This feature first appeared in the Spring 2023 issue of Certification Magazine. Click here to get your own print or digital copy.
For eight years now I have been profiling information technology (IT) instructors. It's a fun job, and while all of them have been wonderful people, the best part of getting to know them is learning how they ended up teaching.
For most, being a teacher was not the career that they initially pictured for themselves. Like Dewey Finn in the classic comedy School of Rock, however, a series of unexpected events combined to place each one of them in a classroom. Also like Dewey, they came to care deeply for their students and, in the process, realized that they had found their life's calling.
Of course, there have been a handful who always enjoyed working with computers and went to college with the goal of becoming an educator — but those folks are the exception. The majority were toiling away in various fields when destiny snuck up and tapped them on the shoulder.
The individuals I've written about are a varied group, indeed: They include a former dairy farmer, a physical education teacher, a youth minister, a soldier, an avid Dungeons & Dragons fan, and even a business education teacher known as Grandma Cooper whose career spans more than half a century.
(Grandma Cooper started out teaching students to type on manual typewriters and now she prepares them to pass Microsoft Office Specialist certification exams.)
Another IT savant who walked a strange road through before unexpectedly finding himself standing in front of a bunch of students is Jerome Mick. Mick teaches IT classes — and loves his work — at the Clearfield County Career and Technology Center (CCCTC) in Clearfield, Pa. But it took him a while to get there.
Mick was born and raised in Philipsburg, Pa., and unlike most people from his area, he has a strong distaste for local celebrity Punxsutawney Phil, due to an accident that occurred on Phil's big day. Mick remembers the incident vividly. He was in the eighth grade and, on a foggy Feb. 2, he and his sister were crossing a major highway to get to their school bus stop when he was struck by a car and thrown to the side of the road.
When Mick came to, other students at the bus stop were crying because they thought he was dead. "I had no broken bones, but a lot of road rash, and because of that accident, I developed epilepsy that I still have to take meds for," said Mick. "Every February 2nd, I remember the accident and I still hate that groundhog."
Lawman or print shop
Mick's roundabout route to the classroom began when he enrolled in college. He had always been good at computers and choose to study IT as his major — but not with the intention of building his tech skills into a career. Rather, his goal was to become a Pennsylvania State Trooper.
"I liked helping people and the salary and benefits for a trooper were good, plus I could retire with a pension," he explained. "However, the state required people who wanted a career in law enforcement to have 60 college credits, so that's what I was going to do."
Mick took his courses seriously and, at some point during the pursuit of those credits, his career goal changed. "I realized that I really loved IT, and thought that field might be a good fit for me," he said. Upon graduation, Mick began working as an IT specialist for a printing company. The job was enjoyable and he took advantage of every opportunity it presented to improve his skill set.
"I really liked it because the company allowed me to grow and gave me my first taste of a really good job," he said.
Mick thrived in the print industry and even received a nice pay raise. Unfortunately, his IT print specialist career was abruptly halted in March 2009. With the United States slogging through a recession, he and several others received pink slips at the end of the month. "It was a bummer," he said, "but it turned out to be a blessing in disguise because in May a job as an IT specialist opened up at CCCTC."
The new position advertised a salary that was only half of what he had been earning at the print shop, and Mick decided not to apply. "I said 'No way' was I gonna go after that job," he explained. "But my wife and a friend reminded me that something was better than nothing, so I applied and got the job."
A new career is born
For five years, Mick worked hard in his new position fixing problems and, in the process, becoming well-known among students and colleagues for his friendly attitude and pleasant personality. His lucky break came in the Fall of 2013 when a fulltime instructor left the school to become a principal at another career and technical education center. Clearfield's director needed a replacement and figured Mick was the man for the job.
The previous IT program covered the management of information systems, but Mick's boss wanted something new. The revamped IT program would ideally prepare students to work as IT service technicians and would be organized around the CompTIA A+ certification exam.
The CCCTC director explained that resources for the new course were going to be limited. "The school didn't want to invest a lot into the program because they weren't sure it would go," Mick said. "He told me, 'You get it going and it will be a full-time gig for you.' "
Mick knew that fixing computer problems was very different from teaching others how to fix them and, at first, was reluctant to accept the job. "I was not sure I was meant to be an educator," he said, "but I figured I'd give it a go."
The new program, started out slowly, with just six students in its first year. Word spread that Mr. Mick was an entertaining and enjoyable teacher, however, and 26 students enrolled for the second year. To Mick's delight — and confounding his youthful expectations — he was now a full-time IT instructor.
"At first I didn't know whether I could do it," he said. "But I was wrong: I found my calling and it's what I love to do!"
Connecting through humor
Mick loves to spend time in the classroom teaching young people the ins-and-outs of IT. True to the vision laid out for him, his courses remain focused on the goal of having his students earn the widely valued CompTIA A+ certification. To help them prepare for their exams, he uses TestOut PC Pro courseware.
"I first saw TestOut in 2018 at a conference in Kentucky, where I made a connection with Wendy Edwards. I've been using TestOut ever since and my kids really like it," he said.
Each year, every seat in his class is occupied and, in addition to typical students, a number of special needs students are enrolled. Scott Burfield, CCCTC's vision specialist, describes Mick as an instructor who does not look at a student's disability, but instead sees their abilities and praises him for going to great lengths to help his students.
