Erik Mortenson

Erik Mortenson uses a recording device to video tape himself working on a vehicle to help his auto tech students learn remotely.

CALABASAS, Calif.— An instructor in the Watauga High School/Watauga Innovation Academy automotive department was one of 50 teachers and teacher teams from across the country who were named on July 14 as finalists for the 2020 Harbor Freight Tools for Schools Prize for Teaching Excellence.

Erik Mortensen and the WHS skilled trades program are in the running for a share of $1 million in total cash awards. Mortensen was chosen by an independent panel of judges from a field of more than 600 skilled trades teachers who applied for the prize.

The finalists — some competing as individuals and some as teacher teams — hail from 23 states and specialize in trades including manufacturing, welding, construction, automotive, agriculture mechanics and technical theater.

“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 post-secondary opportunities, and these are the teachers who are providing them with the knowledge, skills and inspiration year after year.”

Mortensen has taught at WHS 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.

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. Out of this group, three of those teachers will be named 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 — $70,000 of which would go 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.

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 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.

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 eight in 10 parents and voters believing it deserves more funding,” Smidt said, citing a poll conducted by NORC at the University of Chicago and released this spring by Harbor Freight Tools for Schools. “Trades teachers are building up the tradespeople of the future — the workers who will keep our critical care infrastructure, our communication networks, our homes and cars, up and running. They deserve to be celebrated.”

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