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National Award for R.B. Russell instructor

R.B. Russell Vocational High School instructor Mike Johnston recently earned a national distinction after being awarded the Canadian Welding Association Foundation’s Secondary Educator of the Year Award.

Mr. Johnston received his award in Montreal earlier this month at the CanWeld Expo and Conference. He was nominated for the award by his former Vice-Principal, Tanis Westdal.

Although the instructor was surprised to receive the award, there were further surprises in store. In his speech, Mr. Johnston spoke about teaching in Winnipeg’s North End and the challenges some of his students face in pursuit of their education.

“One of the people who sits on their board, John Marinucci, said he was touched by what I had said in my speech, and he gave me his email address,” Mr. Johnston said. “I sent him an email on a Tuesday, and Thursday morning I got a call from the Canadian Welding Association saying that Mr. Marinucci had contacted them, and the CWA Foundation was donating $50,000 to our shop.”

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It was a big moment for an instructor who took his first Level I welding course at the age of 21.

“I wasn’t a big fan of high school, I did everything I could to avoid it,” he said. “But the hook for me was the vocational shop…I took Power Mechanics. It was a place to work on stuff, have a cup of coffee with the teacher and talk. I want my shop to be the same way. Students are always welcome to drop in as long as they have a note from their academic classroom.”

Mr. Johnston worked as a production welder, a fitter/fabricator, construction, shop foreman and sales/estimating before finally making the move into education 12 years ago.

“I came home one day and told my wife I had taken a three-month term position as a welding instructor. We had a six-month-old kid at home…it was bit of a gamble,” he said.

That term of three months turned to six months, and then it turned into a year. Mr. Johnston taught adult education for a year before coming on board at R.B. Russell ten years ago. 

In his class, Mr. Johnston shows his students the creative possibilities in welding, but he also stresses that welding is all about the practical applications of mathematics.

“I have a lot of students that struggle with their math skills, but it’s a whole different ball of wax when it’s hands on, and you can see why that math needs to be applied,” he said.

“There are good careers in this trade and lots of money to be made.”

Mr. Johnston also writes articles for the Canadian Welding Association Journal, which has 65,000 subscribers across the country.

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