The Clark County Skills Center employs 23 full- and half-time instructors. The majority of them came straight from industry.
Why would a professional leave the field to teach high school students? Here, some instructors weigh in:
Called to teach
Greg Retchless and Andrew McColley, Restaurant Management instructors of 13 and 15 years, respectively
McColley first became acquainted with the sinks and stoves in the Skills Center’s kitchen as a student. He was among the first batch of graduates from the program.
He attended, he said, because he found his calling to be a chef. And after graduation, McColley attended Western Culinary Institute in Portland – "College was not in my future until I went to the Skills Center," he said.
He went on to work at the Sheraton Inn near the Portland International Airport – during which he was on the advisory committee for the Skills Center restaurant management program – then opened his own café, Andrew’s Restaurant and Catering across from the Clark County Courthouse.
But as successful as he was, there was something missing.
"You can cook someone a great meal, but it’s probably not going to change their life, McColley said. "Now every morning when I wake up, I have the opportunity to change someone’s future. What an incredible life to have."
He sold the restaurant and started instructing full time.
Greg Retchless was attending Clark College’s culinary arts program, where he also worked part-time, and gave a presentation to the restaurant management students. But it was the instructor who caught his eye.
"I liked the way he was interacting with the students," Retchless said. "I thought, ‘I want that guy’s job.’"
He started his career in the ski resort industry in Colorado, but his "Aha" moment came later while he was managing a restaurant in Portland. He found himself in a kitchen, teaching his employees money management skills and how to balance a check book, figuring that if they were good money managers, in the end, they’d be better employees.
Retchless started at the Skills Center as a staff assistant, then took a break and came back as a full-time instructor.
"Oh yeah, we were called to be teachers," McColley said. "As soon as this becomes a job, I’m quitting."
The Skills Center’s restaurant management program was the first in Washington and second west of the Mississippi to be certified by the American Culinary Federation for high school students. The federation sets the standards for what students need to be professional chefs.
A trainer at heart
Jolyn Collie, Financial Customer Services instructor for 19 years
In 1988, Jolyn Collie walked into a virtually empty room at the Skills Center and designed the financial customer services program. But it wasn’t her first go at teaching.
With a degree in business education, Collie started her out her career as a high school teacher in Eugene, only to quickly discover she wanted something very different.
"I was working very hard for not much in return," she said.
Collie moved to Portland and became a trainer at what was then U.S. Bank of Oregon. It was an immediate fit.
But the bank downsized, and she moved to PacWest, which soon after became Key Bank and also started downsizing – but this time, Collie was on the other end.
"I’d already been laid off, I didn’t want to do it to other people," she said. "I just wanted to do training."
She left banking altogether and entered graduate school at Portland State University to earn a master’s degree in curriculum and instruction with the intention to train at the corporate level. It was then that several bankers Collie knew called her up within days of each other with news that a financial program was being started at a vocational school in Vancouver.
"The bankers had a need – good employees," she said. "And from hiring, I knew what to look for."
But Collie didn’t necessarily want the job: She’d already tried teaching and the money wasn’t great. But 19 years later, her enthusiasm is still obvious.
The job combined two of her loves – banking and training, and what she likes best is that she’s not teaching "high school," she said.
First, the mindset of the other educators is more business-corporate than traditionally educational, Collie said.
"Most of us were on the other side of the union, and now we’re supported by a union, but we resolve our own problems, like a workplace," she said. "We all work together really well."
And second, teaching her course is like running a business, figuratively and literally.
"The products are students," Collie said. "If we’re not successful with our ‘customers,’ we won’t have a student base and I could be teaching half-time next year."
Plus, the students operate a fully functioning branch of iQ Credit Union in the classroom – an idea Collie cooked up for her master’s project.
‘Potential beyond measure’
Lynn Davis, Electro-Digital Technologies instructor for 1½ years
Lynn Davis used to be one of "those people" who thought the Skills Center was a place for high school flunkies who couldn’t make it anywhere else. Then he called the school on a whim looking for a job, and 10 minutes of browsing the website changed his mind.
"My initial reaction couldn’t (have been) further from the truth," he said.
Davis had been working for Vancouver-based New Edge Networks, where he started as a tech and worked his way up to a project manager. But he was looking for a more meaningful gig. So four years ago, he decided to become a math teacher.
When the time came to start student teaching, he made a chance phone call to the school, but after hanging up, he quickly forgot about it, he said.
So he was surprised a year-and-a-half ago when the school called him to ask whether he was still interested in teaching the program. He was.
And he said he is, without question, happy with his choice.
Davis’ students have to be able to write, do math, reason, problem solve and interact with the public. They operate the technology support desk for the rest of the campus and are also open to the public, although they’re not always able to fix the problem.
He thinks of it as a "destination high school," a place where his students spend half a day giving meaning to the academic classes they’re already taking.
"I tell them this is math you can see," Davis said.
Davis has 51 students in the program, a 40 percent increase over last year.
"Teaching here is far more attractive than at a traditional school – I get to teach precisely what I did," he said. "These kids have potential beyond measure."
Davis also encourages community business leaders to get involved, either by mentoring, sitting on a school’s technology advisory board, guest speaking, donations, offering internships and holding teachers accountable if a curriculum is irrelevant.
"I’ve never taught in a traditional classroom so I can’t compare, but by and large, my kids want to be here rather than just being required to be here," he said. "It’s a different environment – it’s really no different than being in a supervisory position in business."
Valerie Schmitt, Dental Assisting instructor for 11 years
If it weren’t for the Skills Center’s professional skills curriculum, Valerie Schmitt wouldn’t teach there. That’s the class time spent making students good employees: The importance of showing up on time with the proper attitude, problem solving, initiative, time management, communication skills. Schmitt helped compile the Pathways to Professionalism program for the school in 1994.
"Dental assisting may not be the students’ life passion, but when they leave my program, I want them to have a solid foundation," said Schmitt, a dental professional of 33 years.
Schmitt taught the program for 11 years starting in 1988 and leaving in 1999 to open Royal Family Ginseng Plaza in Portland’s Chinatown with her husband Doug.
The couple was growing ginseng as a tax write-off and made a business out of it, but was forced to close because of a sewage problem in the building. This is her first year back at the Skills Center teaching full-time.
After working as a certified dental assistant, Schmitt started her teaching career at Indiana University instructing dental assisting and eventually became the program supervisor. A University of Washington grant brought her west in 1982, and she first applied to work at the Skills Center after seeing an ad in the Seattle Times, but turned the job down. Five years later, while Schmitt was working at Kaiser Permanente Dental Administration in Portland, the position reopened and she was hired.
After Royal Family closed, she wasn’t going to return to teaching, but missed working with the kids.
"The relevance appealed to me," Schmitt said. "They don’t just talk about doing it, they do it. The students rarely let you down, and their enthusiasm is so fun. Their potential is limitless."
In conjunction with Clark College and volunteer dentists and hygienists, the students run a dental clinic in the classroom available to uninsured area residents. The clinic averages four patients an hour, and since Schmitt returned to the class, volunteers have been sparse.
"Working here, I wake up every day in a good mood," she said. "You get energy from these students. Given the chance, most of them will exceed your expectations."