Jackie Robinson (JR) is a Lead Instructor for ECA. Jackie teaches plumbing, carpentry, insulation, and electrical work in the context of green building, alongside providing instruction in commercial and residential HVAC systems. His decades of expertise provide the skill set and knowledge base for tomorrow's green jobs workforce. Thomas Flaherty (TF) conducted this interview, which has been edited for brevity and clarity.
TF: Introduce yourself for the audience. Who are you, what do you teach?
JR: I’m Jackie Robinson, Lead Trainer, ECA. I teach carpentry, electricity, plumbing, heating, ventilation & air conditioning.
TF: How’d you get to ECA?
JR: I drive every day.
TF: What brought you to us?
JR: Actually, I worked for Connection Training Services first, where I’d been trained as a cabling instructor. At that time, CTS contracted with ECA for plumbing instruction- something happened with the instructor, I was offered a chance to come to ECA and teach plumbing as well.
TF: What inspires you?
JR: Trying to pass on my skills to the next generation. I want to transmit what I know to another generation of students, and allow them to have every opportunity without having to go to college. The skillsets I possess- if I pass it on to someone else, they can use the same thing to earn a great living. Especially—most of the time here at ECA, we’re working with disadvantaged, low-income people. So if I can help them earn a great living, be independent, self-sufficient, financially stable… that’s my objective.
TF: Are there any students whose growth you remember as remarkable?
Jacob Durkin- now working for Johnson Controls, Andy who now works with me, Nate and all the other guys now with ECA’s weatherization department… all these guys, earning great livings. You know, and… that’s the purpose. Otherwise, I could be in the private sector, probably earn more… but you don’t get the satisfaction. I’m getting older, don’t need to do a whole lot of work, just trying to pass the skillset on. You try to inspire people to want it, and this is something we could focus more on, but inspiring people to want more education- not just college, and beyond college. Everybody ain’t ready for college, but you can get a skill, and maybe go to college later.
TF: Of course, learning can be lifelong!
JR: Learning is never over, no matter how good you think you are. I learn something just about every day as we go through the training process. Sometimes you get epiphany from one of the students just from one of them doing something—like aha, that’s a good way to do that. Let’s try that, see if it works for everybody. Although you might be set in your way of doing it a certain way, but they might have something that works a little better for them, and you looking at it- that might work better for everybody, so let’s try it.
TF: That really leads well into… what have you learned from teaching these students?
JR: Over the years, you get a lot of… I should say, personal relationship skill, communication skills. You have to learn to adapt and every student is different, you’ve got to cater to every student. You’ve got different personalities, different mindsets, and you learn to weave your way through all of them and still deliver your lesson effectively.
The students… some learn at a different rate, some you gotta show ‘em the hands on part and then bring them back to the theory part, some can take the theory and go straight to hands on. It’s all about dealing with individuals, you’ve got 10-15 students, none of them are going to go through the class the same way. But you’ve got to make the class fit everybody. You’re going to have to explain thing two, three different ways. Or you’re going to have to make some pieces, do the visual effects. So you’re going to adapt, going to develop, based on the needs of your students. You learn many tricks- sometimes, they’re going to tell you something, ‘Mr. Jackie, why don’t you try this, it works better this way.” And you look at it like ‘OK, fine,’ you put that in your notes- it works better this way. So, you learn a lot. Every day is something you learn.
Some people think its easy- until they get in there, and find out it ain’t. Cause it looks easy from the outside. After doing it for so many years, everybody ‘oh that’s easy, you seen him do it.’ But then you get in there, it doesn’t work- ‘I was looking through the window.'
TF: Sure, things are easy when you’ve been doing them 5, 10, 20 years- ‘this is buttering my bread for me, do this every day.’ But first time- no, its not easy. Maybe it’s not easy for the first hundred tries.
JR: That’s it, because you go through the trial and error process. The person looking from the outside, they don’t know you’ve done it 5, 10 years, and you’ve been working on the delivery, adjusted it 20 times to get things to go the way you want them to.
It’s one thing to be a technician. It’s a whole different story to take that, and deliver it to someone in a way they’ll understand. Like—“I can do it, I can teach it!” No you can’t! You can do it, but can you teach someone else is the question. You have guys coming saying they can do this and do that—can you teach the kid who barely knows how to read? No. It’s not an easy job. It’s a hard job. But if you love it, you’re here for that reason.
TF: So- was CTS your first time teaching, or when did you get your start?
JR: I actually got my start learning fiber optic cabling at CTS. We had a journeyman electrician teaching the class. Now, my background is electronics. You can’t tell me about Ohm’s Law, I studied it for many years, I know electricity and Ohm’s Law like the back of my hand. So anyway, he was making some statements to the students, so after the class we and him had discussion. I was telling him he was wrong, he was telling me he was right, and I didn’t know the old guy in the back of the room owned Ricoh education- the group that paid this man’s salary! So anyway, he comes up on his cane, says ‘actually the young man’s right.’ See, just because you’ve been doing something for a whole bunch of years, doesn’t mean you’ve been doing it right. Even after doing something 20, 30 years, you could’ve been doing it wrong until someone calls you on it.
So the he offers for me to teach the class, and makes a bet. He said “If you teach to the end of the class, you’ll get $25 an hour to complete this class. If you teach this class and everybody graduates, I’ll give you $50 an hour.” No problem- I took the test, I finished the class up, and everybody passed. What I do it, I take the test first to what it comprises. Then I know what my students need to know. So now I’m giving them the information you need to know to pass that test. I give them their hands skills, everything they need to pass that exam, get that certification. We’re like a team, and I’m just the leader of this team. It’s not about anybody knowing more than everybody else, its just I know how to get you to the destination. So that’s what happened: we became a team, went over everything necessary, I hammered things in, and everybody passed that exam. First time in the history of that class.
TF: That's amazing!
TF: How’s the way you’ve taught changed since that first class?
JR: So -dealing with the different personalities. Sometimes I’ve got a strong personality, and I’m kind of forceful. So I learned to turn it down, and be a little meeker- you know what I’m saying?
JR: So you ain’t aggressive in your approach, you’re seeing students of all kinds, everybody got attitudes and feelings. You learn to tone it down and deliver, be a little more thick-skinned. So when they certain things it don’t bother you, and you just teach the student.
TF: So all the evolution is on the side of building those side of soft skills and emotionally engaging with students, the content presentation is more stable?
JR: Well the content evolves, every time you teach a class you want to make it better. You’re thinking about things that can enhance this education. Now- I teach commercial heating and air conditioning. But I’m going to make sure that when you leave that class, if you have to, you can work for a residential company too. So I go over to the residential lab, you get some residential too- you fit on both sides of that coin, now you’re more employable. I never give the students just what they came here for. I like you to leave with as many skills as possible that can help you get the job.