As an automotive repair student at Ranken Technical College in the late 1980s, Jeff Warren was unexpectedly called to the office one day. He thought he’d done something wrong; instead, the staff wanted to know if he had ever considered teaching. He hadn’t.
What Mr. Warren lacked in teaching knowledge, he made up for with years of landscaping and equipment maintenance experience. He began his teaching career by instructing an engines class at Ranken’s night school while working at Firestone during the day. He had been teaching at Ranken for over four years when he learned that his former automotive instructor at Alton High School (AHS) was retiring. Soon he was teaching many of the same classes that he himself had taken at AHS. This year marks his 27th year teaching at his old high school, and he has yet to take a sick day.
As he greets each new class, he asks his students to raise their hands if they want to work in the automotive industry. He estimates that about 10 percent of them ultimately become professionals, but he never knows which students they’ll be. “It has to click,” he says. “I tell them it’s about hand-eye coordination, that it takes age to develop these skills. I tell them there’s a reason why they don’t see teenagers in the NFL: Their brains are still developing. Some of them don’t like to hear it, but that’s a fact.”
Mr. Warren’s ability to impact students is one of the reasons he is so widely admired. For example, one of his former student’s father passed away as he was starting high school. “It hit me hard — and it’s still hitting me — but I grasped for any form of a father figure, and Mr. Warren was the first one that could stick to the wall,” the student says. “He may not see that, and he didn’t raise me, but I learned a lot after two years in his class. More than anything, I learned how to be a hard worker and to never expect anything handed to me. In some ways, I’m the man I am today because of him.”
Watching the light bulb turn on is Mr. Warren’s greatest inspiration, but as his students gain knowledge, he also revels in their emotional growth. “It’s tougher to teach the freshmen than it is the upperclassmen,” Mr. Warren says. “I see a kid bouncing off the walls as a freshman, I don’t have them as a sophomore, then I have them in class as a junior, and I think, ‘Wow, is that the same kid?’ Seeing that growth is what gets me up in the morning.”
His colleague Mike Brey calls Mr. Warren one of Alton High School’s best teachers. “He flies under the radar, but that is the way he likes it. He develops great relationships with his students and helps them save money on their own car repairs, while some of them go on to work in a mechanical field. In fact, my mechanic is one of Mr. Warren’s former students,” Mr. Brey says.
Mr. Warren felt extremely honored to be recognized as the St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s Teacher of the Month. Purina Farms and Elco Chevrolet have awarded him over $250 in gifts in recognition of this achievement.
“You couldn’t have picked a better teacher who is more deserving of this award,” one current student says. “Mr. Warren is highly knowledgeable in all areas of the automotive industry, and he shares his knowledge with the class. I have learned so much from him, and I am honored to be one of his students.”
Mr. Warren laughs when he thinks about the times his students have watched in amazement as he deftly completes a repair or demonstrates a new skill while they fumble over their fingers. But in hands-on classes, he says, it’s practice, practice, practice. And if it doesn’t click for them today, Mr. Warren will undoubtedly be there when the light bulb finally turns on.
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