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May 28, 2008 > Career Counsel: Cool Jobs in the Tri-City Area - A Woodshop Teacher in Fremont

Career Counsel: Cool Jobs in the Tri-City Area - A Woodshop Teacher in Fremont

By Anne Chan, MS, MFT

"No body part has been lost in my 33 years of teaching" says Al Matto, woodshop teacher at Horner Junior High in Fremont. This is an extraordinary record, given that Matto supervises hundreds of junior high students operating potentially dangerous woodshop machinery every year.

Teenagers and heavy machinery can be a lethal combination and Matto would be the first to acknowledge that ensuring the students' safety is the most stressful part of this job.

However, overriding the stress of overseeing the students is his distinct love and passion for teaching them. When asked what he likes most about his job, Matto promptly says: "It's mostly the kids. It's mostly having them come into class and be sparked about doing something, be fired up. It's really a lot of fun to watch the kids work. It's neat to see the kids come in happy."

Many people might shy away from working with young teens, but Matto is infectious in his enthusiasm and appreciation for this age group. He sees his woodshop as a place for them "to feel good about themselves in an age where they normally don't. They introspect so much and worry about everything." Woodshop is one of the few places where they can have fun, be creative and produce a real product. They end up feeling more positive about themselves.

Matto recognizes that junior high school students are more often treated like kids rather than adults. However, in his woodshop, the students get the opportunity to work like grownups, using real tools and machines. This does wonders for their self-esteem and confidence. Notes Matto, "They feel like adults working with real machines. This lets them rise way above where they are normally and enjoy it. It's a big deal for them." Both Matto and his students take pride in the products that come out of woodshop, such as xylophones, zithers, chessboards, and a wall clock that won $100 at a county fair.

Given Matto's passion for teaching, it is interesting that he initially did not consider teaching as a career. When he was at San Jose State earning his degree in Industrial Arts, he was heading for mechanical engineering. However, one day, Dr. Jack Chaplin, an Industrial Studies professor at California State University San Jose, asked him if he had ever considered teaching. This one chance question was life-changing for Matto. It led him to realize that he had a blast when working as a teaching assistant to Dr. Chaplin.

Since that chance encounter 33 years ago, Matto has been teaching generation after generation of Fremont students: "I've taught kids and their kids. It's absolutely insane when a parent comes in and starts talking about a cedar chest they made in woodshop. It's really meaningful because I know what they learned in here stuck. The things they do in this class sticks in their head. They remember the details of what they did here."

While talking with Matto, I realize that woodshop is the fulcrum for all the different subjects the kids learn at school. Here they get to synthesize their knowledge of botany, math, geometry, science and English. They learn without realizing that they're learning like when they have to figure out angles for an octagon clock or when they learn about different types of wood. Recently, Matto brought in wood from a Sargent cypress tree chopped down from Bay Street. The Sargent cypress is native to Fremont and the kids got to learn about cypresses. Says Matto: "It's fun to see them begin to use some of the other stuff from the other classrooms, like math. They've never seen a real use for math, and here they have to use math to calculate the cost of a project, the sizes, angles etc. It's nice to see them pull their education together in one place."

Matto also derives joy and satisfaction from watching a student successfully complete a project after struggling with it at the beginning: "I see that smile on their face, and I think about how much got stuffed in their brain as they did their little project. There's so much they have to absorb. It's just a really good feeling knowing that for the rest of their lives they can use these things."

Students who find their calling in woodwork can find lucrative work building cabinets, staircases, furniture or in mills. According to Matto, there is a renewed demand for artistic, custom wood pieces. For those interested in woodworking careers, Matto advises checking out various woodworking businesses and starting as an apprentice.

Although there are definite career possibilities in woodworking, a profound irony is the fact that Matto's own position is in peril. Matto is retiring this year and a replacement has yet to be found. There is a strong likelihood that there will be no more woodshop classes at Horner Junior High after Matto leaves.

Matto feels this is the right time for him to retire: "After 30 some years of teaching, I still get up and enjoy teaching. I don't want to be the negative guy who's still here at 65 wishing he had retired sooner." However, it tears him up to think of his school without woodshop: "The kids are being shortchanged. There's no question about it -- this is one of the worse things we can do for kids. I have kids who people say are problems in other classes, but they come in here and they settle down and want to work. It's a reason to come to school for a lot of kids. There's a lot of seat time in school, and there's no getting around that. But when they come into a class like this, they shine because they get to make something they want to make."

Reflecting on the changes in education over the course of his long career, Matto observes: "At one point schools offered a huge number of electives ranging from sewing, metalwork, design, drafting, to auto shop. But most of the industrial classes have been squeezed out. What has happened in the schools as a result is that the kids get out of school and they have no concept of occupations. Before they would go through metal shop and they would find out about sheet workers and welders, and they would see this huge market of jobs out there, and they would make some good choices. They could go straight out of high school into a union trade. Now they don't see the menu. We took the menu away, and we said this is what you need to eat. We're putting you all in the same diet."

The closure of Matto's woodshop class signals that schools are now focused on preparing everyone for college, rather than the trades. However, according to Matto, there is a serious downside to this: "We've lost the notion of preparing someone to be a superior mechanic or superior plumber. Unfortunately, kids who aren't into academics don't get exposure to trades that could be satisfying and pay well."

Even more somber is the possibility that we, as a nation, might be losing our competitive edge as a result. Says Matto: ""We don't teach people to do things anymore, to really be able to get to the nitty-gritty, put something together, solve a problem, think their way through working a problem. I think we're losing our edge on design and engineering, the real edge of being creative engineers, artistic engineers."

Sadly, the minutes are ticking away as the last crop of Matto's students finish their projects in his class. The prognosis for woodshop at Horner Junior High is grim. According to Matto, the only way for the industrial arts program to continue is for parents to get involved and to demand that classes like woodshop are offered for their children. If parents take action, perhaps I will get to report a happier ending to this woodshop story . . .

Next time, I will profile three of his students - don't miss this article on three extraordinary girls who do woodwork!

Anne Chan is a career counselor and licensed psychotherapist in Union City. She specializes in helping people find maximum satisfaction in their careers and relationships. She can be reached at achan@midlabs.com or 510-744-1781. If you or someone you know has a cool, unique, and interesting job in Hayward, Milpitas or the Tri-City area, please contact her.


(c) Anne Chan, 2008.

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