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How teaching safety became important to me
Posted to Educators' Forum on 6/29/2012 20 Replies

How teaching safety became important to me:

I retired at the end of the 2011 school year after teaching automotive for 38 years.

While reading an IATN thread about safety last year (, I realized how much I had learned about safety, much of it while on the job. I really feel a need to share some of those experiences with other teachers.

I had been teaching for only 6 or 7 months when the only major accident of my career occurred. After I retired, I started sorting through some of the things I had accumulated over the years. One of the things I ran across was a deposition to which I gave testimony after that accident in which one student was seriously injured due to another youngster's lapse in judgment.

Here's my story. My 1st period class started at 7:30 a.m.. Even juvenile delinquents can be pretty subdued at that time of the morning and this was one of my favorite classes. I used to have lunch in the staff room with other teachers and staff. My vice principal, Buck Buchanan, was impressed because I had so many of his trouble kids in that class and during our frequent lunchroom encounters I often told him that I thoroughly enjoyed my group. They had lots of personality and I wish I had kept a log of all of the quirky things they did. For those of you who are old enough to remember, this was during the time of Welcome Back Cotter and these kids were my Sweathogs.

Things were progressing as normal that morning when shortly before 8 a.m. all hell broke loose. I had a top-notch senior who was working with a younger team member who for no apparent reason decided to turn the ignition key on a manual transmission car that was in gear with the clutch out. Remember, this was in 1973, before cars had the safety feature to assure the clutch was depressed before the ignition could operate. The car lurched forward, pinning the senior student between the vehicle and a workbench and giving him a compound fracture to his upper leg. Ill never forget the sound of his screaming; like a dog hit by a car. I had one of those moments where you hear about people having superhuman strength, pulling the car off of that kid and leaving tire marks on the floor.

A senior student from another of my classes was my tutor during first period. He was one of Buck Buchanan's high spirited kids and always seemed be in trouble in his other classes for one thing or another. He and I got along fine, however, and he was my hero on this particular day. We had no phone in the shop and there were no cell phones in those days. When I told him to get help, he literally jumped over a workbench and was on his way, sprinting quite a long way to the principal's office. The fire department arrived very quickly after that, but this young man had already run back to the shop to help me tend to the injured student.

The injured student was one of my favorites. He had signed up on a waiting list to be in the Coast Guard before he was 16, so he could follow in the footsteps of his father and older brother. This accident, however, disqualified him for service. I'll never forget visiting him in the hospital with his parents, his leg hanging in traction, when I learned that he would not be able to be in the Coast Guard. The accident was not my fault, but it occurred on my watch and I still feel some responsibility for the way this changed his life. Could I have done anything differently that might have prevented this accident? I don't think so, but it still haunts me.

One thing that really bothered me was that the school district did not have an accident policy to cover this young man's medical expenses and the family was forced to sue. This was my introduction to the craziness of bureaucracy. College prepared me in the many aspects of CYA. Fortunately, I had done all of the safety instruction and had kept records of each students safety test. After giving a deposition to a couple of attorneys hired by the school district, I never heard about it again.

This accident happened during my first year as a teacher. I was only 22 years old and was already supporting a family. Although I might have been wise beyond my years, I really didn't have any clue whatsoever regarding the nuances of my responsibility for the safety of my students. I was traumatized, to say the least, by the accident. But during my subsequent 37 years of teaching, this accident galvanized me to want to do my best to scare the crap out of my students so such a thing would never happen again while I was responsible for their safety.

I'm proud to say I made it through the rest of my career without anything more than a minor accident on my watch, but I was also very lucky. In one instance, during the year before I retired, I heard the sound of a lift lowering and instinctively looked away from my conversation with another student in the direction of the lift. The student had left a high reach tall jack stand under the rear axle of the car and was visiting with another student as he began to lower the vehicle. I yelled at him and got everyone out of the way in case the car fell. Luckily we were able to raise the lift back up without the car falling.

It is so important for a teacher to keep an eye out for everything that is going on! There were several other times during my career where I was able to prevent potentially serious accidents from occurring. But sometimes you are just lucky.

I have been in labs where I have observed teachers who immersed themselves in a single project while other groups of students are unsupervised. The more years under my belt, the more difficulty I had in watching a teacher who was unaware of the big picture. There are some really smart people who are sometimes oblivious to the world around them. Our students safety is our primary responsibility and you just cannot take this for granted.

I was very lucky to have an excellent teacher for a really engaging safety class during my upper division studies at Long Beach State. His name was Dr. Earl Smith and he became one of my mentors. We were required to write a safety test in his class and I really struggled with that. My room mate, a wood shop guy, had it so much easier; they lose fingers and have table saw kickbacks and other obvious stuff in wood shop. But, I had to write ten automotive safety questions and I had a difficult time coming up with them. From this end of my career, I have a hard time believing I was in that place because it all seems so obvious now. As a college student, I had lots of inert common sense, but I was making too many assumptions and had no idea what I was in store for as a shop teacher. Really smart people sometimes do the most careless things. Thomas Jefferson said that all men are created equal; however this refers to rights, not abilities.

Needless to say, the experience of having a serious accident in my shop really left a lasting impression on me. Since then, it has always been important for me to take pride in teaching real-world safety presentations, complete with stories. My intent was to scare my students with something they would not forget, but in a humane way.

For those of you who will be attending the NACAT Conference in July, one of the seminars I will be presenting will be on safety. I hope you can fit it into your schedule. I will explain how I teach safety in a way that keeps the students engaged. My presentation includes some slightly gory photos that I cannot include in the safety PowerPoint that I'll post on my web site, but I will provide some insights on how you can customize and personalize your own safety presentations.

Tim from California

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