“So much confidence can be built in a shop class setting because students learn to think of something they need, blueprint it, build it, and then use it for the intended purpose. That satisfaction is what drives my students to do more and work harder than they do in so many other general education classes.”

Taylor Donnelly discovered her passion for welding in high school. The only female in her welding program for three years, she received three American Welding Society welding certifications and competed for four years on the Agricultural Mechanics team through Future Farmers of America and SkillsUSA. On track for a financially promising future in industry as an agricultural engineering major in college, she pivoted to teaching when she realized that would be far removed from the hands-on work that she had experienced with her high school instructors. She began her teaching career in December of 2016, and after four years moved to Sheridan, Arkansas to rebuild a declining program, an opportunity she simply could not pass up. Donnelly is in her third year of teaching agriculture mechanics at Sheridan High School, and her sixth year of teaching overall.

Throughout her tenure at Sheridan, Donnelly has seen enrollment increase in the mechanics program from 23 to 82 students, with expansion plans to hire a second teacher and additional classes due to a 500 student demand. In her classroom, Donnelly has a three-step teaching philosophy: focus first on relationships, second on procedures, and third on safety. She believes that establishing relationships based on trust where her students know that she will have their back and help them in any way to succeed is critical. Once a relationship is built, she will take time to ensure that students know how to work all of the equipment and how to perform all of the tasks needed for any project in the shop, even it means showing a student “how to overhead arc weld 99 times if that means the 100th time they are able to master it on their own.” After students master skills in the classroom, they can proceed to projects and jobs “safely”. Donnelly shares that when her students leave her class, they will be fully prepared to work with employers, as all the “hard training” is done already.

The mechanics courses at Sheridan follow a 4-level curriculum that is tailored to prepare students for trade jobs and schools. Starting at level 3 courses, Donnelly allows students to design their own projects based on requests from the community and school. This has allowed students to work on projects supporting the local community, such as building a forcible entry training door for the Sheridan Fire Department or tensegrity table for a local store. Students who have completed at least two courses are able to work with a local business partner, earning high school credits while receiving real on-the-job training. Through certifications and work-based learning programs, students have been able to enter directly into the workforce, often working for the very employer who trained them in high school. Donnely’s students demonstrate her successful track record: of the 100+ seniors who have graduated from Donnelly’s program, 27 work in construction, 15 are welders, 11 work as electricians, six as plumbers, four as heavy machine operators, and three went on to college to become a skilled trades teacher. Many of her students stay in touch and thank her for the lessons she’s taught them, including one alum whose eyesight was saved in a work accident because of her demanding safety glasses lesson.

“What I love most about being a skilled trades teacher is that I can show students a tangible skill that they can use to better their quality of life and financial situation.”