NEW PORT RICHEY — Donald Blake recalls the day he became a Pasco County teacher as if it were yesterday, even though it happened 29 years ago.
An electrical contractor with his own firm, Blake sat in an academic adviser's office at the University of South Florida, asking what he needed to do to enter the field of education. The adviser suggested a new electrical program at Pasco's Marchman Technical Education Center.
"He said, 'They'll hire you right out of the industry,' " Blake recalled. "I drove straight from USF to the Pasco school district. They hired me on the spot."
Blake has taught electricity courses at the school, now called Marchman Technical College, ever since. On Friday night, during a ceremony at the Center for the Arts at River Ridge, he was named the Pasco school district's Teacher of the Year. It was thought to be the first time a career-technical teacher has won the award.
"It's awesome that he would be qualified," said student Matthew Reppert, who entered Blake's three-year program as a high school junior and returned to it after graduation. "He's a really smart teacher."
Marchman principal Rob Aguis considered it an achievement just for Blake to reach the finalist stage.
"It always seems to be academic-based," Aguis said of the annual teaching recognition. "This is career readiness, and he does a wonderful job applying what the students learn to the workforce. The entire school is proud of Mr. Blake."
On a recent Wednesday morning, Blake oversaw more than a dozen students — mostly adults with a few high schoolers mixed in — whose knowledge levels ranged from basic to far advanced.
An advocate of competency-based education, Blake split the students into groups and had them working together on projects targeted at their abilities.
One group helped each other complete wiring circuits, while another reviewed data from a district-sponsored research project on the value of fluorescent versus LED lightbulbs.
Still others studied textbook materials. Blake circulated throughout the class, asking questions and guiding students toward discoveries, much like a workplace supervisor might do.
"They all collaborate. It's like the real world," he explained.
Students praised Blake's approach, which treats them as professionals and gives them lots of hands-on experiences. Physics makes so much more sense when it's applied, they said.
"I think he's a lot more caring than your typical teacher," said third-year student Michael Falcon, who began the program as a high school junior. "He's very clear on instructing when I need help in the class. … I think he deserves (Teacher of the Year)."
Blake said he considered himself blessed to have the opportunity to help people find success in education and career, rather than struggle with the college part of "college and career readiness."
"We have all this rigor, but for a majority of students it wasn't relevant," he said. "This is an applied science class. All of a sudden, the academics become relevant. … It's just incredible to be able to do this."
Blake now is eligible to compete for Florida and national teacher of the year awards.