“When I mess up, I show the students, ‘Here’s how I messed up and here’s how I responded to that mess-up.’ I use this as a way to start modeling the behaviors I want them to have. If I’m not taking risks, I can’t expect them to either. I’ve learned that if you build trust first, students will then feel safe to take risks.”

After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in career and technical studies from California State University, San Bernardino, Dennis Johnson spent 30 years working in the automotive industry, servicing vehicles and building and developing race engines. His favorite part of his job, however, was training his service and technical staff, which inspired him to become a transportation technology instructor in 2003.

At Fallbrook High School in Fallbrook, California, Johnson teaches students with his “Warriors Garage” curriculum. Beyond being aligned with Automotive ServiceExcellence Education Foundation standards, Johnson’s custom curriculum recently qualified to fulfill the University of California A-G requirements. The designation, which requires approval from the University of California and which few skilled trades courses receive, means that Johnson’s class is officially a “college preparatory” course, on par with laboratory science or algebra.

Johnson’s class motto is to always think outside the box. “We get our students to think about how to improve, make something that doesn’t exist, or make something versus just buying it,” Johnson said. His students not only learn applied science, mathematics, technology and engineering, but they also teach their fellow students, inviting economics classes to the shop to learn about vehicle maintenance. They also partner with the economics classes to co-learn career skills like creating a resume.

While developing “soft skills” by offering light repair services to school staff and community members, Johnson’s students also engage in dynamic projects, like converting a gas VW bus to electric. They also have access to top technology: Fallbrook is one of the only high schools in the country to have a Mainline DynoLog chassis dynamometer, an innovative vehicle testing and evaluation tool that lets students simulate road conditions in their classroom.

To prepare for life after high school, Johnson’s students pursue work-based learning with partners like Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, BMW and Nissan, receive dual-enrollment credit from Miramar College, and even video-conference with NASA engineers to learn about career paths in aerospace.

Johnson was a finalist for the 2018 Harbor Freight Tools for Schools Prize for Teaching Excellence.

“I want to equip each student with options and skills they can use regardless of the career path they choose to take. Every student will own a vehicle. Learning basic maintenance and service procedures can help save them money and give them valuable skills.”