Cherry Creek auto tech instructor wins $100,000 in national contest for standout teaching

Innovation Campus teacher 'still remembers how it feels to not know what you want to do with your life'

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The first time Brian Manley felt like he had something valuable to give to the world is when, as a teen working on his first car and his parents' car, he discovered he had a talent for auto repair.

“I really felt like once I discovered I could repair things and people respected me for that, that was the first time I had felt that,” said Manley, now an automotive technology teacher at the Cherry Creek Innovation Campus.

Manley, who focuses on getting to know his students and seeing if he can spark that passion in them, too, was honored as one of three grand-prize winners in a national contest that recognizes outstanding skilled-trades teaching in public high schools.

In the Harbor Freight Tools for Schools Prize for Teaching Excellence — a competition started in 2017 by Eric Smidt, founder of national tool retailer Harbor Freight Tools — grand-prize winners and their schools will receive $100,000, including $70,000 for their school's skilled trades program and $30,000 for the teacher, according to a news release.

The 15 other winners will each receive $50,000, generally with $35,000 going to their school's program and $15,000 to the teacher.

The 2020 prize drew more than 600 applications from 48 states and included three rounds of judging, each by a panel of experts from industry, education, trades, philanthropy and civic leadership, the release said. The application process included responses to questions and a series of learning modules, designed to solicit teachers' experience and creative ideas about their teaching approach and success in helping students achieve excellence in skilled trades, according to the release.

Manley's students at the Innovation Campus — Cherry Creek School District's career-technical education facility, located in the central Centennial area — appear to feel how much he cares about his line of work and about their success.

Kalvin To, a Grandview High School senior who attends Manley's class, said work in less hands-on classes doesn't sink in as much for him.

“One thing he's taught me is that it's more so about the experience in the class you get rather than the curriculum,” To said.

Taylar Oden, another Grandview senior, felt like outside of Manley's class, she was taken less seriously as a girl pursuing an automotive career.

“The first day I came to class, he was really open and respected me. Being a female, that's really important,” Oden said. She added: “I think he respects us all the same.”

The money from Manley's award could go toward components for working on NASCAR vehicles and other high-performance cars, Manley said. If third-year students can put an engine in a NASCAR vehicle and make it work, they're able to prove many of their skills that way, he added.

Prior to his current position, Manley had a career as a master automobile technician, according to the news release.

“I still remember how it feels to sit in that chair and not know what you want to do with your life,” Manley said, referring to his students.

Another of the three grand-prize winners is Mike Shallenberger of STEM School Highlands Ranch.

The Harbor Freight Tools for Schools is a program of The Smidt Foundation, established by Smidt, to advance skilled-trades education in public high schools across America.

“This year has been one of the toughest on record for skilled-trades teachers as they switch between in-person, remote or blended learning,” Danny Corwin, executive director of Harbor Freight Tools for Schools, said in the release. Corwin added: “At a time when tradespeople are more essential than ever, so is trades education. We are honored and grateful to have the chance to shine a spotlight on these teachers' amazing work.”

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