April 14, 2015

State’s top teacher returns to SIU for lecture

by Pete Rosenbery

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- Teaching was the furthest thing from Steven Elza’s mind when he graduated with an automotive technology degree from Southern Illinois University Carbondale 13 years ago. 

Now, however, Elza, an automotive technology teacher at William Fremd High School in Palatine and the 2015 Illinois Teacher of the Year, cannot imagine doing anything else. Elza will discuss his passion for teaching and the importance of career and technical education programs during a lecture at noon on Friday, April 17, in the Transportation Education Center’s multipurpose room. The facility is at 545 N. Airport Road, Murphysboro.

Media Advisory

Steve Elza will be available for reporters, news crews and photographers for interviews. For more information, contact Michael Behrmann, chair of the Department of Automotive Technology, at 618/453-4024 or mbehr@siu.edu.

Elza will share how he got into teaching, and his concern that good potential and current teachers are being scared away from the profession by standards and initiatives. There is a need for qualified teachers for career and technical education programs to support the nation’s future workforce, he said. 

“Students need to follow their passion and open themselves up for opportunity. Too often, we follow a plan set forth by someone else and we give up the exploration aspect of learning what’s important to us,” he said. “Students must experience industry first hand; with an industry perspective you can apply that to future classes, bringing your passion and knowledge full circle in the classroom. When people are fully invested and they have ownership of their learning experience the possibilities are endless.” 

Elza said he was a “terrible student” early on in high school, but that changed when he walked into the Technology Center of DuPage -- a technical center serving high schools in DuPage County -- and began to realize an automotive career was in his future. 

One of Elza’s instructors, Jim Krudl, became a mentor and lifelong friend. Krudl was a classmate of former SIU automotive technology chair Jack Greer and “saw something in me that I did not see in myself,” Elza said. Krudl continued to monitor Elza’s progress throughout college and even into his first job after graduation. 

Elza was working at Jasper Engines and Transmissions in Jasper, Ind., when Krudl mentioned the possibility of teaching. Elza initially balked at the suggestion, but after much discussion he took on the role of teaching automotive technicians at the GM Training Center. Elza soon found that he wanted to teach students as they were starting out, so he obtained a teaching endorsement and began at his old high school, Technology Center of DuPage. 

Elza is in his eighth year at Fremd High School. He earned a master’s degree in Workforce Education from SIU Carbondale in 2007 and a second master’s degree, in administration, from Northern Illinois University in 2010. 

Elza said it is important that teachers support their students in the classroom. He has one-on-one discussions with each student, freshman through seniors, before the end of the school year to discuss their goals and help them develop plans to achieve them. 

“The sooner we get them involved in their education the sooner they own it,” he said. “College is not for all students; that’s not to say that they all can’t do it but they must make the decision. Some aspire to attend college, some find out after working in industry they want to go back to school. All students should be afforded the opportunity to grow and flourish in college.” 

Mentors are “essential,” and it is vital to understand each student’s environment outside the classroom to “really reach” them, Elza said.  

As an example, each Wednesday is auto club night at the high school and students bring in projects relating to their work involving automobiles. Students have the time to apply their classroom knowledge using real-world experience. Students also have the opportunity to showcase their achievements through numerous nationwide automotive-related competitions. 

“It’s their Friday night football game,” he said. 

Elza continues the one-on-one communication with former students long after they leave high school. Two former students were the 2013 and 2014 SIU Carbondale Department of Automotive Technology Students of the Year. 

Michael Behrmann, chair of the Department of Automotive Technology, said Elza is an “outstanding educator who displays the exceptional qualities one looks for in a teacher and mentor.”  Along with designing a challenging curriculum, Elza never gives up on his students, Behrmann said. 

“His students learn to understand why they are being challenged, but he also makes learning fun so that they are motivated to challenge themselves,” Behrmann said.