SPRINGFIELD – Mark Simmons has always been passionate about fixing things — whether that be farm equipment at his Ohio middle school or fighter jets in the first Gulf War. From a young age, he saw working on engines as a “path to the middle class.” So, it’s no surprise that when Simmons started teaching automotive and diesel technology at Springfield High School nearly 20 years ago, the program was refitted too.
Last month, Simmons was surprised with a $50,000 check to keep his pedal to the metal.
After nearly a month of keeping the check secret, Harbor Freight Tools for Schools presented Simmons with the award Tuesday.
“I’m still in shock,” Simmons said. “Usually, I like to try to put the spotlight on the kids, not on me.”
To help improve their trade skills and CTE programs, Harbor Freight Tools for Schools annually awards checks to 20 high school teachers nationwide. According to Harbor Freight district manager Jim Weiland, they have donated more than $6 million since 2017.
Only one Oregon teacher was awarded this year — Simmons.
He was one of over 750 individuals who applied for the grant funding. Weiland, who presented the award to Simmons, said he had been selected for his “exemplary” teaching.
“He’s passionate about teaching, but he’s also great at teaching the automotive and diesel skilled trades,” Weiland said. “He connects very well with his students in a real-world scenario, and helps prepare them for potential career opportunities down the road.”
His students are the first to agree.
JJ Baker, a senior at SHS, says he’s looked up to Simmons since his first year when he first started taking his classes.
“When I always, always do things with my family, mechanics-wise, it would always be kind of the backyard mechanic,” Baker said. “He shows the proper ways and techniques to do it that an actual business would use, makes it a little bit safer, a little bit easier.”
Andrew Sexton, a senior at SHS, says the money will go to revamping some of the gear used in Simmons’ class to keep the program in line with industry standards. Sexton plans to enroll at Lane Community College next year to continue his automotive work. Sexton says Simmons has inspired him to translate his skills into a career path.
“His class really taught me how important working in the trades is,” Sexton said. “We need more people to do that work and he’s teaching us how to step up.”
A sixth grader at an auto shop in high school, Simmons worked on agricultural equipment and worked on a farm in Ohio for his self-described “pretty poor” family. He went on to serve in the United States Air Force as a mechanic, working on fighter jets and the F-117 Stealth in the first Gulf War.
Not long after, his wife, Leslie Simmons, a social studies teacher in Eugene, convinced him to try teaching.
“My wife’s been a big inspiration,” Simmons said. “She brought me into teaching. She had me help out with field trips and those kinds of things. I like being around young people. I really do think being around young people keeps you young at heart.”
Before accepting a full-time position with Springfield High School, he worked as an SHS shop assistant. All the while attending night school to earn his associate’s and master’s degrees to complete his teaching license.
During his time at SHS, Simmons has fine-tuned the auto shop and diesel course. He expanded the program, revamped the shop space, spent countless hours writing grants to fund his vision, collected computers, painted classrooms and collaborated with metal and woodshop courses to build workbenches.
He also gives students in his class the opportunity to bring cars for repairs through a business co-op he runs with his team. A percentage of the profits goes to the students.
Simmons said the co-op contributes about 85% of the auto shop’s budget.
“One of the things that I want to do with some of the Harbor Freight funds is I want to turn more of that (co-op management) over to the kids,” Simmons said.
Students in his CTE program can earn college credits and shadow local professionals who may provide apprenticeship opportunities. Simmons added that trade professionals reach out to him regularly about hiring his students due to the shortage in the field. He said the lack of CTE and trade courses play a role in this shortage.
“Most of my students understand that being skilled will benefit them in the long run, so my program’s an easy sell,” Simmons said.
Simmons is quick to point outward, attributing the success of his program to his students, the district and his family.
“It really takes a team,” he said. “These kids are incredible. And the world needs to know what they’re doing.”