They’re going to need bigger toolboxes.
Two New York Career and Technical Education teachers were among 20 nationwide to win the annual Harbor Freight Tools for Schools Prize for Teaching Excellence this month. In addition to the recognition, automotive technology teacher John Stratton, Oneida County BOCES Teachers Association, and technology and engineering teacher Leif Sorgule, Peru TA, both received $50,000 — $35,000 for their schools and $15,000 to take home. In all, five New York educators have won $400,000 total in prizes since the program started in 2017.
Stratton and Sorgule recently spoke with NYSUT United about their work, the value of CTE, and the new tools they’ll be adding to their classrooms. Their interviews have been edited for clarity and length.
NYSUT United: What was your path to teaching?
John Stratton: This is my 20th year teaching. I worked over 25 years in the automotive industry previously. When I became a shop foreman, I was basically teaching the other technicians and enjoyed doing that. I started teaching nights for adult education. Then the daytime job at BOCES opened up, and I jumped at it.
Leif Sorgule: I started in college majoring in civil engineering. Honestly, I picked that because a lot of my friends went into engineering. But as I got into the program a little further, I found myself looking around at all the areas incorporating technical trades and was envious of all these other areas. Through conversations with my high school technology teachers, they suggested teaching could be a good fit because you could take all your interests from all these other technical fields and you can have fun utilizing them throughout the day.
NU: What’s a typical day in your class like?
JS: We’ll be in the classroom for a little bit doing some theory-based lessons. Then we get to work in the shop. We do a lot of live work with actual customer vehicles. To me, students get more out of that. It more closely simulates an actual commercial workplace. My program is really demanding just because of the level of technology in a car today. I have had students say, ‘I learned more in your program than in my first year of college.’
LS: I’m the only high school technology teacher in Peru. A typical day for me ranges from robotics projects to material processing to welding fabrication, woodworking, machining and pre-engineering courses. I try to give students a taste of industry-pertinent skills. In my manufacturing class, for example, they run a company. It’s learning the tooling and processes to make our product, designing the product from scratch, making and selling the product, keeping track of inventory, managing a team of workers, making sure we’re compliant with safety stuff. They could be running a CNC mill to make parts or doing accounting for our team to keep track of inventory and products sold. Everybody has a role.
NU: There’s an ever-evolving conversation about post-graduation life for students, whether to guide them to college, a trade or other work. Where does CTE fit into that conversation today?
JS: We’ve got really strong enrollment in our programs this year, so it seems like we’re finally getting rid of some of that stigma that it’s a second-class option for students. Probably about 25 percent of my students go on to a college program. I encourage them to go to a SUNY college and get an associate degree, rather than some of the places that just offer a training certificate. When I was in high school, being a teacher was not on my mind at all. But if I went to school for a certificate, I would never be able to do what I’m doing now.
LS: The more exposure we give our students to all these very lucrative and rewarding career pathways they could choose, the more options they have on their plate as they make that next step forward. They might choose to be project manager at an engineering firm or the technician that is running high-end equipment on a manufacturing line that requires only a one-year certification from a community college. Everybody has a place, and without everybody filling all those places, the whole thing falls apart. We can’t just all have master’s degrees, and we can’t all be technicians. We need to have a mix.
NU: Now the fun question: Any big plans for your award money?
JS: I want a classroom set of oscilloscopes. It’s becoming a big issue with automotive diagnostics, using oscilloscopes to measure waves from various sensors. We may look into a training station, replacing some of our hand tools. I’ve got to get a list together and see how far the money goes. You can spend $35,000 pretty easily.
LS: I have some equipment closing in on 40 years old, so we’re going to replace that. But I also want to expand some opportunities for students. We already have a MIG welder in the classroom; it’d be better If I had two of them so I can have two groups welding at one time. I have one metal lathe; we’re going to replace that with two smaller lathes that aren’t 50 years old. I also want to pepper in some fun technologies students don’t currently have access to. These kinds of opportunities don’t happen every day. I want to make sure the equipment lasts another 40 years and makes a big, lasting impact.