In a time when the number of young technicians entering the HVAC field is not keeping pace with industry demand, HVAC teacher Patrick O’Neill is doing his part to instruct and mentor the next generation of students. But O’Neill’s fellow teachers and administrators at Cape Cod Regional Technical High School in Harwich, Mass., argue that he is much more than just a teacher, saying that he has touched the lives of numerous students as a mentor and motivator, pushing them to begin careers in HVACR or further their education beyond high school.

O’Neill’s tireless devotion to his students’ well-being, his passion for teaching, and his commitment is what makes him The NEWS’ 2013 Best Instructor contest runner-up.

From Tech to Teacher

O’Neill, 60, first became interested in refrigeration in high school while watching his brother achieve success as a field technician. “He was the one who suggested refrigeration. He said, ‘If you never want to be out of work, go into supermarket refrigeration,’ so I did.”

After graduating high school, O’Neill attended a private refrigeration school, graduated, and began working in the field as a technician. “I was young and I liked the money, and service was something different every day,” he said. “I got to go on five or six different service calls a day.”

O’Neill worked in the field for nearly a decade, but after sustaining an injury on the job, he began searching for something different.

“My brother-in-law asked if I’d thought about teaching, and I also had a friend that was working as a teacher who said I should teach with him,” O’Neill said. “So I started taking classes. I didn’t end up working with him, but I applied for this job and figured I’d give it a try. Here we are, 29 years later.”

O’Neill, who also owned his own HVAC service company until five years ago, said he is very happy to have made the transition, adding that he loves working with his students.

“My favorite thing is the kids,” he said. “The kids all come from different homes, and they’re all different. The way they learn is different. It’s a learning process every day.”

Mentor to Many

In addition to having a positive impact on the academic careers of many of his students, O’Neill is known for his approachability, compassion, and genuine interest in his students’ lives and futures.

“He really understands what a technical high school student is, how they think, and how they learn,” said Billy Terranova, principal at Cape Cod Regional Technical High School. “He looks beyond the façade of a child or what their upbringing may be and develops personal relationships with them, which is what every good teacher does. He knows his students — what makes them tick and what makes them succeed.”

Scott Glista, who teaches in the HVAC department alongside O’Neill, said many students look to O’Neill for guidance.

“The kids come down to have him counsel them,” Glista said. “Most of the students here think the world of Mr. O’Neill.”

Terranova said students are drawn to O’Neill because of his personality. “He’s a very calm and collected individual, and he’s highly intelligent,” he said. “He has a gruff personality — a tradesman’s personality — but he’s a warm, compassionate man who really cares about kids.”

“Never a day goes by without him joking around with the kids, which sets them at ease,” Glista added. “He’s here for the kids. He didn’t fall into teaching — he designed himself for teaching.”

Terranova added that O’Neill has a knack for connecting with all students, regardless if they are high-achieving valedictorians or students who are struggling to graduate.

“He’s able to help those kids who are already doing well, but he’s also able to get those students who struggle with school, either academically or with the whole notion of school, to connect with a positive career and have success,” Terranova said. “He won’t let anyone fall through the cracks, and he’ll go the extra mile to make sure his students make it. He reaches out when they’re having struggles and challenges — that’s the compassion in him. He sees education as a high order, almost, where kids can elevate themselves, whether financially through a great career, or educationally through their learning.”

Colleague and Friend

But O’Neill’s compassion is not limited to his students. Both his wife and son also work at the school, and he frequently volunteers to chaperone or organize school-related events. “He’s also a friend to a lot of teachers and colleagues, and he cares about his colleagues, which makes him a part of our community,” Terranova said. “He was also a mentor to me, someone I could talk to about the kids.”

Glista agreed that O’Neill is a great educator who makes going to school enjoyable and productive for both his students and fellow teachers.

“He is a fantastic guy to work with. We get along very well,” Glista said. “I enjoy coming to work with him and the students every day.”

Glista added that O’Neill knows the coursework backwards, forwards, and inside out, and uses his decades of teaching experience to maintain control of the classroom while creating an excellent learning environment for his students.

“I think he deserves any applause he can get,” Glista said. “He doesn’t get as many awards as I think he should. He’s probably the best teacher I’ve ever met. I learn something new from him every day.”

Working for Change

O’Neill, who said he’s not anxious to retire any time soon because he’s not sure what he’d do with his time, said one of the most challenging things about teaching for him is being able to cover all of the material during class.

“It seems like you just run out of time,” he said. “I actually feel like I could use a longer day.”

Maintaining order in a classroom of high school students isn’t an easy task, but with a mix of experience, observation, and trial and error, O’Neill said he finds the most effective way to teach the students in his class.

“I’ve been doing this a long time,” he said. “You learn as you go. There are kids who, if you raise your voice, they’ll react to it and you’ll get their attention. There’s another one that will shut down completely. It’s hard work. You have to work at it to figure out what’s best for each one.”

His goal with each graduating class is to have all of his students either employed or in college by the time they leave the school. He also wants to see more and more young people, including women, begin careers in HVAC in the near future, adding that it will take the concentrated, cooperative effort of educators, administrators, parents, contractors, and manufacturers to spread the word about the many benefits of an education and career in HVAC.

“You’ll notice that all of us are getting old,” he said. “We need young blood to teach, and they need to know how much money they can earn and what the potential is, and what the different jobs entail. There’s a shortage of good technicians, and there’s a great need for educators.”

To be an effective educator, you have to really want to do it, want to change their lives, he said, adding that teaching, while not always easy, has been a very fulfilling endeavor for him.

“You put in a lot of hours — you might not have a long day with the kids, but it takes a lot of hours,” he said. “It’s a lot of work, but it can be very, very rewarding.”

Publication date: 11/25/2013 

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