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VSB Student Ian Russell Turns His Education Around by Turning Wrenches in Trades

"I wasn't the best student. I was regarded as one of the of the 'bad kids,'" grins Ian Russell, leaning back in his chair at Tim Hortons. 

Clad in a denim vest and bearing lobe-piercings, Russell is both thoughtful and well-spoken. It's surprising that only a year ago, he was struggling academically. 

Now he's one of the district's success stories, apprenticing as an automotive technician. It was a journey that required the support of VSB staff, parents and most of all, Russell's own desire to work hard and meet demanding goals. 

"Grade 10 is where it all started. Grade 10 was hard. My friends and I just got hammered, after coasting through the previous years," shrugs Russell, clutching his coffee. "I couldn't deal with the work, the way things were being taught. I became overwhelmed."

With schoolwork piling up and poor grades, Russell became increasingly ambivalent towards his academics. 

"I tuned it out, tried to ignore my problems," says Russell. "I was reaching the point where I felt that I couldn't change my situation."

Academic challenges led to new problems for Ian.  

"I was called stupid by my peers," laments Russell. "Among students, there was this attitude that if you weren't academic or didn't fit their narrow definition of being smart, you'd get made fun of."

"There were murmurs from people, saying I could drop out in Grade 10," says Ian. "I wasn't really sure what do with myself."

This changed when Wendy Gilmour, the the VSB's Apprenticeship Teacher, gave a short presentation at Byng about the trades. 

"It was some small thing. Not even 5 minutes or so," says Gilmour. "But it had a big impact on Ian."

"It was the tail-end of some assembly, some music thing when Wendy came on stage and talked about trades-this and trades-that," says Russell. "I turned to the kid next to me and said, 'we can actually do this?!'"

A couple days after the assembly, Ian and his school counsellor contacted Gilmour and asked how he could join the trades curriculum. He told her that he was interested in automotive mechanics, the same job as his dad. 

Gilmour began making inquiries at Tupper Tech, a special VSB program that introduces Grade 12 students into trade careers.  

She approached the program's instructor, Russ Evans, to see if he would allow Ian into the program. 

"I asked Russ if he'd take a Grade 11 student but that was a no," says Gilmour. "So I then asked, 'what if you took him if he was a Grade 12 student for next year?"

A meeting between Ian and Russ Evans was arranged. 

It's a day that Evans recalls fondly. 

"He came into my office with his dad, I sat him across my desk and asked him: do you like school?," says Evans. "Of course, he says 'yes,' because that's what he was coached to do, what he thought I'd want to hear."

Evans continued, "so, I asked again. I looked right at him and asked, 'Tell me the truth Ian. Do you like school?'"

Tupper Tech"School sucks. That's what I told Russ,'" laughs Ian. "Well, that's the PG version." 

After the meeting, Russ said that Ian could have a space in the program, but only after passing Grade 10 and the Grade 11 language arts graduation requirement. 

Within the summer, Ian completed Russ' requirements. 

"He sent me an email, with just four or five words," smiles Evans. "It was pretty much, 'I passed.' Ian did what he set to do and fulfilled his part of the bargain. It was beautiful."

"I'd mandate at least two hours of schoolwork a day. But often I'd get to work and lose track of time," says Russell. "I'd look at the clock and go 'oh wow, it's 4pm already?!'"

In September 2013, Ian Russell left Lord Byng Secondary and entered the Tupper Tech program. Russ Evans admired Ian's studiousness, which continued through Grade 12.

"That kid could shut the door, sit in front of a computer all day and get work done," says Evans. "Ian's a good guy. He just needed an opportunity."

With a limited intake of about 20 students and a hands-on approach to learning, Russell says that he flourished under Russ Evans' instruction. 

"Russ isn't really your teacher. He's your boss," states Russell. "He operates on a totally different level, one that makes sense to me."  

In the conventional curriculum, Russell found himself bemused by conventional teaching methods, which he says didn't match his style of learning. 

"If I couldn't solve a math problem, I'd just ask for the teacher and they'd pretty much solve it for me," laughs Russell. "I'd complete the problem on the calculator as per their instruction, get it right and yet, not learn a thing."

"Russ isn't like that. His approach is that he tells you to do a task. If you get it wrong, he gives it to you straight and has you dissemble the project," says Russell. "I realized it was the best way for me to learn. You're forced to figure out your mistakes."

Once Ian was doing well in Tupper Tech, Evans began looking into work-experience placement for Russell. Evans contacted Doug Halter of Aamco Arbutus, arranging to have Russell begin learning the automotive technician trade. 

Halter's shop took Russell in for one day a week as work-experience. Now Russell is working nearly full-time at Aamco. 

"It's about giving someone a chance," says Halter. "That's what this whole thing boils down to."

Outside of school, Russell's work continues to impress his instructors, as well as his mentors. 

"It's about bringing the right attitude. One that's willing to learn and willing to work hard," says Halter. "Ian brings that attitude. That's why he's successful." 

Already earning apprenticeship hours, Ian is now on track to eventually obtain his Red Seal, making him a full-fledged mechanic. He aims to attend BCIT for six weeks each year until he's earned the necessary skills and hours to write the Red Seal exam. 

Providing he continues his success, by the time many of his peers graduate from university, Ian can potentially earn a yearly salary between $44,000 - $53,000 according to WorkBC. 

Despite this earning potential, Russell says that a stigma against trades remains, something that he's been more than happy to counter. 

Russell also believes that the local public is disconnected from trades-workers, which contributes to the stigma.  

"This table and these chairs were all fabricated by someone. The floor we're standing on was installed by someone," says Ian. These jobs are in the background, even invisible to most people. They're an afterthought, so that's why we have to work hard in promoting them." 

As he gets ready to head home, Russell looks out into the sun and smiles. Before leaving, he ends the interview with some parting words for parents and teachers. 

"There are lots of Ian's out there. Get them early. Tell them there's another way."

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