Tom Ellison’s career in education has been one of adapting and changing to meet the needs of his industrial technology learners. But at the core of his support for students has also been his commitment to his colleagues and his profession through his union work.
That focus is the reason why Ellison is Minnesota’s nominee for the 2021 NEA Foundation Educator of Excellence award.
The Awards for Teaching Excellence program recognizes educators from around the country who shine in their schools, their communities and their own learning. These educators advocate for each other, the profession and students, and they embrace the diversity of their communities and the wider world.
Ellison started his career teaching in southern Minnesota for a year before moving to Brandon, where he stayed for 25 years.
“Being a small school, I was the only industrial tech teacher,” he said. “I built the program up from just a couple of classes to a good number of students taking classes. I also coached in Brandon.”
Ellison then started coaching in Alexandria, and when the new high school was built, the current industrial tech teacher announced his retirement, so they came knocking on his door.
“I was looking at the opportunity to be involved in their new academies and the new way of helping high school students’ work on a career pathway became exciting,” said Ellison. “I had chosen my college on my ability to play sports. So I was excited to help students identify some career paths in high school.”
When Ellison was hired in Alexandria, he spent half of his time at the high school and half at the middle school.
“That’s all they were offering to students,” he said. “I wanted to see that grow. When the new high school opened in 2014, they added another half-time instructor. Now we have three-and-a-half full-time positions in the department, and I think we could have more.”
The business and industry involvement in the program has been an enticing addition for students, Ellison said.
“We have some of the latest and greatest equipment that local industry has helped provide for us,” he said. “We pair students with local industry and have them out in their shops to see what they do. And some companies are sending projects to us for our students to do. They are getting that real world experience while they are in school, and challenge themselves.”
Ellison said these partnerships and projects have fueled himself and his students to keep pursuing more opportunities and finding new technologies to bring into the classroom.
“Some students are able to identify to opportunities to work in their communities and get well-paying trade jobs,” he said. “And some students get excited about going to trade, community or four-year colleges for subjects like engineering.”
In the last year, Ellison has transitioned his very hands-on class to an online and hybrid learning model.
“I do more here in their place,” he said. “We’ve been able to do more accessing technology with the creation of the design from home. We have worked on writing more language and code or drawing. Then I can copy the code and put it into the programs here for them and see what works and doesn’t.”
Students can pick up the projects Ellison works on and then do some analysis at home.
Ellison has also spaced out the machines in his shop in order to bring a small amount of students in to get the hands-on, project-based learning in a safe way.
The Educators of Excellence award also honors an educator who has had an impact in their union.
As a young teacher, Ellison said he wasn’t aware of the union, but quickly realized all of the ways it impacts teaching and learning.
“We have to advocate for what our teaching culture and environment is like in our own buildings,” he said. “And there are contracts involved. We have to navigate through the educational process, looking out for the rights of teachers and what’s best for our students.”
After seeing other staff members working with the union, Ellison felt like he should step up and get involved.
“You first start by sitting on some committees,” he said. “Maybe become a member rights person to learn a little bit of what else is going on in the buildings. I worked my way through some of those roles.”
Ellison served as president in Brandon for many years. Then when he moved to Alexandria, he got involved with his new local.
He has served as a building representative, on the negotiations team and lead negotiator and is currently serving as president.
“I just want to be a help in the process that sets a culture and environment in our school district that we’re all proud of,” Ellison said. “We’re very intentional in developing a culture of respect and collaboration with our district. Then our focus can be on what’s best for kids. That’s the power of our union.”
Ellison was hesitant to apply for the award because he is in education, coaching and the union to help others, not himself.
“Yes, being recognized for a national award is very humbling, but it is very special,” he said. “It is because of the talents of those who had an influence on my life and career. I am forever grateful for the many teaching colleagues who guided me in this profession.”
Ellison will be honored at a national virtual gala in February.
Alexandria’s Tom Ellison is Minnesota’s nominee for the 2021 NEA Foundation Educator of Excellence award, which recognizes leadership in education and union work.
Tom Ellison, an Alexandria industrial technology teacher, works on desktop CNC machine. Ellison has adapted his classroom to the latest technology over his 34-year career.