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Selkirk College Trades Instructor Discovers Optimism in Adversity

Bob Hall
By Bob Hall
April 24th, 2020

It’s post-secondary learning where the amount of dirt under your fingernails helps measure educational progress. With the adjournment of in-person delivery at Selkirk College due to the COVID-19 pandemic, students and instructors in the School of Industry & Trades Training are taking on the challenge of completing vital coursework away from the shops on Nelson’s Silver King Campus.

A veteran of almost two decades of teaching, Heavy Mechanical Program Instructor Andy Gullen joined his colleagues in a mid-March pivot to alternative delivery methods that posed just as many questions as answers. Days into the new normal, trades training at Selkirk College adjusted and resilience is proving to be the key ingredient as students continue their education.

“I walk through the shop and see that everything is stopped, frozen in a moment in time,” Gullen says of the trades-based campus.

“There are tools left out, there are pieces still not put back together, tool boxes are still left open. Students grabbed what they could and they left, it was quite a shock to them. For young people this can be traumatizing, so I am trying to bring them back to some sort of normal structure that they can move forward with. I am impressed with all of the students in the program, they are responding well.”

Selkirk College offers Industry Training Authority (ITA) apprenticeship education programs in Heavy Mechanical, Millwright/Machinist, Welding, Plant Operator, Metal Fabricator, Hairstylist, Carpentry, Fine Woodworking and Electrical. Since in-person classes were adjourned, trades instructors have been working with the college’s leadership team, the ITA and colleagues across the province to accomplish desired outcomes in practical performance-based education.

“We have been given the circumstances we are under and make it work using every resource we have to accomplish the goal,” says Gullen, who started teaching at Selkirk College in 2002 and packs 25 years of industry experience into the classroom.

“It’s a common objective to get the students through and make the programs viable while trying to physical distance at the same time.”

Settling Into the Unexpected

The first week of moving trades programming online presented significant challenges for both instructors and students.

Instructors were tasked with setting up virtual classrooms in their homes and adjusting curriculum to fit temporary online learning. Moving away from hands-on learning in shop spaces to a model dependent on computer technology was not something instructors like Gullen expected when the semester began. Working together, those instructors with more experience on teaching tools like Zoom helped provide support for those less comfortable with video delivery of course material. 

“You are seeing how different instructors handle this and right across the board I am really impressed,” says Gullen.

“Though I knew this before, when we get together on our weekly call to talk about issues, what is working and the challenges we continue to face, it’s a top-notch family of instructors we have at Selkirk College.”

Like most programs in the School of Industry & Trades Training, the 16 learners in this year’s Heavy Mechanical Program cohort range in age and life experience. For many students, the move online presented barriers and adversity with proper computer equipment, adequate internet connection, young children at home and comfort levels with technology. 

“The first week was a little sketchy getting them on target, but now we have a schedule established and the technical issues worked out,” says Gullen. “They are focused and just want to get through it. In that regard, we all have a common goal. I am really impressed with the students in my class, they have really adapted well.”

Delivering Training Outside of Shop Spaces

Now fully settled in, Gullen is delivering curriculum through a variety of different avenues. He continues to lecture using Zoom with the entire class in attendance, using props and videos to illustrate lessons. He stays in constant contact with students, either via individual video chat or email, to make sure all members of the class are keeping pace.

“We are all getting comfortable with screen talk,” says the 58-year-old Gullen, who admits to knowing very little about Zoom a few weeks ago. “It really is a wonderful technology and I am so glad we have it during this time.”

The nine-month Heavy Mechanical Program began in September and Gullen says this particularly keen cohort was already ahead of the curve for practical work in the shop when in-person classes were adjourned. To keep the online lessons tangible, students continue diving into gear boxes and engines using their own vehicles and equipment on their properties where available.

Uncertainty around resuming in-person instruction remains due to physical distancing protocols, but Gullen is confident that his program will be able to meet the proper assessment and practical competencies required for successful completion. When that happens, the Class of 2020 will emerge with lessons nobody could have imagined when instruction began in September. 

“This is what defines character, when you have this type of adversity,” Gullen says. “I think the students coming out of this will be more adaptable and will rise to the top. They have been thrown a curveball and they are handling it well. As their instructor, that is quite rewarding.”

Emerging from Crisis with New Tools

Gullen entered the field of mechanics shortly after graduating high school in the Okanagan. Though he wanted to be a science teacher from a young age, he acted on opportunities throughout a 25-year industry career that took him all across British Columbia in both the public and private sector. In that time, Gullen earned his Red Seal in three separate mechanics specialties.

The veteran Selkirk College instructor is looking forward to the eventual return to shop-based learning on the Silver King Campus. The energy that takes place on the bustling trades campus is irreplaceable, but Gullen will use this time of adversity to emerge stronger in the years ahead. 

“I am much more technologically savvy now and will be able to be more adaptive having looked at other avenues to instruct,” he says.

“There are different ways to get the messages across, sometimes you don’t make these changes until you’re forced into them. The last few weeks has broadened my instructor expertise ten-fold. This pandemic has certainly nudged us all out of our comfort zone and there are some real positives that we are seeing here and across the world.”

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