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Redwood High School auto teacher wins $50K

Redwood High School auto teacher wins $50K

Ken Cox is second place winner in Harbor Freight Tools for Schools Prize


VISALIA — A Redwood High School teacher known for his hands-on teaching methods now has his hands on $50,000 for himself and his students.

On Oct. 24, Cox was named a second-place winner in the 2019 Harbor Freight Tools for Schools Prize for Teaching Excellence. Cox was awarded $50,000, with $35,000 going to Redwood High School’s skilled trades program and $15,000 to Cox. The mechanic is no stranger to tools and the auto repair industry but is relatively new to education. He had spent decades in the automotive industry, working in auto parts stores, repair facilities, warehouse distributors and engine rebuilding machine shops—including one he owned. Cox didn’t become a teacher until he was 50 years old.

One of his regular customers, an automotive instructor at Redwood High School, asked Cox if he would ever think about becoming a teacher. When that customer retired, Cox sold his business and stepped into the role, taking over an automotive program that serves 230 students every year.

Cox’s curriculum prepares students to earn several industry-recognized certifications and is aligned to local businesses and community college offerings. His shop equipment even matches what is found in industry workplaces. 

“Students enter the workforce ready to use the tools and machines that their employers use,” Cox said. 

Two school days per month, students pursue work-based learning at local shops and businesses, including parts distributors, dealers and paint and body repair shops, where they practiced customer service alongside collision estimating. Nearly 30 of Cox’s students have been hired full time by their work-based learning employer after graduation.

“My main goal has been to instill in my students an impeccable work ethic,” Cox said. “I work every day to show them what it looks like to complete a job with pride and self-respect, but never with a sense of entitlement. They see, and learn, how to be productive and efficient whenever they work.”

In class, Cox pursues innovative projects and teaching techniques. In the 2018-2019 school year, his students converted a 1970 Volkswagen bug from gasoline power to full electric. While students were able to purchase the motor and controls they needed for the conversion, they had to fabricate several mounts and all wiring. They enlisted the help of cosmetics students to makeover the interior, windows, and paint. 

Cox’s class has also worked on hydrogen fuel cell technology, including another gas-to-alternative-fuel conversion, and compressed natural gas vehicles, including school buses for the Visalia Unified School District. Students who demonstrate strong leadership skills carry the in-class title of “shop manager”—they have the authority to discipline classmates who misbehave, arrive late or don’t follow safety requirements.

Each year, students compete with SkillsUSA which, Cox said, gives them an opportunity to learn how to present themselves in professional settings. Six of Cox’s students have medaled in state SkillsUSA competitions.

“My class affords students the chance to use their hands to perform all the various tasks in the shop,” Cox said. “They learn to pay attention to details. They learn to respect the dangers of the equipment, and yet use the equipment with confidence. We perform tasks that require reasoning and planning. We often have to work out problems by exploring various options and deciding on the best solution. These are skills that translate perfectly to the core academic areas.”

Cox was among 18 public high school teachers to win first or second place in the 2019 Harbor Freight Tools for Schools Prize for Teaching Excellence, the highest number of automotive winners of the prize in its three-year history. This year’s first place winners earned $100,000—$70,000 for the high school skilled trades program and $30,000 for the teacher. 

The Prize for Teaching Excellence was started in 2017 by Harbor Freight Tools Founder Eric Smidt to recognize extraordinary public high school skilled trades teachers and programs with a proven track record of dedication and performance. 

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