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Salem High School teacher wins Harbor Freight prize for excellence

He wins $30,000 for himself and $70,000 for his program.
Published: Oct. 21, 2021 at 1:43 PM EDT
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SALEM, Va. (WDBJ) - Derek Wray had no idea what was in store when he opened a garage door at Salem High School Thursday morning.

The big surprise on the other side was a national award and a check for $100,000.

Wray is an automotive and diesel technology teacher. And now he’s also a grand prize winner of the 2021 Harbor Freight Tools for Schools Prize for Teaching Excellence.

Wray said he was humbled by the national recognition, and excited for how it could impact his students.

“The biggest thing is what we can do with it,” Wray told WDBJ7, “and make the right decisions to help these guys go even further than we could before. That’s what I’m looking forward to.”

Wray and Salem High will share the award. The school receives $70,000 for its skilled trades program, and the teacher receives $30,000.

Wray said he hopes the program can use some of the money to acquire a Tesla, to help students learn more about electric vehicles.

An automotive and diesel technology teacher at Salem High School has been named a grand prize winner of the 2021 Harbor Freight Tools for Schools Prize for Teaching Excellence. He wins $30,000 for himself and $70,000 for his program.

In his prize application, teacher Derek Wray wrote, “I feel like if I can do right by my students and give them the most up to date training and the most professional and personal education that I can give them, then the results will be measured by their employment and their successes in their own careers. It also can be measured by the fact that companies will hire my students again and again, so we can repeat the process year after year.”

Two other grand prizes were awarded to teachers in Ohio and Colorado, and their school programs. In addition, 15 prize winners and their schools will each receive $50,000. More than $1 million is being awarded to 18 high school skilled trades teachers and their programs in 14 states.

The mission of Harbor Freight Tools for Schools is to “increase understanding, support and investment in skilled trades education in U.S. public high schools,” according to a release from the program.

“High school skilled trades teachers and their programs are an essential part of addressing the skilled trades worker shortage,’’ said Danny Corwin, executive director of Harbor Freight Tools for Schools. “These dedicated educators make a huge difference in the lives of young people every day, setting them on a course for a meaningful career and to make a difference in their community.’’

The Harbor Freight Tools for Schools Prize for Teaching Excellence was launched in 2017 by Eric Smidt, founder of national tool retailer Harbor Freight Tools, to recognize “outstanding instruction in the skilled trades in U.S. public high schools.”

``Among the key things we came to appreciate during the pandemic is the value of hands-on learning and the incredible resilience and commitment of our teachers,’’ Smidt said. ``We are grateful that these outstanding prize winners and thousands of educators like them across the country are developing tomorrow’s skilled workforce.’’

The 2021 prize drew more than 700 applications from 49 states and included three rounds of judging, each by an independent panel of experts from industry, education, trades, philanthropy and civic leadership, according to the program. The application process, which included responses to questions and a series of learning modules, was designed to solicit each teacher’s “experience, insights and creative ideas about their approach to teaching and success in helping their students achieve excellence in the skilled trades.”

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