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Pushing Forward

Dear Fellow Skilled Trades Instructors,

My name is Jess Bowlin, and I am the instructor of the Building Construction program at Auburn High School in Auburn, AL. My courses begin with an overview of construction, and progress by focusing on specific phases of a project – foundations, structure, building systems, and finishes. Thanks to winning the 2021 Harbor Freight Tools for Schools Prize for Teaching Excellence, this school year I will be offering a new course called Wood Technology I. This class will introduce students to CNC manufacturing processes and will include a heavy emphasis on entrepreneurship. This new course moves us much closer to achieving the overall vision of the program and is made possible by winning the prize. This great news brings me to my reason for writing to you today.

Unless you are a first-year teacher, you probably already know that the Harbor Freight Tools for Schools Prize for Teaching Excellence is one of the major highlights for Career & Technical Education each year. The prize is one of the largest grants available to skilled trades education programs, and one I strongly encourage all of us to pursue – especially considering recent trends in material costs for our subject areas. I know I am not alone when faced with the reality that my program budget has not been aligned with the increased prices of construction materials over the past two years. This reality gives us all the more reason to pursue this opportunity.

Below is a list of suggestions and lessons learned throughout my own experience applying for the prize. I applied twice before being named a winner in my third attempt. I hope these tips help you throughout your journey and above all, I hope this letter encourages you to push forward.


  1. Be mindful of the character limit for each response. This is what I consider my worst rookie mistake. When I first applied, I had interpreted “character limit” as “word limit.” With that understanding, I proceeded to answer each question in an external Word document as opposed to the online form. It was not until the final hour before it was due that I realized “character limit” actually meant each letter and space. By that time, it was too late. Let’s just say I had to drastically chop my responses and submitted my application knowing I royally messed up. It was frustrating for sure, but I just had to let it be and walk away with it being a disappointing learning experience.


  1. The second time I applied I started on my answers long before the deadline. This helped me formulate in-depth answers and provided me the time necessary to truly dive into the learning modules. These learning module videos are beneficial and provided me with tools that can be implemented in a skilled trades class immediately and that I still use each day.

  1. Don’t hesitate to seek external assistance to review your submission. Other people will be able to identify little mistakes that you will miss. Second opinions also help us realize more of the positive things we are doing in our programs. We are often our own worst critic and tend to downplay the wonderful things we do each day. Remember to mention things like employability skills, mock-interviews, and having industry professionals as guest speakers. All these things seem small to us, but if we step back, we realize we are providing opportunities that students otherwise would have never experienced. Just last week a contractor told me he has a young employee who recently shared that he remembered his current boss came to speak to his class in high school. This happened in my class! Although we may not see the immediate impact we are making, we are constantly planting the seeds and these seeds can grow and change lives for the better.


  1. As cliché as it sounds, my final suggestion would have to be, never give up. I felt so good about my responses in my second attempt at the prize. It took me hours – days – weeks. I submitted it knowing “this is my year.” I was in the middle of a highly publicized project. I included statistical data regarding my students within the workforce, prior accomplishments, and future goals. In all, I was confident about the responses I provided. However, I wasn’t even named a finalist. It was such a letdown and I felt defeated. I walked away from that experience questioning my own writing abilities, teaching practices, and wondered how I could possibly do more or answer better. I was on the fence about applying again this past year. I already had a full plate with current projects in full swing, and I truly didn’t know how I could improve upon my responses from the previous year that weren’t even good enough to get me past the first round. Then, I attended the webinar with Nicole Taylor, a construction teacher at Warren Technical School in Georgia and 2020 prizewinner. She, too, struggled with the same self-doubt that I was experiencing after multiple attempts. She encouraged us to push onward and remain confident in our successes as teachers. That evening I decided I would try again, and I’m sure glad I did. I encourage each of you to do the same.


So go to and start or continue your application today! Applications are due on Friday, May 20th at 5:00 p.m. Pacific Time.


Good Luck & Godspeed,

Jess Bowlin

2021 Harbor Freight Tools for Schools Prize for Teaching Excellence Winner