New MTC program allows instructors to learn from each other

Neil Tucker poses with his “Tool-it seat” that he will show his Massanutten Technical Center colleagues how to build as part of the center’s Explore More program. (Photo by Logan Roddy)

By Logan Roddy, contributor

Cosmetology instructors learn welding. Carpentry teachers explore cybersecurity. Administrators make 3D digital avatars. At Massanutten Technical Center, teachers are sharing their knowledge with each other through the new Explore More program, where they can take each other’s classes.

“We have 21 programs, and they’re all their own separate departments, so you’re kind of on an island,” said Julie Maxwell, the center’s assistant director of secondary education and the program’s creator. “So I just wanted people to get a feel for what everybody else does in the hopes that they could learn from them.” 

She came up with the idea three years ago when she realized through her class observations that she had the benefit of seeing all the interesting lessons and learning, but none of her instructors could. Because area schools have been closed on Wednesdays to help facilitate online learning as part of the pandemic, she saw an opportunity to start something new.

“To be quite honest, with this COVID schedule this year, if there’s anything good that’s come out of it, for us was the opportunity to have Wednesday workdays,” Maxwell said.

Massanutten Technical Center, which is on Pleasant Valley Road, offers courses to high school students and adults. And because one of its functions is to provide professional development, she hoped to use the program as a way for teachers to learn not only what their colleagues do, but also how they teach.

“Teachers do best when they can share and they can modify something in their program,” said Maxwell, who came to Massanutten Technical Center six years ago after serving as East Rockingham High School’s principal. “I want everybody to refresh their teaching skills with new ideas, and if you just stay in the groove, that won’t happen.”

Teaching each other about electricity and haircuts

For instance, cosmetology instructor Ashely Armstrong took a special interest in John Stover’s welding class.

“I have such a bigger respect for my colleagues for what they have to teach,” Armstrong said. “You get so involved in your own curriculum that you don’t realize all of what these kids are learning at a technical center.”

She also participated in the electricity program, taught by James Sellers Sattva, where the student-teachers learned how to wire a three-way switch.

“Welding and electricity are super scary situations to have kids in. And as an instructor, to be able to educate these kids to care about how big of a deal and responsibility it is they’re completing is tough,” Armstrong said. 

In preparation for her own course — where she’ll teach her colleagues how to give pedicures, manicures, dye hair and possibly give a men’s fade haircut — Armstrong said the classes she’s taken have helped her improve her own work.

“Electricity is also essential in our field because you’re running a lot of equipment, so learning more there can only be good,” Armstrong said. 

But not everything is hands-on. Carpentry instructor Neil Tucker said he took away valuable insights about cybersecurity and health care after participating in the learning exchange.

One class featured a discussion on Alzheimer’s and dementia. “And the other one on the same day was cybersecurity — on how easy it is to hack your password,” Tucker said. “Both frightening subjects, but I learned stuff!”

For Tucker’s class, he’s giving his colleagues the chance to build a simple introduction to carpentry that they can take home with them, aptly named the “Tool-it seat” — which, for a bit of humor, sounds like “toilet seat” when spoken quickly. 

“I designed it in December for the students to build. It’s just a small easy woodworking project that makes a little seat with a tray underneath for your tools,” Tucker said. “You can sit on it for lunch. You can stand on it to reach a lightbulb. It’s lightweight and inexpensive to build, so it was the perfect project.” 

It’ll serve as a good repayment for architecture and interior design instructor Kim Capasso, who recently had teachers bring in an old piece of furniture to teach them how to restore them for her class.

“Every one of these classes I take I learn something too, of course,” Tucker said. “I had this little end table at home, and I was literally ready to just toss it and brought it in and rehashed it a little bit and it looks kinda nice now.”

‘Hey, what do you know about this?’

As the Explore More program has served as a fun way to break up the middle of the week while producing tangible results, Tucker said he feels it’s bringing together the instructors’ wealth of knowledge, as well as their distinct personalities.

“We have a question about pretty much everything and we can call one of our colleagues up and say, ‘Hey, what do you know about this?’ And it helps to know each other a little better, so I think it does a lot for our fellowship or understanding of each other,” Tucker said. “I can’t believe I get paid for this (laughs).”

Maura Smith and Deborah Rhodes both work closely with students. As a special education coordinator, Smith consults with more than 100 students to help them with their individual education plans (IEP), while Rhodes works as a job placement coordinator to help students who graduate move into jobs. Before Explore More, they spent some time in and out of classrooms, but since taking a variety of courses, they said they feel more connected to what students are learning.

In some cases, that directly translates into helping students. 

“A student did not pass the certification test in culinary, and she’s going to retake it. So I’m trying to really learn it so I can help her study,” Smith said. “So the longer I’m here and the more I learn what they do the more I can help them to succeed.”

Smith also serves as a liaison to other area high schools to recruit students who might be interested in attending Massanutten Technical Center. She said taking Explore More classes have helped her better tell which students might most benefit from the school.

Rhodes said knowing what students are learning also helps her better understand what they can expect in the workforce. 

“It helps me with that transition to know what they’re going to be doing,” she said. 

She’s also grateful for all the practical skills she’s learned in Explore More that she probably wouldn’t otherwise, such as how meats are processed, priced and prepared in the culinary arts class or how to change a flat tire in the automotive technology class. 

But what she’s most looking forward to is a lesson later this semester on how to restore a headlight.

“I’m excited for that one because I’ve cleaned the outside, but I’d never restored it because I’ve never wanted to tear the headlight off because I wouldn’t even know what I’m doing,” she said. “So I’ll save a little money and my headlights will be nice and clean this summer.”

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