“How does one choose the one thing that is loved the most about such a great job? This job keeps me young!”

After earning his master’s degree in marine biology and a job at the National Marine Fisheries Service, Robert Caylor found himself in the slow economy of the early 1990s. He drew on the automotive skills his father had taught him to make money on the side. Within two years, his side gig was bringing in more money than his work as a marine biologist. He quit science to work full time as a mechanic, operating his own shop for 10 years. Then, Hurricane Katrina hit. Caylor’s shop and his home were destroyed, leaving him and his family living in a trailer provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

“You never know what life is going to throw at you, but each time, I’ve met the challenges and have been richly rewarded,” Caylor said in his prizewinning application.

Caylor had another back-up plan: in the early 1990s, he had also earned a teaching credential, assuming he would never use it. After the hurricane, a teaching job opened at his son’s school, Gulfport High. Caylor was hired there in 2006 and has been on the job ever since. In 2014, he earned National Board Certification for teaching, and holds an Automotive Service Excellence Foundation Master Mechanic certification (his program is also ASE-certified).

Gulfport High focuses on providing career education to its students, who study core academics in ninth and 10th grades and move on to career courses as juniors and seniors. Caylor’s class is part of a “school within a school” that focuses on STEM and lets students spend hours at a time in the shop, built across more than 6,000 square feet. Automotive students work together in teams to master concepts, perform hands-on work, and gain exposure to different subjects, including advanced math and physics to supplement their trades skills. Students can work not just on cars, but watercraft, engineering projects, or anything that puts their mechanical skills to use.

Caylor focuses on constant improvement, for his students and himself. His shop features a video surveillance system at each work bay, just like technicians have in real-world dealerships, so he can look back at students’ techniques and help them improve. He uses the same videos to critique his teaching and surveys his students twice a year to check his performance. Caylor’s students regularly find employment in the Gulfport region, including as automotive technicians and as Freightliner diesel technicians. Caylor was a finalist for the 2019 Prize for Teaching Excellence as part of a team with fellow Gulfport teacher Scott Pfaff.

“The fact that automotive classes have been incorporated into the STEM academy gives a real sense of pride to the students, and helps me recruit students who would have possibly never even heard of my program.”