GULFPORT, Miss. (AP) — For nearly 15 years, Robert Caylor has taught Gulfport High students how to repair cars and watched as they started careers as mechanics all over the Coast, but on Oct. 14, he was rewarded in a different and surprising way.

Caylor got $50,000 from the Harbor Freight Tools for Schools Prize for Teaching Excellence. The prizes honor skilled trades teachers at public schools around the country. Caylor is one of just 18 winners nationwide, selected from more than 600 applicants this year.

Caylor learned he had won in a surprise ceremony at school. Students lined the hall outside his classroom and cheered as he returned from the cafeteria. He said he was smiling underneath his face mask.

“Watching the kids grow up, I see them from the time they’re really young and have never held a tool, to the time they’re professional mechanics,” he said.

Unlike many classes that last for just part of a school year, Caylor’s students study with him for their junior and senior years. They learn technical skills that they can use for the rest of their lives, whether or not they pursue a career in mechanics or engineering.

Three of Caylor’s current students stood in line for pieces of the cake prepared in Caylor’s honor, with frosting trim in Gulfport High’s blue and orange. Senior Charles Nobles said he plans to go to college and wants to be able to fix his own cars for the rest of his life.

Junior Eric Mitchell wants to join the Air Force, and thinks the training he’s getting from Caylor’s class will help him as a pilot or engineer.

And Dhafir Freeman, a junior, wants to become a mechanic. Caylor’s class is showing him what that might look like.

“I’m not really academically secure, so I’m just trying to make a way in life,” he said. “We learn something new everyday.”

TEACHING AND SERVING

Why did Caylor become a high school teacher? The short answer is Hurricane Katrina. The storm destroyed his auto shop and his home. His son was a student at Gulfport High at the time, and the school had an opening for an automotive technology teacher. Caylor applied and started working in 2006.

Over the years, he’s built relationships with local companies so he can tailor his teaching to the skills that will make his students competitive for jobs after graduation. He invites guest speakers to introduce his students to particular skills, like bodywork.

At many high schools, students in automotive technology classes practice on the same car month after month. At Gulfport, students learn in part by repairing parents’, teachers’ and other students’ cars for free.

The class does about $30,000 in free auto repair work every year, Caylor estimated.

In his shop, a beat-up 1970 Mustang is one of the vehicles hanging from the ceiling in the open space. This is Project Mustang, launched around Christmas last year. The goal is to replace all the old parts and carefully restore the body.

“We’re going to make it Cruisin’ The Coast worthy,” Caylor said.

A NATIONAL HONOR

The honor Caylor received was launched in 2017 by Eric Smidt, the founder of tool retailer Harbor Freight Tools. The aim is to honor teachers of skilled trades, who have long provided diverse opportunities for high school students.

“We really believe skilled teachers are unsung heroes,” said Erin Walsh, consulting program director of Harbor Freight Tools for Schools, who Zoomed into Wednesday’s ceremony for Caylor. “They don’t get the recognition they deserve.”

A recent article in EducationNext explains that over the last few decades, vocational education programs in American schools have declined, largely due to anxieties about academic performance starting in the 1980s. Schools increased academic requirements for students and reduced opportunities for skill- and career-focused classes. Since 1985, federal funding for vocational training has dropped 35%.

There’s been something of a resurgence in career and technical education in the last several years, but Caylor’s colleague Dave Huffman still feels there is a stigma against skilled trades classes. Huffman and fellow teacher Patrick Wadsworth won the Tools for Schools teaching award three years ago.

“People think it’s just for kids who aren’t going to college,” Huffman said. “It’s not just shop class, it’s more than that.”

To date, all three of Mississippi’s winners of the teaching prize are Gulfport High teachers, Walsh said.

Along with the money, Caylor will receive an all-expenses-paid trip to Los Angeles every summer (COVID-19-permitting) for a conference with other winners of the award from around the country.

Huffman said the conference is an opportunity to learn from diverse colleagues. This year’s conference was virtual, but he and Wadsworth came away with at least one idea they could implement at Gulfport: tool bags that virtual students could check out to work on projects at home.

Caylor will receive $15,000 from the prize, and the rest will support Gulfport High’s skilled trades classes.

He said he hasn’t decided exactly what he’ll do with his winnings. But a fence around his yard for his three dogs to run around and lots of toys for two new grandchildren are probably in the works.

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