State Department of Apprenticeship Standards. I have also used funds from a Pilot Project grant from Harbor Freight Tools for Schools to reach out to our feeder middle schools for our “Girls in the Shop” nights. Each night has brought more girls into the shops.
JB: Set goals to where you want your program to be in five, 10, 15 years. Think big and outside the box. When I began teaching construction my goal was to be a force in the community and to teach the students to give back and serve others. My first goal was to build one house a year to offer real hands-on experience for my students. It took 14 years and lots of networking, but we are currently building our fifth house. My second goal was to build and install ramps for people with disabilities in the local community. In the past ten years, my students have constructed and installed approximately 80 ramps. Speaker Jon Gordon says it best: “Comparison is the thief of joy!” Don’t compare yourself to anyone, go for it and you’ll be surprised at the help and assistance you’ll get from your community and industry.
What is your school’s transition plan to sustain your program after you transition to the next chapter in your life?
KW: Several years ago, I began thinking about retirement and did not want the programs to die out for lack of a qualified teacher. Through another winner of the prize, I was introduced to a teacher looking to relocate. I went through my district’s chain of command and convinced them to allow my replacement to be a co-teacher during my last year. I used the training I had picked up from the Harbor Freight Leadership Lab to help make a presentation to my associate superintendent for Educational Services. This was his first introduction to understanding and being educated about the impact and importance of the skilled trades classes – not only at my site, but around our district. It was a success. I am spending my last year training my replacement.
JB: Most recently, I have spoken with the CEO of our district’s career academy and our principal regarding who I believe would be a good fit to replace me. Also, I have mentioned that I would like to come back for at least the first semester and work 49 percent of the day to assist with the transition.