"Mick moves heaven and earth to make sure every student has what they need to succeed in his program," Burfield said.
In 2022 Mick was named Pennsylvania's Outstanding Career and Technical Special Needs Teacher of the Year. He won that title by combining a wealth of knowledge with an impressively high degree of empathy and caring for his students.
His teaching philosophy is that "Kids don't learn from people they don't like," and he works hard to ensure that his classroom is fun. For him, the best thing about teaching young people is getting to know them, hearing their stories, and making them laugh with corny jokes.
A self-described "chunky guy," Mick is often the focus of his own wit. And he knows that a disarming delivery can be even more effective that a nutty punch line. "The kids laugh at my jokes even when they aren't funny. They say, 'That's funny because it isn't even funny.' "
Making kids laugh is easy compared to Mick's greatest challenge: Getting his students to believe in themselves. "I have a lot of students who were told they aren't good enough as they were growing up," he said, "and it's a big challenge getting them to not believe that lie — because it's not true."
Like many good teachers, Mick is a very good listener. "So many kids come into my classroom never really having had a chance to figure out what they like to do, or even who they are. It's great if I can be a listening ear," he said. "I can help them learn about themselves and help them realize that they can do anything they put their mind to."
Class may be fun, but it's also work and, like most teenage students, Mick's kids sometimes need discipline and refocusing. As with everything else, he handles these situations with kindness. "When needed, I'll give them constructive criticism, but never negative criticism. And they seem to respond to it," he said.
Isaiah DeSantis, a former student now working as an associate software engineer, knew he wanted to enroll in Mr. Mick's class after their first meeting. "His personality is very welcoming, and he is a funny guy who really cares about students."
Mick especially goes all out for his special needs students. To assist a student who was completely blind, he cobbled together a wooden board with computer components affixed to it. "This enabled the kid to get used to the feel of the various components like a motherboard, power supply, and RAM," he explained.
Once the student was used to feeling the different parts, he was able to build a computer alone completely by touch. "When he mastered that part, I created an area with a work bench for him and his tools and had him build PCs in class," Mick said.
At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, when students were unable to attend class, Mick taught that student over the phone. Another of his blind students, William Rainey, was recently named the Pennsylvania Association of Career and Technology Education Student of the Year. Clearly, Mick is doing something right.
"He always made the learning environment fun and there was never a boring time in his class," said DeSantis. "Mr. Mick played a pivotal role in sparking my interest in IT and in helping me get where I am today."
At his core, Mick is a delightfully uncomplicated guy. Outside his beloved classroom, life revolves around family and outdoor recreation — especially hunting and fishing.
According to Mick, the worst advice he ever received was to "not get married." Fortunately for him, he ignored that counsel. Instead, he asked a buddy if he knew any nice girls who were unattached. That friend introduced Mick to his wife, Jessica.
Their first date was over breakfast, one of Mick's favorite meals, and the two of them hit it off immediately. Mick was star-struck and, when Jessica invited him to attend church meetings with her, he gladly went. The two of them have been inseparable ever since.
"We got married in 2009 and it's been great," said Mick, who considers himself to have won the spousal lottery. "Jessica is my rock. She supports me in everything and I wouldn't be nearly where I am today without her. When she gets to heaven, she deserves a special award for putting up with me."
Although the couple do not have any children of their own yet, they are foster parents to an 18-month-old girl and are kept busy doting on the four nephews and four nieces who live in the area. As Mick put it, "They are so important to us, and very near and dear to our hearts."
Gone fishing (or hunting)
Mick's second great love is the great outdoors. On sunny summer days, he eagerly hauls the family pontoon out to a favorite lake to spend time on the water. Road trips are another favorite family activity. He and Jessica like to visit different parts of the country and, along the way, make sure to dine at "mom-and-pop" restaurants.
"They are way better than chain restaurants," he declared, "and my favorite meal is a tie between chicken and dumplings and chicken pot pie."
A true outdoorsman, Mick is an avid hunter with both the rifle and bow. Each fall, he heads off into the woods in pursuit of whitetail deer to stock the family freezer. "Our family loves to eat venison and I only kill what we'll eat," he said.
Hunting and the rush of adrenaline he feels when an opportunity arises to harvest a mature deer are fun for Mick. Even when he fails to bag a deer, however, he admits that just being outside is its own reward. "Enjoying the quiet and peaceful atmosphere of Mother Nature is so relaxing," said Mick. "It's hard to beat. Although I'm still trying to get my big buck."
Another favorite pastime is fishing and, during the spring and summer, he is often found casting his line in one of the local creeks in hopes of catching a fat trout. Occasionally, he will make the trek north to Lake Erie in pursuit of the challenging and tasty walleye. His prize catch, which earned him an angler's award, was an impressive walleye that weighed nine pounds and measured 30 inches.
Outdoorsman, family man, and IT instructor. It's a long way from the future Mick once envisioned as a Pennsylvania state trooper. He did have a long-ago eye on that very different career path out of a desire to help people, however, and teaching IT has certainly provided plenty of opportunities to be of service. Sometimes understanding who you are is more important than knowing what title to put on your business card.