15 Automotive Teachers, Teacher Teams Named Finalists for $1 Million in Prizes from Harbor Freight Tools for Schools

CALABASAS, Calif.—Fifteen automotive teachers and teacher teams from across the country were named finalists for the 2020 Harbor Freight Tools for Schools Prize for Teaching Excellence. The teachers and their high school skilled trades programs are in the running for a share of $1 million in total cash awards.

The automotive teachers make up nearly one third of the 50 skilled trades teachers named finalists for the prize, representing more than any other trade. They are:

  • Jay Abitz, Freedom High School, Freedom, Wisconsin
  • Kent Brady, Dauphin County Technical School, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania
  • Robert Caylor, Gulfport High School, Gulfport, Mississippi
  • Kevin Cornell, Carver Career and Technical Center, Charleston, West Virginia
  • Dave Darden, Cedar Shoals High School, Athens, Georgia
  • Brian Diehl, Dauphin County Technical School, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania
  • John Gunderson, John Jay High School, San Antonio, Texas
  • Jay Hales, Riverton High School, Riverton, Utah
  • Brian Manley, Cherry Creek Innovation Campus, Centennial, Colorado
  • Erik Mortensen, Watauga High School, Boone, North Carolina
  • Robert Mroz and David Krawczyk, Potter Career and Technical Center, West Seneca, New York
  • Michael Shephard, Union County Career and Technical Institute, Scotch Plains, New Jersey
  • Jeremy Tarbet, Canyon del Oro High School, Tucson
  • Andrice Tucker and Steve Owen, Central Nine Career Center, Greenwood, Indiana
  • Wayne Violet, Washington County Technical High School, Hagerstown, Maryland

Short biographies of each of the automotive educators are below.
The 50 finalists hail from 23 states and specialize in trades including automotive as well as manufacturing, welding, construction, agriculture mechanics and technical theater. The teachers—some competing as individuals and some as teams—were selected by an independent panel of judges from a field of more than 600 applicants. The list of all finalists is available here [harborfreighttoolsforschools.org].

“Trades teachers are truly unsung heroes, and our prize seeks to show everyone how powerful these classes can be,” said Danny Corwin, executive director of Harbor Freight Tools for Schools. “Skilled trades education has enormous potential to offer students pathways to multiple postsecondary opportunities, and these are the teachers who are providing them with the knowledge, skills and inspiration year after year.”

The Harbor Freight Tools for Schools Prize for Teaching Excellence was started in 2017 by Eric Smidt, the founder of national tool retailer Harbor Freight Tools. The prize recognizes outstanding instruction in the skilled trades in U.S. public high schools and the teachers who inspire students to learn a trade that prepares them for life after graduation. As recent research [harborfreighttoolsforschools.org] from JFF (formerly known as Jobs for the Future) and funded by Harbor Freight Tools for Schools found, students who “concentrate” (or take multiple trades courses as part of a program) are more likely to graduate than their peers. Upon graduation, students are prepared for either further education or work in fields that routinely rank among the hardest jobs to fill.

Now, in the fourth year of the prize, more than 200 teachers have been recognized as winners or finalists. Winners join a nationwide network of outstanding trades teachers who convene regularly by webinar and in a three-day summer workshop to share best practices and advance their field.

“There’s a reason why polls show enormous support for trades education—with more than 8 in 10 parents and voters believing it deserves more funding,” Smidt said, citing a poll [harborfreighttoolsforschools.org] conducted by NORC at the University of Chicago and released this spring by Harbor Freight Tools for Schools. “Trades teachers are turning out the tradespeople of the future—the workers who will build and maintain our critical care infrastructure, our communication networks, our homes and cars. These teachers deserve to be celebrated.”

The 2020 finalists now advance to a second round of competition, where they will be asked to respond to online expert-led video learning modules designed to solicit their insights and creative ideas about teaching practices. The contenders will be asked how ideas from the modules might be used to inspire students to achieve excellence in the skilled trades. Two rounds of judging, each by separate independent panels of reviewers, will narrow the field to 18 winners and, finally, name three of those teachers Grand Prize recipients. All winners will be announced in late October.

