Cape High teacher Josh Dickson’s mastery of the carpentry, cabinetry and construction trades has resulted in a lucrative career as a house-flipper, school-career pathway innovator and now, national finalist for a teaching excellence award.
And, in his spare time, he hand-built his 4,510-square-foot modern dream home overlooking Fleetwood Pond outside Georgetown that he shares with wife Lori, a special education science teacher at Milford High, and their two daughters, Kylie and Ellie.
Dickson also constructed on the property a 2,120-square-foot garage/workshop and a separate 1,352-square-foot building/additional living space the family stayed in while the main home was being built.
Now entering his 10th year of teaching and second year at Cape High, Dickson was recently chosen as a finalist for the Harbor Freight Tools for Schools annual Prize for Teaching Excellence.
The 61 finalists were selected from more than 700 skilled trades teacher applicants who represent 30 states and specialize in advanced manufacturing, welding, construction, automotive and agriculture mechanics.
Dickson now advances to a second round of competition, where he will respond to online learning modules to solicit his insights about teaching practices and how these ideas can inspire students to achieve excellence in the skilled trades.
Two rounds of judging, each by separate independent panels, will narrow the field to 18 winners and, finally, name three grand prize winners and 15 additional prize winners in late October.
Grand prize winners will each receive $100,000, with $70,000 going to their school skilled trades program and $30,000 to the teacher. The 15 additional winners will each be awarded $50,000, with $35,000 going to the school program and $15,000 to the teacher.
Danny Corwin, executive director of Harbor Freight Tools for Schools, said most U.S. high school students don’t have access to high-quality skilled trades programs, despite the need for a new generation of workers.
“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,” Corwin said. “Our hope is that the stories of these dedicated teachers will inspire other communities to create similar programs for their own high school students.”
Cape Supervisor of Secondary Education Mike Young said he knew from the moment he met Dickson that he would have a positive impact on district career and technical education programs.
“Mr. Dickson is truly focused on helping students develop skills that are highly transferable to the working world,” Young said. “He focuses on building student confidence in their abilities. He keeps things innovative and interesting, and helps students develop an understanding of the importance of quality, a job well done and pride in work. Mr. Dickson knows how to encourage students to become lifelong learners. He is a positive, energetic and supportive educator.”
In his first year at Cape, Dickson created his own Delaware Department of Education-approved program that allows students to earn certifications and prepares them for entry-level and skilled jobs right out of school.
Dickson also formed partnerships with Delaware Technical Community College so students earn three credit hours toward an associate degree, and with the local carpenters’ union that includes one-year credit toward a three-year apprenticeship.
In just one year, Dickson has expanded the program beyond her expectations, said Cape High Principal Nikki Miller.
“Everyone who walks in his classroom, both students and adults, wants to be a part of the hands-on learning environment he has created,” Miller said. “Students who are lucky enough to have Mr. Dickson are learning skills that they will utilize throughout the rest of their lives.”
Students progress from designing and building their own end-grain cutting boards to learning about framing, waterproofing/flashing, window/door installation, roof systems, siding and trim. Advanced students build cabinets from raw materials, culminating in a capstone course where they design and construct their own project for an end-of-year presentation.
“The greatest experience of all time is the opportunity to see parents' expressions and excitement when they see their child's final project,” said Dickson, noting that many parents contact him to ask if their children did, in fact, create their own projects, due to the quality of their finished work.
The pathway is full, Dickson said, and is now 18 percent female, a number he hopes to increase every year. Students report they have learned lifelong skills and have developed confidence trying new things, he said.
An income-earning potential example the pathway already provided, Dickson said, was a fundraiser students created by selling cutting boards they built and displayed in the front office on a rack they also built. With proceeds, the class replaced materials and purchased a new Makita 12-inch sliding miter saw and stand.
“The greatest sentiment of being a trade teacher is the chance to provide students with opportunities to find themselves and contribute to bigger things,” Dickson said.
Dickson credits his father and his own Sussex Tech High teachers, Bruce Hefke and Gary Stewart, for recognizing his interest in the field and inspiring him to become a lifelong learner.
As a high school student, Dickson said he worked every weekend, break and summer with local contractors as an apprentice. After high school, he started his own LLC and worked as a subcontractor.
“I saw the opportunity to become great at carpentry, and I used it to my advantage to pay my way through college and earn my credential as a skilled and technical sciences carpentry teacher,” Dickson said. “Now, I flip houses, built my own home, and teach my students to love carpentry as much as I do.”