Ed Hensley knows how to reach the teenagers who don’t want to be reached, who have no use for school, who couldn’t care less whether they graduate.
“That was me,” the Olathe automotive teacher said.
Hensley, 54, graduated only because of a resolute order from his father. But his apathy showed. He graduated at a seventh-grade reading level and learned in short order that nothing in life would be handed to him. Raising two kids while working full time and studying to be a mechanic has a way of changing one’s perspective.
“I play big on my story because I want their story to be easier than mine,” he said. “I share with them the problems I’ve had all the way through my career because I didn’t get my education when I was young.”
Decades of manual labor later, Hensley has transitioned to teaching and spends his days motivating students to keep learning. His work and relationships with many students have meant the difference between their dropping out of high school and earning a college degree. He doesn’t need a statistic from the Labor Department to tell him just how big a life-changer that is for his students and their future families.
This month Hensley, the teenage punk who had little time for class, learned he had been named national instructor of the year by the National Institute for Automotive Excellence.
Not bad, even the humble teacher can admit, for a kid motivated to graduate from high school only because his dad, who only went through the eighth grade, demanded it.
“I gave him my high school diploma the day I graduated and said, ‘Here’s your diploma.’ He didn’t give it back to me until I was 45.”
Hensley, a lifelong mechanic, taught community college part-time for years and decided to try his hand at high school in 2008. But the students were vastly different.
High school students have varied aspirations. There are budding engineers who breeze through calculus classes with enough ease to earn full rides to college. And there are some who fail to thrive in a traditional classroom.
Everyone must be challenged or they won’t learn.
Hensley’s colleagues laugh remembering his “thousand-yard stare” those first days as a teacher. It didn’t last long before he was connecting with students, they said.
These days they are constantly impressed by his work. Co-workers were hardly surprised when Hensley was named instructor of the year. And his commitment to furthering his own education has caught the attention of students.
“I think the main quality of being a good teacher is being able to reflect and evaluate regularly,” said Ken Gandy, a fellow automotive instructor. “Self-reflection is a gift and he’s got that.”
Industry officials said they know he has trained students to handle the latest technology. Local repair shops heavily recruit his students.
“Ed gets them in there and gets their hands dirty,” said John Anderson, owner of Anderson Automotive in Olathe.
But it’s harder to find graduates these days, industry officials said, because so many of his students are immediately off to college.
The automotive repair program is run by the Olathe School District but students come from 19 area high schools to take his and other courses offered at the Millcreek Center industrial shop in downtown Olathe.
“They’re not thinking what’s going to happen next year. We’ve got to get them thinking about that,” Hensley said.
But most students want to know more about his motorcycle and the school bus he converted into a NASCAR tailgate bus with a bathroom and kitchen.
“They all want nice cars and houses, especially the car,” he said.
Hensley is strict, but he’s also approachable and trustworthy, students said.
Seventeen-year-old Aubrey Turner credits the auto program, specifically the teachers, with keeping her in school.
“I probably wouldn’t be in school right now. Mr. Hensley and Mr. Gandy have been so helpful to me,” she said. “They’re probably the biggest example in my life.”
Aubrey said many had given up on her after she made a series of bad decisions.
“They helped me get back on the right track. I’m a whole different person because of them,” Aubrey said. “I just needed somebody to pick me back up.”
The 17-year-old wants to attend a Harley Davidson technical school in Kansas when she graduates in May.
She’s especially encouraged after bringing home honors at a SkillsUSA competition recently. Months later, Aubrey beams with excitement about her success.
“I like walking out proud,” she said.
Hensley understands that feeling. When he began teaching high school, the automotive technician had only a limited teaching license until he finished nine college courses. He learned so much that he kept going and earned his bachelor’s degree. He regularly shared his college experience with students, some of whom could relate to his struggle with biology. He’s getting his master’s degree next.
“It reminded me of what these students are going through,” he said.
The training on classroom management, lesson planning and interacting with students was invaluable, he said. But it doesn’t always prepare him for frustrating days that go hand in hand with a job involving teens, he said. There are constant lessons to teach students that have nothing to do with cars. Don’t get into texting wars. Respect your parents. Learn to work with people you don’t like.
The frustrations fade quickly in May when students like Aubrey walk across the stage and receive their diploma with their parents watching.
“At the end of the year you sit back and say, ‘Wow, I made a difference in some lives,’” he said.