GRTS instructor named finalist in national competition

By Laura Schuler, Chillicothe R-2 Schools staff

A Grand River Technical School (GRTS) instructor has been named one of 61 national finalists for the 2021 Harbor Freight Tools for Schools Prize for Teaching Excellence.

Lee Caughron, who teaches industrial welding at Grand River Technical School in Chillicothe, is one of three teachers in Missouri advancing in the competition. Contest officials say the winners will be announced in late October and more than $1 million in cash prizes will be shared by 18 teachers and their skilled trades programs.

The finalists were chosen by an independent panel of judges from among a field of more than 700 skilled trades teachers who applied for the prize. The 61 finalists are from 30 states and specialize in trades including advanced manufacturing, welding, construction, automotive and agriculture mechanics. Winners of the contest will join a nationwide network of outstanding trades teachers who convene throughout the year and in a three-day summer institute to share best practices and brainstorm ways to improve high school skilled trades programs.

Caughron teaches industrial welding at Grand River Technical School. Throughout his industry career as a welder, Caughron was always inspired by his wife’s experience as a business teacher and how students responded to her teaching style. While working at a structural steel company, Caughron trained new personnel and felt great satisfaction when he could help employees improve their skills. He picked up further teaching style ideas and sharpened his own welding skills while taking night courses at GRTS, and ended up taking over the position when his instructor retired in the summer of 2001. Now twenty years on at the school, Caughron’s program has expanded enough to require additional instructors—including one of his former students. He sets students up for success and career-readiness by taking them on industry tours, bringing in guest speakers, and incorporating youth apprenticeships for real-world experience related to their training. Many of his projects fabricate items for community members, businesses and organizations, including trailers, benches, intruder safety latches for the school district, signage, and more, bringing the outcomes of their real-world skills into the local community.


Lee Caughron

Caughron, and the other 2021 finalists now advance to the second round of competition, where they will be asked to respond to online expert-led learning modules designed to solicit their insights and creative ideas about teaching practices. The finalists will be asked how ideas from the modules might be used to inspire students to achieve excellence in the skilled trades. Two rounds of judging, each by separate independent panels of reviewers, will narrow the field to 18 winners and, finally, name the three Grand Prize winners and 15 additional prize winners.

Grand Prize winners will each receive $100,000, with $70,000 going to their public high school skilled trades program and $30,000 to the skilled trades teacher behind the winning program. The 15 additional winners will each be awarded $50,000, with $35,000 going to their public high school program and $15,000 to the teacher. Winners whose school, district and/or state policy prohibits the receipt of the individual portion of prize award were eligible to apply on behalf of their school’s skilled trades program. If they win, the entire share of the prize will be awarded to the school.


According to a Harbor Freight press release, high school skilled trades teachers and their programs are often overlooked and underfunded. As the United States faces a critical shortage of skilled trades workers, Harbor Freight Tools for Schools is shining a spotlight on excellent public high school skilled trades programs with its annual Prize for Teaching Excellence.

“Despite the dramatic need for a new generation of workers, research has shown that most U.S. high school students do not have access to high-quality skilled trades programs. The goal of the prize is to highlight some of the most outstanding programs nationwide and to celebrate teachers who are making a big difference in the lives of students,” said Danny Corwin, executive director of Harbor Freight Tools for Schools. “Our hope is that the stories of these dedicated teachers will inspire other communities to create similar programs for their own high school students. All high school students who want to learn a skilled trade and have a talent for working with their hands should have the same opportunity.”

The other two finalists from Missouri are John Amos, who teaches construction at William Chrisman High School in Independence; and Teanna Simpson, who teaches agricultural mechanics at Thayer High School in Thayer. 


There is rare bipartisan support for increased investment in skilled trades education in high school. More than 76 percent of Republicans, Democrats and Independents said they favor increased public funding for skilled trades education and think that offering skilled trades classes in high school should be a priority, according to polling by NORC at the University of Chicago. The poll was commissioned by Harbor Freight Tools for Schools. Eric Smidt, the owner and founder of Harbor Freight Tools, said high school skilled trades programs provide a pathway not just to a good job, but also to a meaningful career and a good life.
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High school skilled trades teachers are heroes,” Smidt said. “Our teachers and their programs are an essential part of meeting the national challenge of educating the next generation of skilled trades workers.”