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Words From Wiser: Tales From a Non-Traditional Teacher

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Chuck Wiser, 7/8/2021:

I write the words to share what my eyes see and my heart feels……

Previously I had written about my entrance into teaching, both as a prelude to honoring one of    my former teachers, and to this continuation. I have so many memories of the people that I came in contact with and of my experiences. I will share herein some of those memories and also some of the philosophy of why I taught the way I did. I taught using the method by which I learned.

One of my mantras was “If you understand, you don’t have to remember”. By that I meant if you understood why or how to do something you would not have to memorize how to do it. The prime example of that stems from my earliest ways of being taught how to use a fledgling word processing program “Word Star”. While looking over my shoulder the instructor would say: “…Now press the function key F1. Now press F11 followed by F12. These function keys corresponded to “Menu Options”. I explained to the instructor that I needed to know which menu options those were and what they did. If I memorized F1, F11 and F12, I wouldn’t know how to do any of the other functions or options listed under the menus. Therefore, I tried to teach how to “understand” what you wanted to do, and how to do it, so you wouldn’t have to memorize (remember) nondescript details.

In the weeks prior to stepping into the classroom in the teaching role in the Mechanical Engineering Technology Department (MET) at Alfred State College (ASC), I spent many sleepless hours fearful and apprehensive about the daunting task of becoming a “teacher”. I didn’t think I knew enough about anything to teach anyone else anything. I later learned that you didn’t have to know everything, just be willing to learn everything that you needed to teach people.

I discovered how to learn with a new motivation and depth. I had to learn at a depth sufficient to be able to explain the “how’s and why’s”, to give my students what they needed to be successful. They needed to learn how to: think, reason, rationalize, be intuitive, and be willing to try something, recognize if it wasn’t the best solution, and change their course or method.

My first academic opportunity was meant to be a one semester temporary appointment, in that I did not have the credentials to teach at the “university level”, at least in the MET Dept. Upon completion of my 1st semester, I was offered a teaching job at Jamestown Community College, having befriended their MET Department Chair, having met at a Computer Aided Drafting training session in Rhode Island. Learning of that door opening for me Alfred State decided to offer me an opportunity to continue my teaching activities there.

Early on, my teaching career, took an abrupt turn down “a road not chosen”, nor anticipated by me. That road had a gate, and upon opening that gate, I entered a world that resulted in the 24 years of teaching experiences and enjoyment that I never once considered “work”. The “Machine Tool” teacher, “Ernie” Winterhalter, was retiring, and they needed someone to teach the Manufacturing Processes class including the Machine Tool lab.

The Dept. Chair, Dave Conde, asked if I would consider teaching that class, and I replied, “No!”

When asked why, I replied that: “I don’t know the first thing about operating those machines in the first place, and quite frankly, I am afraid of the machines”. Undeterred by my reluctance, they assigned me to teach that class. I was able to “audit” the class for one semester and then was scheduled to teach it the next. Midway through the first semester of teaching the class,  I was notified that we had been contracted, through a grant, to teach a “Job re-entry” Machine tool course to 45 “displaced” employees over that next summer. That would be my summer job, since I was on a “12 month” teaching contract. I was petrified. For some reason, I was not required to take that particular class during my 8 years of “formal” education through ASC/RIT.

As a matter of fact, none of the courses I ended up teaching, were included as part of those I took over my years attending college via night school, as actual hands on labs were limited.

I learned! I learned to be up front and honest, and I learned from the best. The course was set up to include a full lecture group for math, and a “manufacturing technology lecture/information” section. For individual machine operations, smaller groups were used. On the first day that the collective group met, I stood before the class and upon introducing myself, and giving my educational and employment history overview, said that I had a confession to make. I said: “I’m not going to try and BS you. I have only been teaching this course for a very short time and nearly every one of you has far more knowledge and experience in this area”. I followed by saying: “We are going to accomplish two things over the next few weeks”. You are going to fulfill the requirements to get a job, and I am going to learn a whole lot from you”. I did!

