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John Birko, Ann Arbor Student Building and Industry Program teacher, was recognized last month as Builder of the Year for the Builder and Remodelers Association of Greater Ann Arbor.
Birko is in his thirtieth year teaching the trades and construction skills to high school and college level students.
He began his career at Detroit Randolph Vocational Technical Center, where he taught carpentry for six years. He then took over the Ypsilanti Regional Career Technical Center Construction Technology program, which is a site-run student building program and ran that program for 13 years.
In 2006, Birko joined the Ann Arbor Student Building Industries program, a unique collaboration of education and business with student development being the real product of this union. He has since taken it to new heights. In 2013, the program was awarded the Ann Arbor Ypsilanti Chamber of Commerce E3 award for its “exemplary educational endeavor.”
Birko, who has also taught at the community college and university level, has taken his high school students to regional, state and national competition for the SkillsUSA competitions skill Olympics, as well as numerous local building competitions.
In its 46th year of existence, the 2015-16 Ann Arbor program has begun construction of its 46th home.
Birko has done teacher training in the state for his colleagues in technical skill education and is consulted for program planning and improvements around the state. He has also served the Michigan SkillsUSA state competition planning for 30 years.
Birko is a founding member of the Michigan Construction Teachers Association and has twice been named its ”Star Performer” and cited for excellence in technical education. He served the organization as its first vice president and its only three-term president, and he’s developed a statewide scholarship program for high school construction students as well as a newsletter for construction educators.
Jo Mathis, editor of the AAPS District News, talked with Birko about his career:
How do you take students who may or may not have ever picked up a hammer, and teach them how to build a house? Wow, what a question. The very first day I begin by showing them the all the finished houses around them built by previous classes then the set of plans that show drawings of the house. The plans show dimensions and a cross-section, which will show you what the materials are, and then elevation drawings which show you what it will look like when it’s done. The beauty of it, as I tell them, is that you get to figure out how we do it on our own. I begin to teach them process and the terminology from Day One, and they begin to learn a new vocabulary immediately. I have great respect for the tradespeople, as I do anyone else in this world who does their job well. I find it very respectable. I tried to help them understand how honorable it is to do something very, very well, and others will call you skilled.
Have you ever taught more traditional subjects? How do they compare? I actually began college as a philosophy anthropology and theology major . I did teach some religious education, but besides that, only construction trades.
You’re a licensed builder in the state of Michigan. Are you more accurately a builder who likes to teacher? Or a teacher who likes to build? Definitely a builder that loves to teach. I’m pretty fortunate that in my non-typical education process, I had contact with some great educators that really taught me by example what kind of education works best. I was able to build on that, and that really helped me learn how to teach. I have to say the collegiate educational process for my technical area was incredibly poor. I really learned from some great educators in Detroit schools, especially a couple of great business education teachers who really taught me how to reach young people and how to teach process and skills.
What do you know about teaching that you didn’t know at the start of your career? I know it is trite and cliché, but the old saw that says, “They don’t care how much you know till they know how much you care!” is deeply true. Students know when you are authentic, or just words, and adapt accordingly. I learned quickly how important respecting every student is, regardless of how they treat their peers or you. It is not our place to discipline them as much as it our responsibility to teach them how to see their words and behaviors for what they are and help them grow through them as fast as they can so they don’t fall behind.
What advice would you have for a new teacher today? Every teacher does something really well. Find out what that is and emulate it in a way that makes it yours. Associate yourselves with the best in your field and figure out why. Don’t try to be that teacher as much as learn the behaviors and habits that make successful professionals admirable.
What makes you so good at what you do? I laugh with my students every single day. I take my job very seriously, but I don’t take myself too seriously at all. I push and stretch my students hard everyday, but not harder than I will push myself. I promise them I will never waste their time so it is easier to ask them to respect that my time is important as well.
What about your job do you find the most rewarding, and most challenging? Seeing how my former students adapt skills they’ve learned with us to the directions they want their life to take is pretty rewarding. To see really hard-working young people become really successful good people is the very best reward. I have a former student who was not a very good high school student, but wanted to be and worked really hard at becoming better, and he is now a neuro-surgeon. His mother still blames me for that! I am really proud of how he used the success in our building program to get the confidence and traction he needed to get himself going in the right correction and figure it out. Honestly, I never taught any neuro-surgery.
The toughest part as I get older now is dealing with the weather elements in the cold and the heights. I’m not a kid any longer. I have replacement parts, so climbing scaffolding and ladders and working in the trusses on a roof can be pretty challenging now, to say nothing of the cold and the arthritis that has developed. It is just the aging process.
What kinds of kids should be taking homebuilding? Any young woman or man who is interested in learning in a new way. We are a great opportunity for hands-on learners and visual learners. We are a great challenge for someone who is interested in going into engineering or design and just needs to learn more about how things are put together. It is not like any other class you will ever take—even collegiately.