People tend to gravitate toward Michael Leonard. His mother noticed it when he was young, and it holds true today.

Whether he’s leading a lesson on series circuits, holding late evening office hours in his cubicle, or enjoying a bite to eat for lunch, “Big Mike” is rarely alone.

It’s this approachability, combined with unmatched industry knowledge, endless hours of dedicated service, and a burning desire to bolster the industry’s next generation that has earned Leonard the distinction of The NEWS’ Best Instructor.

Once a Student, Always a Student

Leonard grew up in Southwest Atlanta and attended D.M. Therrell High School. After graduation, he fidgeted with different money-making jobs and eventually landed a job with Vulcan Materials. In 2007, Vulcan was bought out by the city of Atlanta and subsequently Leonard was laid off as part of the staff cuts.

“I was at a crossroad. I had to make a career decision about what to do next,” said Leonard. “I knew that the air conditioning industry presented itself as a job that couldn’t be sourced out, couldn’t be performed by a robot, and could help me acquire a technical skill. So, I decided to give it a shot.”

In late 2007, he enrolled at Interactive College of Technology in Chamblee, Ga.

“Inside that classroom, everything just sort of clicked,” he said “You know how some people say they’re a natural at something; I guess I’m a natural for HVAC.”

Leonard maintained a 4.0 average through the then 10.5-month program and was honored as a member of the National Honors Technical Society before graduating in 2008.

While attending classes, Leonard landed a job with the Reddy Ice Co., as an entry-level technician. After a year with the company, he accepted a job with Shabazz Heating and Air Conditioning, where he put his newly acquired knowledge to the test.

While returning home from a long day of work, Leonard was shocked by a proposition from Jerome English, his former teacher.

“He absolutely floored me by asking, ‘Would you be interested in coming back to Interactive as a teacher?’ I was honored that he’d considered me, but I wasn’t sure I had what it takes to be a teacher,” he said. “I had very little patience, and patience is a very necessary skill in the teaching field.”

After some careful thought and discussion with his then fiancée, Teresa, Leonard accepted the position — a role he never dreamed possible. “Ten years ago if you would have told me that I’d be a teacher, I’d have said, no way,” he said. “But, I think this is what is in God’s plan.

“When a student that knows absolutely nothing takes on that first circuit board, and they finally get that bulb to light up, that is a great feeling,” he said. “They’re so excited and that excitement is contagious. They want you to take a picture of their work, and then they go proudly call their wives. As a human being, it’s hard to top that feeling.”

Going the Extra Mile

Interactive College of Technology enrolls approximately 150 students in its HVACR program. All graduates are certified across six North American Technician Excellence (NATE) disciplines, and acquire the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) certification required to handle refrigerants.

“Before we added these certifications, our graduates would enter the industry with only a diploma to prove their accomplishments,” said Jamillah Booker, administrator, Interactive College of Technology. “Now, the entire HVACR world knows our graduates are knowledgeable and prepared for the real world based on their NATE certifications, which are highly respected in the industry.”

Leonard, who teaches the first semester introductory course, and the EPA certification class, said he allows students to learn at their own pace. Even though he isn’t scheduled to teach on Fridays, he can be found in the building each Friday, offering tutoring sessions and instruction for interested students.

“I build relationships with my students and I’ll be a lifelong friend, if that’s what they need,” he said. “I’m always here to lend a hand, give them guidance, and make sure they are taking the necessary steps to succeed.

“But, we’ve got a lot of students here who haven’t been in school for 10 or 15 years, and they have to recondition their minds to learn. I volunteer my time on Fridays because I really want them to get it, no matter how many times we have to go over it. They can’t move forward until they master the initial concepts and if they’re willing to put in the extra work, I’ll go the extra mile to help them out.”

Leonard said there is no better feeling than the feeling of success.

“The most rewarding aspect of this whole deal is taking that phone call from a former student who has made it,” he said. “That makes me feel like I’ve done my part to help them provide for their family and make sure their kids are eating. Some of these people call me in tears, and I’m so proud of them for what they’ve accomplished.

“I always tell guys that if they come to class, put their time in studying and really want it, they should be able to make a good living doing this,” he said.

We Like Mike

Students and faculty at Interactive College of Technology had nothing but positive things to say about Leonard and his ability to clearly unmask the more difficult aspects of the HVACR industry.

“Mike is a fantastic teacher because of his ability to motivate his students,” said Booker. “He has a knack to help them understand and can break down the content to a level that everyone can easily understand. He makes learning fun. Everybody loves Big Mike.”

George Robinson, a second-semester scholar at Interactive, said Leonard has a very effective way of getting his point across.

“Mr. Leonard makes sure that we all get it before he moves on,” he said. “He shares his knowledge and continues to pound the important points, which has proven very effective to me and my classmates.”

Richard Gamble, also a second semester student, admires Leonard’s never-ending pursuit for excellence.

“Mr. Leonard has the ability to translate a language that none of us understand into layman’s terms,” he said. “And if you don’t understand, he’ll take the time to show you personally, and invite you in on a Friday for a personal lesson. What more can you ask of an instructor? He’s the best around.”

Publication date: 11/12/2012