The 18 winners will split the $1 million prize. Grand Prize winners will each receive $100,000, with $70,000 going to their public high school skilled trades program and $30,000 to the individual skilled trades teacher or teacher team behind the winning program. The 15 additional winners will each be awarded $50,000, with $35,000 going to their public high school program and $15,000 to the teacher or team. Finalists whose school, district and/or state policy prohibits receipt of the individual portion of prize earnings were eligible to apply on behalf of their school’s skilled trades program. If they win, their entire share of the prize will be awarded to the school.

Automotive Finalists

Jay Abitz teaches automotive and collision repair at Freedom High School in Freedom, Wisconsin. Born and raised in Freedom, a town of 5,000 residents near Green Bay, Abitz took over the automotive program at Freedom High from his father, a 35-year veteran auto teacher. After a successful high school trades career—landing in the top 10 at SkillsUSA’s national competition in collision repair—Abitz earned Inter-Industry Conference on Auto Collision Repair (I-CAR) certifications, a bachelor’s degree in education from the University of Wisconsin-Stout and a master’s degree from Cardinal Stritch University. In Abitz’s classroom, students work on cars for paying customers while building museum-quality pieces like the Mohs Opera Sedan and a 1937 Oldsmobile from the chassis up. Students also design and fabricate their own parts, including body mounts, steering shafts, running boards, engine cradles and more. Abitz encourages students to join a youth apprenticeship program in a field of their choice, so they can experience work-based learning and build relationships with an employer. After graduation, the majority of Abitz’s students enter the automotive or manufacturing fields, join family businesses in Freedom or pursue postsecondary education.

Kent Brady teaches small engine equipment technology at Dauphin County Technical School in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. His program is certified by the Equipment and Engine Training Council, which sets industry-based standards for classroom facilities, instructor qualifications and subject matter competencies. Over the course of their studies, Brady’s students learn tool technique, electrical theory, troubleshooting, engine building and repair. They also maintain and improve the school grounds, training in the operations and maintenance of commercial landscaping equipment. Brady’s students are currently building a mile-long community trail throughout the school property, traversing woods, hills and open fields.

Robert Caylor teaches automotive technology at Gulfport High School in Gulfport, Mississippi. Caylor is a National Board Certified Teacher and Automotive Service Excellence-certified Master Technician who began his career as a scientist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association. He changed careers after realizing he made more money and preferred running his own auto repair business. When his auto shop and home were destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, Caylor decided to apply for an open teaching position at his son’s high school. Caylor’s automotive students work together in teams to master concepts, perform hands-on work, and gain exposure to different subjects. Students can work for hours in a covered tool storage and vehicle work area, not just on cars, but watercraft, engineering projects, or anything that puts their mechanical skills to use. Caylor’s students regularly find employment in the Gulfport region, including as automotive technicians and as Freightliner diesel technicians. Caylor was a finalist for the 2019 Prize for Teaching Excellence as part of a team with fellow Gulfport teacher Scott Pfaff.

Kevin Cornell teaches automotive technology at Carver Career and Technical Education Center in Charleston, West Virginia. A 15-year industry veteran and an Automotive Service Excellence-certified master technician, Cornell decided to become a teacher in 2003. That year, he reached out to his former high school shop teacher, who told Cornell that trades teaching positions were opening in Kanawha County due to retirements. After earning his bachelor’s degree in career and technical education, Cornell entered the classroom, teaching an Automotive Service Excellence-aligned and -certified curriculum. Since then, Cornell has created internship agreements with local dealerships for his students and offers college credits through his program. Advanced students run a live shop working on customer cars and pursue projects with peers in welding and collision repair programs. The majority of Cornell’s students are considered “at risk,” on a path toward leaving high school without graduating. To support his students, Cornell uses trauma-informed teaching practices based on the Adverse Childhood Experiences study. His students graduate at rates near 100 percent. Cornell is the first finalist for the Prize for Teaching Excellence from West Virginia.

