Never in a million years would Bill Culver have expected his Tuesday morning to begin with such fanfare.
Culver, who’s taught a variety of vocational classes in Evergreen Public Schools for 40 years, was presented with the 2022 Harbor Freight Tools for Schools Prize for Teaching Excellence award earlier this week. The national award came with a check for $100,000 for Evergreen’s programs and was welcomed with school cheerleaders and a round of applause from students and staff at Evergreen High School.
“I’m still just letting it all sink in, I was totally surprised,” Culver said. “They had this all planned out and kept me in the dark. I walked out on the stage and there was all these kids and teachers. It was fun and shocking.”
The award, which was launched in 2017 by Harbor Freight’s founder, Eric Smidt, recognizes “outstanding instruction in the skilled trades in U.S. public high schools.” Harbor Freight is a national tools and equipment retailer based in Calabasas, Calif.
This year 768 teachers in Career and Technical Education programs from across the country applied for the award, which recognizes just five grand prize winners and another 15 secondary prize winners of $50,000 each. Cory Torppa, a high school construction teacher in Kalama, was also one of this year’s grand prize winners.
The award application process began in the spring. Nominees went through multiple rounds of interviews prompting them to share where their inspiration comes from and a handful of ways in which they approach challenges.
In the decades he’s spent teaching a variety of trades, Culver said his biggest challenge as an educator is finding ways to show students how their work will have application later in life.
“I’m really passionate about this stuff, but the goal is to show kids in a real practical way how math is used in real career paths,” Culver said. “I’m of the belief that if kids have meaning to their learning, they never ask when they’re going to use it. It allows the math to stick better.”
Not only does an emphasis on this kind of hands-on work help keep students’ attention, Culver said, but it’s just as important to approach students as someone who can relate to their position as learners.
“Developing a positive relationship with kids is crucial,” he said. “You try to get to the point where they value your presence and you value theirs — even more than the curriculum. Once you set that foundation, there’s better receptiveness between each party.”
Culver hopes to use the money to improve equipment and the in-house workspace for his students — an effort he’s been actively working toward. In a partnership with local contractors and the Evergreen School District Foundation, Culver is hoping to build a workspace just outside his classroom at Evergreen. There, he hopes to work with students in building tiny homes in an effort to use their learning to give back to the community.
“It’s just not a one-person show,” Culver said. “It’s nice I was the one recognized as the individual but I recognize I couldn’t have done it without the support I’ve had through the years. I’m very humbled and gracious to be one of these winners.”