Located in the lower level of the Phillips High School building, the technology education department is a smorgasbord of sights, sounds, and smells. A maze of different rooms, each distinct in their own way, chock full of the tools of the trade.
Basically a glorified garage kitted out with some of the most technologically advanced equipment in the school, the metalworking classroom is alive with the electric hum of machinery. The concrete floors are decked with equipment: monstrous machines, a metal lathe, a plasma table, laser cutters, curtained welding stations and programming computers. The scent of engine oil lingers in the air.
A partially disassembled lawnmower stands off to one side like a disemboweled metal beast where the power energy class left it at the end of the school day. An octagonal fire ring, a project the eighth grade class is tackling, lies in partial stages of construction, along with the experimental prototypes the students drafted as they were finessing their design.
This is the domain of Tim Brown, technology education teacher of 36 1/2 years, 32 of which have been spent right in Phillips.
After three decades spent in these classrooms, Brown has become a fixture of the school community and he knows these rooms like the back of his hand. While the field of technology has seen tremendous advancement and change over recent years, the heart of the work — introducing students to practical skills that can be used throughout their lives — has remained the same.
“Technology has changed fairly rapidly,” acknowledged Brown, who has found himself a student over the years, working overtime to keep up with the changing landscape of manufacturing in order to effectively teach it to his students.
Computer-aided drafting, now a staple of the manufacturing and design worlds, was only just beginning when Brown started his teaching career in the early 1980s.
“Computers went from being used a little bit to being used for nearly everything,” he said. “We still teach the basic things, though, like measuring, safety, applying math, following directions, problem-solving … and if you look at those skills, they might even be more important than using the fancy machines.”
Of fancy machines, Phillips High School now has plenty. Last year, the district was the recipient of a FabLab grant that allowed them to finally purchase advanced technology for the classrooms — equipment that is now being used to give students a solid foundation in the worlds of commercial design and manufacturing.
From 3D printers to computer controlled milling machines, the technology classrooms are now decked out with enough tools to intrigue even the most reticent student.
With so much advanced equipment and sometimes complex subject matter, there are unique daily challenges to the role of being a technology education teacher. For Brown, that includes maintaining the equipment and tools used in his class, and troubleshooting any problems that arise. Like a performer spinning plates, Brown must keep each individual student engaged and working on their various projects throughout the classroom, somehow keeping an eye on everyone.
“You try to have a handle on everything that's going on,” said Brown. “Kids have to be patient, and that's a skill that every kid struggles with. There are times when you want them to go ahead and do their own thing, and there are other times when you don't want them to do that. Teaching that is a balancing act.”
Brown shared the technology education department with fellow teacher (and former student) Troy Makovsky, who orchestrates the woodworking classroom while Brown handles the metalworking side.
Even so, Brown’s day is packed.
On an average day, he arrives at the school shortly before 8 a.m. and starts the day with a 45-minute introduction to technology class for freshmen. Then he'll move on to an eighth-grade introduction to technology class, followed by an exploratory class for seventh graders. Due to the sheer number of seventh graders in the school, the students are divided into three groups and Brown sees them on alternating days. After the seventh grade class, there's a 45 minute prep period followed by a break for lunch. Afterwards, he has a block of metals technology, and then another block dedicated to power and energy technologies. On a good day, Brown will be home by 5 p.m.
Wrestling: the sport of life
Brown also coaches wrestling, which starts in mid-November and concludes at the end of February. This means long days in the classroom generally end with evenings spent coaching. Brown has served as the head coach of the Logger wrestling team for 32 years, and was recently honored by the Marawood Conference North as the Coach of the Year.
“I don't take it as something that was awarded to me as much as to our program,” said Brown, giving a special nod to his fellow coaches. “We've got a lot of people that have put a lot of time into our program.”
The Loggers finished the season with a record of 11-4, placing second in the Marawood Conference to Div. 3 state runner-up Stratford.
A former high school wrestler himself, Brown knows just how challenging of a sport wrestling is — not only calling on an athlete’s physical skills but also their own self-reliance as they cannot rely on team members to help them score.
“I think I went into coaching wrestling because it's good at teaching you about life,” said Brown. “You gain confidence, you learn to overcome failure, you work toward goals. There's something to be said about an experience when you are put out in the spotlight and have to stand on your own merits.”
While a successful season like this one carries an obvious reward, perhaps the most fulfilling experience for Brown as a coach has been the opportunity to see kids grow into themselves, overcoming challenges to achieve success.
“I think that's by far the most important thing,” he said.
It is this same personal evolution that Brown finds most rewarding to foster as a teacher in the classroom, seeing kids who come from difficult economic backgrounds or places of low self esteem put in the work and rise above to create their own version of success.
The long game
Teaching is a long game. There are times when educators see challenging students in their classrooms, kids who show little motivation or appear headed in the wrong direction. Yet teachers still put in the work every day, operating on the belief that anyone can succeed given the chance. When that trust is rewarded — sometimes years later — it is the fuel that keeps teachers returning to the classroom day after day, year after year.
“When you see kids who go on to succeed … when you walk through the community and hear that someone you taught shows up for work every day and does a good job — you hear those results, and that's the difference maker that makes a teacher come back each day and each year,” Brown said.
A few of Brown's students have even gone on to enter the field of education themselves — some as teachers, some as principals, some even as technology educators.
These days, it's not uncommon for his classroom to be peppered with the children of former students as he has worked in the same school district long enough to have the distinction of teaching a second generation.
Out of the 18 eighth graders in Brown's class today, over half are the children are of former students.
“I just don't want to be around long enough to teacher their grandkids,” quipped Brown with a wry chuckle. “That's why I have to contemplate retirement at some point.”
Brown is a jokester, quick to wisecrack that the reason he's stayed in education so long might be down to some form of insanity. The longer one talks to him however, the more apparent it is Brown has an unquestionable enthusiasm for the subject matter he teaches and the power it has to equip students with practical life skills.
When Brown and his family moved from southern Wisconsin to Phillips in 1987, he originally planned to stay for only two years before moving on. Yet as Brown’s family began to settle into the school and the community, they found a sense of home they hadn’t expected. When Brown’s three children entered the school, he and his wife decided this was the district they wanted to raise their family in.
Now, some 30-odd years later, the badge of 'new teacher' has long since faded and Brown is now one of the veteran teachers he once learned from, fully ensconced in the district where he chose to spend an entire career.