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  Tech to Tech

The Spark that Ignites the Passion

Posted 11/13/2006
By Brian Manley

Good instructors can ignite passion in students.

Along the lines of "How do we get good kids into this industry?" I want to take a moment and celebrate an important milestone - the retirement of my friend and fellow instructor, Tony Craven.

I am sure everyone reading this column remembers his or her first (maybe only) automotive instructor. Even if you entered our industry without formal automotive training, you probably had a mentor who took you under his or her wing and guided you along the "path." We have all had someone who showed us how to properly torque a fastener, clean gasket material from mating surfaces, load test a battery, and how to "feel" the drag of a gapping tool through a spark plug gap.

Tony Craven, in blue jacket, demonstrates the power of the ignition simulator.
In Tony's 30-year career, he taught these skills, and scores of others, to around 4,500 students. Each year, when he stepped into his first class on the first day of the fall semester and scanned the room to see 25 eager faces, he never knew what the coming months would hold. Tony began each year with a shop orientation and a safety test, and then began teaching bumper-to-bumper theory of how each system on the automobile functions.

He would, of course, take roll each day and impart a portion of his "Modern Automotive Technology" book to his class. Students warmed up to Tony within the first week or so because they could see he was simply being himself while sharing one of his life's passions.

He augmented his classroom instruction with shop-based lab packets where students would work in groups and perform many of the same skills that Tony taught in his classroom. Mounting and balancing a tire, performing a cylinder compression test, performing an exhaust gas analysis on a running engine with a five-gas analyzer - these would all be performed by the students and assessed by Tony on a go/no-go basis. Students would learn how to correctly lift a vehicle on a twin-post hoist, how to perform a lube, oil and filter job, and how to correctly identify and measure brake lining thickness.

But most instructors do those very same things each and every day of their careers. Tony, however, was unique; he infused his lessons with humor and delivered his lessons with patience. He often found memorable ways to get a concept across to his students.

A student apprentice at the only mini Cooper dealership in Colorado.
You and I usually try to avoid being "tickled" by the voltage from a secondary ignition system. But in Tony's class, the final and most memorable lesson on ignition systems involved creating a circle of students (you can see where this is headed, can't you?), having the student on one end touch the end of a plug wire on a classroom ignition simulator, then have the student at the other end of the circle touch ground. He would then turn the ignition key on for just an instant, which made each link in the chain jump - and usually smile, giggle or both. This tactile method of teaching ignition voltage made for a memorable lesson.

He would cut out articles that reflected emerging technologies and state-of-the-art policies regarding alternative fuels, passenger safety or the newest car models to be released by the manufacturers.

An avid hot-rodder who owns a 1939 Ford Coupe with a 454 big-block Chevy engine, Tony would often relate his lessons to his hot rod or other quarter-mile race cars. He frequented car shows and brought back pictures of classic and unique cars and powertrains, then shared them on the big screen with his class. He would compare horsepower-to-weight ratio, tire-to-ground friction coefficient and aerodynamics of the race cars with the ones you and I drive. He could usually find a way to relate a concept to a student who just didn't get it.

Tony had a pat-on-the-back for a job well done, and would also have a handy headlock reserved for that unique kid who desperately needed it; he knew just when to dispense each one.

It seems that Tony's influence never stops. He once remarked that "When I have a son or daughter of one of my former students come into my class, it's time to retire." And that is exactly what happened. He has had several second-generation students in his class, and he loves back-to-school night when he can reminisce about the old days.

Tony has had his students end up as apprentice technicians at local dealerships and independent repair facilities, and he has also posed for pictures with students who finished in the top three at state-level automotive contests. Some of his students have gone on to traditional four-year colleges; others have completed two- and four-year automotive degrees at technical schools.

Student apprecntice (right0 standing next to his mentor at a local Subaru dealer.
Even in retirement, his enthusiasm for cars continues. He came into my office this summer (yes, during his summer break and after retiring) with an in-depth article that detailed a top-fuel drag car. "Can you believe that it takes 500 horsepower just to turn the supercharger?"

That's a guy who loves his job. He spent 30 years guiding students along the beginning stretch of their automotive adventure, and still enjoys doing it.

As we prepared to post the position to hire a replacement for Tony, I began thinking about where we might find an articulate, intelligent, fun-loving, automotive professional who would enjoy working with high-school-age students. I thought about how I began my teaching career, and I thought of a few techs who would make awesome instructors. Have you ever thought about teaching what you love to do each day?

Have you ever thought about supporting your local automotive school? There are many ways to help train young technicians and perhaps give back a little of what we were fortunate to experience at a young age in our own training. You can:

  • Become an instructor. Have you ever thought about teaching what you know? I used to teach working technicians repair methods for getting cars to pass our state emissions program, and now I teach the vocational classes for our school district. The rewards are many and varied - much different than I had anticipated. You could be the next Tony Craven.
  • Become an advisory committee member. Working professionals, like yourself, are always welcome on advisory committees for automotive programs, where you can advise the instructor and the school about tool and equipment purchases, what to teach in their curriculum, what has become outdated, etc.
  • Host an apprentice technician. If you have a relationship with an automotive program, chances are you can get one of their very best students to come into your shop as an apprentice. If you and your shop are looking at the opportunity to "grow your own," then this is a chance to grab some of the best candidates in your area.
  • Assist with judging contests, such as your local SkillsUSA (VICA) Leadership and Skills contests. Our committee members have judged Job Interviews, Auto Tech Hands-On, Related Technical Math, etc.
  • Be a guest speaker for a class or allow a class to visit your shop. Talk about job potential, attitude, salaries and the benefits of becoming a master technician.

Tony Craven poses with state finalists at the Ford/ AAA Student Auto Skills Awards.
When I reflect on the legacy of our retired instructor, I am hit by the immense responsibility that a teacher has each day, and how the health of our industry relies on having the "right" guy in the classroom when we are attempting to lure the best and brightest students into our industry.

I am reminded of a survey of students that was conducted by our school district a few years ago. Students were asked what quality they most wanted to see in an instructor. The overwhelming response was "passion for their subject area." It seems students don't take a class just for the content; they enjoy a unique delivery method as well.

Thank you, Tony.

Brian Manley Brian Manley is a vocational automotive instructor for the Cherry Creek school district in Aurora, Colo. He is an ASE master certified automobile technician and a former member of the National Automotive Technicians Education Foundation (NATEF) board of trustees. He can be reached at

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