Shortly after becoming “the expert” in manufacturing processes and having acquired some familiarity with computers, I was tasked to teach Computer Aided Manufacturing and Computer Numerical Control classes. By way of explanation, the “computer” aspect and part of the name implies that movements and operations of traditional machine tools like lathes, mills, welding machines etc., are controlled or programmed by computers to perform automated functions. This required some specialized training on my part and I welcomed “learning” in a whole new area of specialization.

Since area companies were now utilizing this specialized upgraded manufacturing capability, their machine operators needed to be upgraded as far as running the machines was concerned. These operators were not trained to write the computer programs to do the machining but often were required to make minor adjustments of the machines program to improve or correct an operation.

Over the final 20 or so years of my teaching career I was immersed more and more with training programs for local and regional industries. I often had to prepare for teaching a training program by attending a similar training program taught by the specific machine, or machine controller manufacturer. Programs similar to this were dubbed “Train the Trainer”. Over the course of the next couple of decades, I taught these training programs over a broad geographical area reaching out from Elmira in the East to Jamestown in the West and branching South down into Pennsylvania to near the Pittsburgh area.

I wish I could name all of the 50 or so companies but a few of the better- known ones are: Corning Inc., The Gunlocke Co., Gould’s Pumps, NYSEG, Acme Electric, Cutco, Dresser-Rand (and by other names), Dresser Industries, Case Cutlery, Dal Tile etc.

I have many lasting friendships and relationships among my former traditional students, and perhaps more so with the participants of the local training programs as they are closer to this area, and I now know so many, especially those from Dresser-Rand, Case Cutlery and Cutco.

Following is a short list of favorite memories, comments, and questions from those days gone by.

  • Student: “What are you going to teach me?” Me: “Nothing, but I will help you learn a lot”
  • More recently when asked “why don’t you use Power Point and handouts? I replied:

“If I write on the board it goes through your eyes into your brain, out through your hand, through your pencil/pen and into words on the paper. This slows it down so it may stick.”

  • I always wrote on “the board” with chalk, then white board markers, often changing colors to separate items, or thoughts or for emphasis. Many colors! I once had a student ask me a question about something I had noted earlier. When I asked him to show me what he had written in his notes, he pointed to a line that was written in exactly the same color I had used on the white board.
  • One of my proudest moments: When arriving home from school on one of the earliest teaching days, my former neighbor Charlie Young greeted me with “Hello Professor, how was your day”. While I didn’t technically qualify for that title (at least on the campus where I taught), it still gave me a great, and prideful feeling.
  • I often would mis-speak or mis-pronounce a word and look into the classroom to see if there was a reaction. Upon seeing same, I would comment: “Just checking to see who is paying attention”.
  • I once had a father and son combination, the Snyder’s from Coudersport, in the same class.
  • When taking roll one day, a student identified himself as Alex Hoag. “Are you related to Dutch Hoag, my favorite modified stock car driver from the 50’s?” “Yes, He’s my grandfather”.
  • Greatest save student: At semesters end the department faculty would always review the list of those who had not performed satisfactorily and were slated for dismissal. We voted. When one student’s name, a friend’s son who I knew personally, came up, I explained that the student was capable of better things and deserved another chance. The department faculty agreed and that student didn’t only complete his 2 year program, but re-enrolled into our Bachelor’s program and was very successful there.
  • Greatest Save Faculty: I was on a faculty search committee for a position in our department. One candidate had a degree in a field that I perhaps was more familiar with, having worked closely with a teacher in one of our similar programs. I went to bat for this candidate, enlightening the other committee members as to just why this candidate was in fact a good fit for our position. He was hired, was, and is still very successful, and active in the department. I would love to name names but cannot.

I never considered a day of teaching as a day of work. I consider myself more a “Learning Enabler”, than a teacher. I have indelible memories, and love, for ALL former students!


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