I just finished up a week of teaching for California State Parks maintenance folks. I know some teachers and they are a bit jealous. It’s because I get the best students! My students have to compete to get into the class, they really want to learn, and they bring their own experience to class for others to learn from. “Real” teachers usually have to deal with reluctant students, crowd control and administrative headaches. I just get to share what I’ve learned and teach, which I’ve been doing for Parks now for 25 years. They have basic, intermediate, and advanced classes in plumbing and also a number of other fields. This was a basic plumbing class, with students ranging from newbie to a few that were talented enough, they could have been the teacher.
If you step back and look at what people choose to do with their working careers these days, you’ll see that working in the trades is low on the list. People seem to want white collar jobs or something to do with information technology and computers. Across the trades, contractors are having a harder and harder time finding decent help. Yet, there is work to do. Plumbing still misbehaves, buildings still need upkeep and we still have an ever growing number of people needing a place to live and the service of all the infrastructure that living in a first world country seems to require. Who’s gonna keep it all running? Plumbers and electricians where I live often charge over $100 per hour. If you become a member of one of the trade unions, you can get a good wage, decent benefits, and continuing education. We really need to rethink our push in the US towards getting all students into college while forgetting about the trades. Perhaps when plumbers can charge as much as lawyers, more people will be interested in doing plumbing for a living :~) And plumbing is a lot less messy!
I used to feel nothing but awkward when getting up in front of any crowd… unless it was a small crowd and I could talk about something I really knew and liked, like hot water. Nobody has asked me to give a talk on cats yet, so I discuss plumbing! Years ago, I ran across a book written by Dan Holohan, of heatinghelp.com. The book is called “How to Teach Technicians”. Technicians are more visual and tactile than “regular” people. They want and need to touch things to understand them. I understand this rather well as I R one. I recently went looking for the book and found it’s out of print, but the good news is that it has been updated and will be available again soon, likely this winter. The book walks you through the entire process of teaching, from knowing your audience, your material, and the room you’ll be teaching in, to stories about the many ways teaching can get disrupted by things like dogs, crows and very hot lightbulbs! Dan makes it clear how important humor and connecting with your audience are for getting good results.
I know his approach works. Some years ago I was asked to give a talk on hot water at an AWWA conference. I brought along a cut-out water heater as my main visual aid. Every other speaker seemed to be reading from their power point presentation, so when I came up with this heater and other real things to pass around the room, people got excited. I noticed people in the audience calling their friends and telling them to “Get over here, you must see this presentation!” That much excitement over hot water feels rather good.
I got to finish up the Parks class by showing off what a plumber can do with copper. Liking cats, I made a copper “Cat in the Hat” from two inch down to ¼ inch copper pipe and tube. It demonstrates what you can do with silver solder and only a little imagination. The message was that playing can be fun and education can (and should) involve playing. I made a point of bringing in things every day that the students may not have run across and that could help with story-telling. I took in a water heater from 1895 that still works, and is more energy efficient than most heaters made today. Another day, I brought in a bunch of old wrenches that, in concert allow the plumber to work fearlessly on ANY pipe. I took in old water heater salesman’s samples, demonstrating how differently we used to think about hot water. We all had fun while learning! I don’t know how learning and teaching can get much better.
Looking back over my working life of nearly 50 years, it seems clear that self sufficiency has always been the best way for me to be useful. Now, mix in a strong interest in water in its many forms and the wide world of animals and you'll know what's important to me.