NEWARK, Md. - Students never know what to expect when they attend a class taught by Floyd “Butch” Azbell. Then again, the HVACR instructor at Worcester Technical High School in Newark, Md., would not want it any other way.
“Having a hard stance is not going to work,” declared Azbell, sitting in his cramped office. “You have to act crazy sometimes.”
It is not beneath the jovial teacher to dress up for Halloween, prancing into his Refrigeration I class wearing, among other items, his “Bubba teeth.” Or sporting an Afro wig occasionally for Refrigeration II students. Then there’s that infamous golf visor, which, when worn, makes the bald man appear to have a full head of hair.
And heaven forbid should a student in his Advanced HVACR class forget to wear his or her safety glasses while in the shop area. Azbell will have his homemade peashooter ready, and fire one past the unsuspecting teenager.
“I don’t try to hit them to hurt them,” he confessed. “When one goes past them, they know to put their [safety] glasses on.”
Magic tricks. Puzzles. Mazes. Riddles. Shocking staplers. The man looks for and purchases plenty of gag items for one specific reason: to keep students engaged in the classroom. It’s why he also has competitions with flared joints and hosts his own version of Wheel of Fortune (complete with spinning wheel and HVACR subject categories) in class.
“You have to have fun, but you have to have order, too,” he explained. “You cannot be like a military regime. It’s like telling them, ‘Quit being a kid.’ It took me a while to realize that.”
Talk to fellow instructors, administrators, and students and you come to realize that there isn’t much the affable guy will not attempt, especially if it means helping one of his high school students understand class material or possibly pursue a career in this industry. It’s one of many reasons why Azbell is 2008 Best Instructor of the Year, as voted byThe NEWSand the Air-Conditioning, Heating, and Refrigeration Institute (AHRI).
“Butch’s students will tell you that they would not want any other instructor. They say Mr. Azbell is ‘cool,’” described school principal Dr. Jane Pruitt.
“He has high expectations and he doesn’t take ‘I can’t’ for an answer. He motivates students to come to school, just to see what he will do next.”
TRYING TO MAKE A DIFFERENCEThe way the former 21-year veteran of the U.S. Coast Guard views the teaching environment, you do what you have to do in order to make a difference at the secondary level.
“I think society today has eroded in its values,” he said. “I try to teach my students to be responsible and reliable employees, no matter what they do. If they do step into an HVACR career, I think it is important that they be responsible, have integrity, be trusted, and counted on as a person.”
Three outlining high schools feed into Worcester Technical High School, which offers classes in 12 other trades. As a result, at each of the two HVAC open house events held each school year, Azbell finds himself competing just to get underclassmen to join his two-year program. It requires some out-of-the-box thinking.
“When I first speak to them, all I tell them is that we make ice cream, we use torches, and you can own your own business in six years,” he said with a slight smile.
Ice cream? Azbell took in a discarded, non-working soft-serve ice cream machine several years ago, brought it back to life with students’ help, and now uses it to allure more potential future techs.
“It is a motivator to get students to attend the program and class,” he said. “We serve ice cream four to six times a year.”
Initially he pushes welding because students “love burning stuff,” he mused. “Get a torch in a kid’s hands and they say, ‘Yeah, this is cool.’”
Not until the clever mentor has some fun with brazing does he begin to introduce theory. Breaking down his instruction, it’s 40 percent theory and 60 percent hands-on.
The former owner of CWO Services knows from experience. He operated his own contracting firm for three years (1999-2002). Prior to that, he worked at several wholesale distributors after he retired from the Coast Guard in 1996. While in the Coast Guard, Azbell worked on all ship machinery, including heating and cooling equipment.
“I couldn’t wait to own my own business and to be my own business owner,” he said, looking back. “Then, when I got it, I realized it wasn’t something I liked. It wasn’t my cup of tea. I would have much better liked working for someone else. I love the trade, ever since I fixed my first ice machine. However, I just didn’t like the responsibility of owning my own business.”
So, when the service tech position opened up at the Worcester County Board of Education, he jumped at the opportunity and got the job. Less than a year later, the HVACR teaching position at Worcester Technical opened up unexpectedly. Those who knew Azbell encouraged him to take over for long-time HVACR instructor Billy Truitt, who died in a car crash on March 3, 2003.
“I told them I’d try it, but I didn’t know if I could teach high school,” he remembered.
Hired initially as a long-term substitute, Azbell had his doubts after three weeks in front of the class. While contemplating his future, Azbell was approached by a concerned student, Shane Musgrave, who asked if he was coming back the following school year.
“At that time, I hadn’t made up my mind,” said Azbell. “I told him [Musgrave], ‘Man, these kids are rough.’ I told him if they would shape up, maybe I’d stay.”
The concerned student spread the word, which inspired Azbell to press on. “It made me think, ‘Maybe I am doing the right thing here,’” he said. “He [Musgrave] was instrumental in making me think I was a good teacher and needed to come back.”
NOW SEEKING ACCREDITATIONTo this day, Musgrave, now a technician with First Service in nearby Snow Hill, Md., keeps in contact with his former teacher.
“He calls weekly,” said Azbell, who classified the graduate as one of his “success stories.” He also pointed out Brooks Wainwright, who was the state champion among secondary schools at the 2007 Skills USA competition. Like Musgrave, he now works at First Service.
“The benefit and the reward that keeps you going are the success stories,” said Azbell, “because there are failures.”
Fellow instructors will tell you Azbell goes way out of his way to help his students. He networks with a ton of contractors in the area. Many, in turn, support his program by supplying needed equipment or participating on his advisory board.
“My advisory committee members have been very good about hiring my apprentice students to work for them half days in their senior year,” said Azbell, noting that current senior Jordan Chambers is working afternoons for Jackson Mechanical of nearby Pocomoke.
Another plus for Worcester Technical High graduates: 11 credits can be transferred over to nearby Delaware Technical Community College. At the same time, Azbell takes students on field trips to local supply houses when they offer training classes.
“Mr. Azbell is the kind of teacher we all hope would be available to our children,” said Clay Reister, graphics arts instructor at the school. “I can’t think of a clearer statement of support.”
With the school scheduled to move into its brand-new nearly 140,000–square-foot facility this month, Azbell can hardly wait to get inside the impressive building. His new classroom area will contain state-of-the-art equipment, including solar, geothermal, mini-splits, heat pumps, and commercial and residential refrigeration.
“I’ll have every HVAC aspect covered,” he said.
With new equipment, Azbell said he will push for Partnership for Air-Conditioning, Heating, and Refrigeration Accreditation (PAHRA).
“I have been unable to get PAHRA certification because the shop I am in now does not have any exhaust piping and my program was so short I could not even teach heating equipment,” he explained. “My program will be longer now and my equipment new, properly installed with exhaust/flue piping. I have the CD with all the requirements and I will be working on getting it all done.”
Anything for the program. Anything for his students.
“I’ll do everything to help these kids,” he concluded. “I will always try to give them a positive stroke.”
QUICK STATSCONTEST PLACEMENT:First place
INSTRUCTOR:Floyd “Butch” Azbell
COLLEGE OR SCHOOL:Worcester Technical High School