Nov. 1, 2010, was a big day for Robert Tonnies – the first day of school at Clayton.
For the past two weeks, Tonnies has been adapting to life at CHS. However, he is not a confused or shy new student lost wondering in the halls, but rather, the new engineering teacher who was recently hired by the School District of Clayton following Gregory Kramer’s resignation.
In the aftermath of Kramer’s resignation on Sept. 29, the CHS administration struggled in the hiring process with multiple setbacks to find someone with the necessary experience and certification for the several engineering classes.
“The difficulties were a little daunting,” CHS Principal Louise Losos said. “It’s a very specialized program. So, our first goal was to get someone who had Project Lead The Way (the engineering curriculum) training and if possible teaching experience. Failing that, we wanted someone who had architectural or engineering background preferably with teaching experience, but, if not, we would support them.”
During the hiring process, the engineering classes ground to a halt without a teacher trained in the engineering curriculum, becoming merely study halls for students.
“We needed to get those classes back and running because we hit a point where we either needed to get someone in there or cancel the classes,” Losos said. “The students didn’t want to be in a study hall. They signed up for architecture classes, so they really wanted to learn about engineering.”
Yet, the hiring process for the new engineering teacher was delayed multiple times as several candidates for the job, who were very close to being hired, backed out of the selection process. In all, more than a dozen people from all different backgrounds of engineering were interviewed for the position. For Tonnies, the job offering was a rare opportunity.
“There are very few pre-engineering programs at high schools,” Tonnies said. “In the past 10 years, I haven’t seen any openings of that sort anywhere.”
Tonnies, an engineer for over 25 years, immediately seized the opportunity to be interviewed for the position. With his experience as both an engineer and also a teacher, Tonnies stood out in the selection process and was soon hired for the job.
“We had other strong experienced candidates, but he was the one who had the teaching experience in combination with his broad array of engineering experience,” Losos said.
Ever since his days in high school, Tonnies had always loved math and science. Coming from a line of engineers, Tonnies was destined to follow in the footsteps of his father and grandfather. He studied engineering at Washington University in St. Louis and went on to work at McDonnell Douglas for a year and then Monsanto for 25 years.
Throughout his career, Tonnies worked in various fields of engineering from working on chemical plants to computer based information technology.
“I’ve probably never done anything the same for more than a few years in my career,” Tonnies said. “I have had a lot of varieties of experiences in my career.”
In addition, Tonnies also taught engineering, physics, and a variety of math classes at several high schools including Lafayette High School. So far, Tonnies has had a smooth transition as a new teacher half way through the first semester.
“I have enjoyed it,” Tonnies said. “The one thing I have to say is that [the staff at] Clayton High School is one of the best groups of people that I’ve worked with…All the other teachers, the administrators, the maintenance…everyone has been so helpful.”
Tonnies explained how the administration has been very helpful by providing him with time “to get his feet wet” and adapt to the new school environment as well as support through the district’s mentoring program for new teachers.
Moreover, Tonnies is thrilled to be teaching his true passion of engineering to high school students who have access to the technology to actually sample what it is like to be an engineer without needing the advanced understanding of mathematics and physics. Tonnies is also becoming acquainted with his new students.
“It’s a good group of students,” Tonnies said. “Most of the students are very focused on their work and they seem to have fun too…They are respectful of each other and really get along well.”
Nonetheless, in getting to know his students, Tonnies realizes the challenge of addressing each student’s individual interests in specific fields of engineering while maintaining a balance of hands-on and classroom learning.
“I think that’s the main challenge – getting the mix of the hands-on and the learning,” said Tonnies. “The other thing I’ve found is that there are hundreds of different areas you can explore in engineering. So, if I have 15 kids in a class, almost every one of those kids has a different interest…So, I think that the real challenge for me is making the class something fun and beneficial for all the students.”
Because Tonnies was hired mid-year, the district intends to repost the job after winter break for the 2011-2012 school year. Of course, Tonnies will have the opportunity to apply again for the position.
“I would love to continue teaching at Clayton,” Tonnies said. “I’ll be putting my hat in the ring after this spring to see where it goes.”
In the end though, the administration has been pleased with the recent hiring of Tonnies and resuming of the engineering classes.
“I think his first couple weeks have been very positive and well received by the students,” Losos said. “I’m excited to have him on staff and the kids are learning again.”