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From expert to rookie: Hollywood's crash course in teaching collision repair.

Hollywood Leary doesn't soft-pedal his words when talking about his first year as a collision repair instructor at the East Valley Institute of Technology (EVIT). "If you learn from your mistakes, then I'm just about the smartest [expletive] on campus," the former body shop owner says of his new experience in teaching teenagers at the career and technical high school in Mesa, Arizona.

The sometimes-gruff talk belies a sincere desire to help young people succeed, as well as a humble doubt about his ability to do so.

"I'm trying to learn to be a teacher and write a curriculum and run a body shop and have a life," he said. "I've been working since I was 11, but this is the hardest job I've ever had."

Leary is one of about 70 full-and part-time teachers at EVIT who has entered the classroom as a teacher after working for years in industries such as automotive, culinary arts, interior design, and HVAC, among others. They bring an expertise that cannot be replicated by someone with a teaching degree, but with no experience in that particular field.

"My best teachers used to make six digits, but they've figured out there's more to life," said EVIT Superintendent Sally Downey. "Once those light bulbs go on [in students' heads], you get chills. There's nothing like it."

"I'm Not a Teacher"

Leary owned and operated Hollywood's Body and Paint in Cave Creek, Arizona, from 1993 to 2010. But after the down-turn in the economy and constant body shop battles with insurance companies, he was burned out and needing a change. "I didn't want to be a body shop manager anymore," he said.

Enter John Rang, a long-time business associate and friend who was working with Downey to arrange a partnership that would bring a national automotive collision training facility to the Mesa campus.

Rang, managing partner of Leading Edge Auto and Kachina Automotive Equipment, had met Leary for lunch, where the burned-out body man talked about his ideas for the automotive industry.

"I said to Hollywood, 'If you could do anything, what would you do?' He said, 'I'd love to teach kids," Rang recall's. So he drove his friend to EVIT where Leary met Downey and took a tour of the school that was touted by TIME as "learning that works."

"I was in awe," Leary said. "I had goose bumps for 2 1/2 hours. I didn't know anything like this existed. I thought vocational schools were a clumping ground for at-risk kids. I couldn't have been more wrong."

"We had lunch again, and that was when he set the hook," Leary said of Rang. "I said, 'I'm not a teacher.' Then I went home and talked to my wile and she said, 'What do you mean you're not a teacher?" Leary's wife pointed out to him that he teaches employees, customers and insurance companies every day. So he decided to give it a try and started teaching at EVIT last August.

"He's doing a wonderful job at the school fir a guy who's never been a teacher," Rang said. "And he's only going to get better."

What It Takes

GTE teachers in Arizona have to show proof of 6,000-plus hours/experience in their industry to receive a provisional certificate to teach. Downey said 90 percent of EVIT's teachers come to the school in that way.

After that, they have to take Arizona history and U.S. Constitution law, 90 hours of structured English immersion training for teaching English-language learners, as well as pass a knowledge test, Downey said.

While EVIT's teachers are experts in their chosen fields, they usually have not had training in classroom management. So the school pairs each new EVIT teacher with a seasoned mentor. "Joe Public thinks anyone can teach, but to engage students for half a day and keep them on task is not easy," Downey said. "Kids know when someone is a phony. You've got to bring your heart and connect with those kids."

The Real Deal

You could use many adjectives to describe Hollywood Leary--colorful, passionate, outspoken--but "phony" is not one of them.

"I don't have a clue what I'm doing yet," Leary said, adding that classroom management has proven "way harder" than he had thought it would be.

In business, Leary was friends with his employees. "I never told anybody what to do," he said. "I asked them and it got done." But he's found that that approach does not work in a high school classroom. "I couldn't trust 16-, 17- and 18-year-olds the same way," he said.

And yet, even though he plans to toughen his approach, he admits, "How can you spend 450 hours with someone in a year and not be friendly with them? I'm spending more quality time with [the students] than with my wife."

So he's learning to be friendly and still keep his students at arm's length. He has two mentors--instead of the usual one--on the EVIT faculty who are helping him to find his way as a teacher.

His plans include bringing in enough students so that the program will have separate classes for first-year and second-year students. He currently has both in the same class, and it is difficult to engage them at the same time. His goal is to place at least 90 percent of his students in jobs.

Leary maintains there are no particular traits or skills that make a student a good candidate for the Collision Repair Program. He points out that there are many types of jobs in the industry besides body repair and painting. There are also, for instance, insurance adjusters, tech reps for parts companies and people who work in customer service.

"They just need open eyes and open minds. We can use the same curriculum to get them all there," he said.

Hooray for Hollywood!

Originally from Massachusetts, Leary has lived in Arizona for 30 years. He has "the most awesome wife in the world," a 32-year-old son and 30-year-old daughter, and four "awesome" grandchildren who call him "Papa."

He also has a name that begs the question: Why "Hollywood?"

He has a number of answers and jokes about that. But on this day, he explains that people who came to his body shop noticed that he always wore sunglasses and seemed to have a different pair for every day of the month. They started calling him "Hollywood," and the nickname stuck.

Is that the real answer? It's hard to tell. But there's no denying the passion Hollywood Leary brings to his job in the collision repair classroom--or what it is that keeps him there even when the work is hard. "It's the kids," he said.

At the beginning of the school year, on4 of his students was sullen, moody and, as his parents described, "in a dark place." By his third month in Leary's class, his parents "couldn't believe the change in his demeanor. The kid's attitude was just better than ever," Leary said. That student now has a job and loves his work.

Rang said Leary is able to connect with kids because of his honest nature.

"He tells you exactly what he's thinking. You know where he stands," Rang said. "He's a good person, and kids just gravitate to him."

For other professionals in career-tech industries who may be considering teaching, Leary has some advice: "I would say if you're passionate about whatever industry you're talking about--then do it. But you've got to be passionate. That's why I'm here. It's not for the paycheck."

Explore More

This issue's "Career Curve" features collision repair technicians on pages 58-59.

Teaching can be challenging, and that's why ACTE provides the resources educators need to be successful.

CeCe Todd is a public information officer for the East Valley Institute of Technology in Mesa, Arizona. She can be reached at
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Title Annotation:Those Who Can, Teach
Author:Todd, CeCe
Geographic Code:1U8AZ
Date:Apr 1, 2013
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