Dave Darden teaches automotive technology at Cedar Shoals High School in Athens, Georgia. Darden started teaching 10 years ago, following a 35-year career in the automotive, truck and heavy equipment industry. His program is Automotive Service Excellence Education Foundation certified, something that benefits his students as they graduate from high school and matriculate at technical colleges and trade schools. To further aid his students, Darden works with an advisory committee that includes industry partners in the community to offer apprenticeships and project-based learning. He frequently enjoys visits from graduates of the program who come to share their success stories with him and current students.

Brian Diehl teaches diesel technology at Dauphin County Technical School in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Driven by a passion for diesel technology since high school, Diehl brings 14 years of workforce experience to the classroom. Citing the critical importance of staying up to date in the field, he has deepened his technical credentials and obtained his associate’s degree in workforce education. Drawing on his relationships in the community, Diehl offers his students field trips, job shadowing and work-based learning opportunities in local business, military, aviation and post-secondary settings. Every year, several local companies bring their vehicles to be serviced by Diehl’s classes, burnishing his students’ reputation for professional work and underscoring the importance of customer service in a highly technical field.

John Gunderson teaches automotive at John Jay High School in San Antonio, Texas. He enrolled in his first automotive class as a senior in high school and immediately took to the trade. Soon, he had convinced his mother—who wanted him to go to college—that the trades could offer a good, stable salary and a career. After a decade as a master technician in the industry, including mentoring young tradespeople, Gunderson decided to become a teacher in 2005, inheriting a neglected shop that he revitalized. His students operate a live shop, working on customer vehicles, sourcing their own parts, explaining repairs to customers and running diagnostics and research, all while dealing with real-world problems like seized bolts and complications from rust. The experience helps Gunderson’s students earn higher wages if they choose to enter the trade right after graduation. Local employers recruit from Gunderson’s program, and in some cases, former students hire seniors. Gunderson also offers four dual-credit courses and is working to create an automotive certificate program in collaboration with a local college.

Jay Hales teaches automotive technology at Riverton High School in Riverton, Utah. After serving in the Army National Guard as a light wheel vehicle mechanic, Hales began taking automotive classes, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in technology education. Twenty-one years ago, he joined the staff at Riverton High, then a new school. To keep up to date on industry trends, Hales teaches at a technical college and works summers and weekends in the field. His program offers students opportunities to learn from professionals at ACDelco and Ford. Students also earn college credits while in high school and enjoy unique field trips to the Bonneville Salt Flats, meeting with drivers setting land speed records. Sixty percent of his students enter the field or earn a related postsecondary degree. Hales won the Huntsman Award for teaching excellence in 2012. He is a previous Advisor of the Year for Utah from SkillsUSA, national nonprofit association of trades students.

Brian Manley teaches automotive technology at Cherry Creek Innovation Campus in Centennial, Colorado. Manley’s love for all things automotive guided him toward career and technical education classes when he was a high school student. This fall, he will begin his 26th year of teaching. His program was one of the first two certified through Automotive Youth Educational Systems in 1998, and ever since, he has facilitated ongoing apprenticeships with local industry partners. Prior to accepting his current position, Manley had a career as a master automobile technician, an experience that fostered his passion for continued learning. He is currently in the final year of a doctoral program focused on leadership for education equity.

Erik Mortensen teaches automotive at Watauga High School in Boone, North Carolina. He has been a teacher for two years, after retiring from his 25-year career as a mechanic. An Army veteran, Mortensen assists his students with securing apprenticeships and part-time employment, and has students work alongside master mechanics, service writers and parts managers. Students learn how to perform oil changes, tire repairs and other minor repairs by working on teachers’ cars. By the time his students enter their third semester of the program, they make estimates, order parts and perform repairs on customer cars, all while learning how to build relationships. Since Mortensen started teaching, the number of students enrolled in the automotive program has nearly doubled.

David Krawczyk and Robert Mroz teach automotive technology and collision repair at Potter Career and Technical Center in West Seneca, New York. Their program curriculum tracks the highest-quality professional standards and aligns with the local community college, and students begin earning college credit as early as tenth grade. Mroz, a 25-year teaching veteran, is an Inter-Industry Conference on Auto Collision Repair (I-CAR) certified instructor and adjunct professor at two local community colleges, where he also trains new teachers. Mroz and Krawczyk partner with local dealerships and collision repair professionals to connect students to internships and post-graduation jobs. Working in small teams in the classroom, their students rotate through every aspect of auto technology and collision repair, from tire patching to metal inert gas (MIG) welding. Mroz and Krawczyk’s students not only earn national automotive certifications in I-CAR, but they also develop maturity and professional skills, from ethics and communications to resume-building and workplace attire.

