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Roanoke County teacher wins $50K teaching excellence prize from Harbor Freight Tools

Roanoke County teacher wins $50K teaching excellence prize from Harbor Freight Tools

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As school leaders and reporters walked into the classroom of mechatronics and robotics teacher Shawn Burns on Thursday morning, the Burton Center for Arts and Technology teacher continued working with his students, unfazed.

Principal Christian Kish told Burns that the group was there to see how career and technical education classes operate in the COVID-19 era. In reality, Kish was about to announce that Burns was one of 18 national winners of the 2020 Harbor Freight Tools for Schools Prize for Teaching Excellence.

Kish held up three posters, asking the students to read the words on each as a “sound check” for the reporters. On the third, students diligently recited: “Harbor Freight Tools for Schools congratulates Shawn Burns, 2020 Prize for Teaching Excellence.”

“Oh!” several students exclaimed as they processed what they just read.

Burns will receive $50,000 as part of the prize; $35,000 will go toward the school’s skilled trades program and $15,000 to him personally.

“That money is going to go a long way for some new equipment,” Burns said. “Of course, new toys for the kids ... but it goes to enhance the learning. And that’s what you’re so thankful for.”

Tools for Schools, a philanthropic project of Harbor Freight Tools, advances skilled trades education in public high schools, and the teaching excellence prize recognizes outstanding skilled trades instruction, according to a press release.

Burns was one of 600 applicants. A panel of judges narrowed the field to 50 finalists. Three grand prize winners won $100,000, and Burns was one of 15 prize winners to win $50,000.

“We could not be more excited to recognize and honor your work today,” said Erin Walsh with Tools for Schools, who participated in the recognition virtually.

Sophomores Chris Dunn and Joshua Clements said Burns is one of the reasons they look forward to their advanced manufacturing class.

Dunn said the class is “kind of the step to pave the way” to one day work for NASA. He’s taking virtual classes this semester but comes to Burton in-person, so it gives him something to look forward to.

Clements agreed; when he’s sitting in his academic classes on other days, “all I can think about” is Thursday, which is when he goes to Burton.

Burns served in the U.S. Navy for 25 years as a machinist before becoming a skilled trades teacher. He said he uses project-based learning in the classroom. His students have the opportunity to earn industry credentials, and for the past three years have participated in an apprenticeship program with local manufacturing companies.

“We’ve got some great programs here,” Burns said. “But looking at the people that I competed against, there’s great programs all over the country, which makes you feel good.”

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K-12 Education Reporter

Claire Mitzel covers K-12 education for The Roanoke Times. Contact her at (540) 981-3334 or claire.mitzel@roanoke.com. Follow her on Twitter: @c_mitzel.

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