Windham teacher receives highest honor during pandemic challenges
Reprinted from The ECHO
"One of the most touching moments of my career was when a former student's parents called me. Their son had just made parole and gotten a job in the construction trade — and was doing well. The changes in their son made a huge difference in their lives," Windham School District teacher Jerry Riley said. "That simple phone call made such a difference in my own life. It brought deeper meaning into what I am doing here as a teacher at Windham."
Riley earned the 2020 Lane Murray Excellence in Teaching (LMET) award — a point of professional achievement for Windham School District educators. The honor was bestowed upon Riley, who teaches at the Neal Unit in Amarillo, during a challenging 2020 school year as the district rolled its programming into a positive pandemic response with distance learning.
"This is the greatest award of my career and I am very appreciative," Riley said. "It is truly an honor."
Riley's integrity makes him a perfect role model for students and peers at Windham. For the past 28 years, he has taught courses for Windham's Career and Technical Education (CTE) programming. Since 1998, Riley has taught Building Trades II and Construction Carpentry Level 1.
His classes offer students an opportunity to earn industry-recognized certifications, including from the National Center for Construction Education and Research (NCCER) and Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). NCCER certification is a nationally- recognized certification that has a registry database. Once a student has completed the career and technical education trade, they can go to any NCCER employer and present their registered number, which communicates their training and skill level to the employer. This prerequisite comes with construction fundamentals.
"I am really proud of the CTE curriculum that Windham is offering. It is recognized nationwide," Riley explained. "When the students get out of prison they will have a construction fundamentals certificate, NCCER credentials and an OSHA card — valuable tools that will enable them to get a job."
Riley's relationship with Windham began at the Clements Unit in 1992, where he forged a teaching career based on a dynamic combination of competency-based curriculum, exposure to technical math, trade-related science, safety training and plenty of hands-on experience. He says interpersonal skills are also an essential element of CTE instruction, grounding students in not only the fundamentals of construction — but also in everyday life.
"At Windham, we do not just teach driving nails and cutting boards. There are life skills involved here as well, such as problem-solving, teamwork, communicating meaningfully with others, and [developing] ethics and morals," Riley said.
Riley has taught CTE construction fundamentals at the Neal Unit since 1998, and to this day, he continues to provide relevant training and the development of essential skills that give students more opportunities for success and a lower likelihood of recidivism.
"I didn't realize the profound importance of correctional teaching until a few years into it, when I started noting the impact I was making in the students' lives," he said.
Riley is determined to get students involved with the curriculum and to help them transform obstacles into assets.
"The best part of my job is seeing the changes come over the students. I take great pride when I see the light bulb turn on, and they smile and begin to talk enthusiastically about their projects," he said. "That makes it all worth it, and that is what really motivates me: to see the dramatic changes in these men."
Riley also does his utmost to raise students' self-confidence, bringing diligence, renewed focus and the sharing of wisdom gleaned from his nearly 30 years of experience in the construction field.
"I tell all of my students this: come into the classroom and get something out of it. Apply yourself; don't just come in here expecting to frame a house or operate a ShopBot," he said. "Students can get their lives on track for the first time, and the construction industry will hire them simply because they are skilled, focused and reliable. Life is full of second chances, and employers are willing to look at what a person can do — not just at what a person has done."
Riley said a teacher's ability to inspire students should not be underestimated. The veteran teacher urges Windham educators to keep students apprised of the ever-changing demands of the world.
"Windham teachers: keep making a difference," Riley added. "Every time you go into a classroom, you have the potential to change someone's life for the better, so don't ever discount that. Dig in and try to find ways to reach out to students in a positive way."