Michael Shephard teaches automotive at Union County Career and Technical Institute (UCCTI) in Scotch Plains, New Jersey. He has taught at UCCTI for four years. Shephard’s students learn how to rebuild engines by running diagnostics and performing repairs. During his time teaching, Shephard has expanded his program to include a third year, during which students fix customer cars. In the shop, Shephard teaches students according to their learning styles, using the Visual, Auditory, Read/Write, Kinesthetic (VARK) method. Upon completion of his program, 90 percent of Shephard’s students earn an Automotive Service Excellence certificate.

Jeremy Tarbet, a graduate of Canyon del Oro High School in Tucson, Arizona, returned there to teach automotive technology eight years ago. During the school year, Tarbet’s students restore classic cars while doing research on restoration techniques, applying mathematics in the fabrication process and working collaboratively to problem solve and produce a quality final product. His advanced automotive students are dual enrolled at Pima Community College and earn nine hours of credit. In the 2019-2020 school year, Tarbet’s students earned over 360 credit hours of community college at no cost to them. Tarbet has led his students to over 22 state medals at competitions held by SkillsUSA, a national nonprofit association of trades students. Tarbet was also a 2020 SkillsUSA Advisor of the Year. Previously, Tarbet worked at Watson Chevrolet, a local dealership, after earning a bachelor’s degree in psychology from the University of Arizona. Tarbet was a finalist for the 2019 Prize for Teaching Excellence.

Andrice Tucker and Steve Owen teach automotive service technology at Central Nine Career Center in Greenwood, Indiana. Tucker and Owen have between them more than 40 years of experience in the automotive industry. A former student at Central Nine, Tucker spent 14 years at Firestone before he returned to the school in 2017 as a teacher. Owen has been teaching for six years and is an Automotive Service Excellence Master Technician and an adjunct instructor at Ivy Tech Community College. Tucker and Owen’s program is Automotive Service Excellence Education Foundation-certified, and students can earn up to 21 college credits through a dual enrollment program with Ivy Tech. The duo also encourages practical experience and skills in their courses, allowing students to handle orders from local parts stores and customer communications, as well as job shadowing and earning internships at local automotive facilities.

Wayne Violet teaches automotive technology at his alma mater, Washington County Technical High School in Hagerstown, Maryland. Violet holds 12 Automotive Service Excellence (ASE) certifications and attends training courses year-round to provide students with a competitive education. Violet’s cooperative work program allows students to begin their careers while attending school, including job shadowing and paid apprenticeships. His class also runs a used car dealership where students conduct mock inspections, repair cars and compare costs to the book value of a vehicle before its purchase by a community member. Violet supports his students to qualify and pass the nationally recognized Maintenance and Light Repair Entry Level ASE exam. Apprenticeship Maryland is the latest partnership that Violet helped to cultivate, and the program hires automotive students as paid apprentices with the goal of continued employment after graduation. Violet was a finalist for the 2019 Prize for Teaching Excellence.

About Harbor Freight Tools for Schools
Harbor Freight Tools for Schools is a program of The Smidt Foundation, established by Harbor Freight Tools Founder Eric Smidt, to advance excellent skilled trades education in public high schools across America. With a deep respect for the dignity of these fields and for the intelligence and creativity of people who work with their hands, Harbor Freight Tools for Schools aims to drive a greater understanding of and investment in skilled trades education, believing that access to quality skilled trades education gives high school students pathways to graduation, opportunity, good jobs and a workforce our country needs. Harbor Freight Tools is a major supporter of the Harbor Freight Tools for Schools program. For more information, visit us at harborfreighttoolsforschools.org/ [harborfreighttoolsforschools.org] and on Facebook [facebook.com]Instagram [instagram.com] and Twitter [twitter.com].