Auto repair teacher shifting gears after 44 years on the job

MIDDLEBURY — It’s not a stretch to say that diesel power technology teacher Phil Teer’s name has become synonymous with the Patricia A. Hannaford Career Center. They practically built the walls around him when the Middlebury vocational-technical education school opened its doors more than four decades ago.
“He was original equipment when the center first opened in 1971,” Career Center Executive Director Lynn Coale likes to say.
Teer is still pretty spry, energetic and certainly firing on all cylinders at age 65, but he’s now ready to move on after establishing and perfecting one of the top diesel power technology education programs in the state, one that has inspired hundreds of Addison County students to seek higher education and secure good jobs as mechanics, service technicians, equipment operators and business owners in a powerful industry.
While he’ll be motoring away from his classroom shop, Teer has no plans to stay in neutral during his golden years. He will soon start working for one of his former students, Justin Almeida, who runs an Addison business called Just Fix It Ag/Industrial Repairs LLC.
“My wife calls me a workaholic,” Teer said during an interview last week. “I would get bored if I stopped working altogether.”
And he has put in a lot of work during his career, both in the classroom and with various local businesses needing repairs to diesel equipment. It’s safe to say there isn’t much in the mechanical realm that Teer hasn’t seen or can’t fix. He’s tried to impart that wisdom over the years to young generations of aspiring mechanics interested in troubleshooting the tractors, trucks and construction vehicles of today and tomorrow.
It was while he was attending Mount Mansfield Union High School in the 1960s that Teer developed an interest in a career in things mechanical. He enrolled in automotive technology classes at what was then the Burlington Vocational Center.
“I excelled in that class and was inspired by one of my automotive teachers to attend post-secondary school,” he recalled.
So he enrolled at the Franklin Institute in Boston. Even before graduating, Teer interviewed to become a teacher at a new voc-tech center they were building off Charles Avenue in Middlebury.
“Before I was out of school, I had a job,” he said. “The rest of it was coming in here every day until I decided to retire.”
That’s the Cliff’s Notes version, of course. Teer would rather do things than talk. But with some coaxing, he elaborated on what has been a lengthy career as an educator, during which he has made a big impression on many of his students and Hannaford Career Center colleagues.
“Mr. Teer is one of the most gifted educators that I have ever worked with,” said Coale, who met Teer when Coale joined the school 14 years ago. “He teaches problem solving more than anything else. He seldom directly answers a question but he always directs students to where they can find the answer. His students become lifelong learners that accept challenges and take joy in solving difficult problems.”
Teer was hired as an automotive technology instructor, but in 1972 shifted to diesel when that position expanded to full-time.
“I had a stronger background in diesel,” Teer recalled, noting that through a cooperative education program he had worked in a diesel shop during his senior year in high school.
“I had been around farm machinery for years and I had a better background in agricultural equipment than cars,” he said.
Teer took his job very seriously. He’d go to dealerships and ask about the workings of various equipment so he could incorporate that information in his classes. He worked in the truck market for around eight summers studying the ins and outs of vehicles. In this manner, he (and his students) learned how to fix a wide range of equipment, including even hay balers.
Students also learned how to read manuals, use tools and how to assemble and disassemble engines.
“I’m a great believer that if you teach a career subject, you should spend as much time as you can just trying to keep up with what’s happening in the market,” he said.
Through the years, the diesel program has become more refined.
“We pretty much focus on diesel engines, fuel systems, compressed natural gas and diesel, and overhauling engines,” Teer said. The more advanced students also learn about power train and transmission systems, hydrostatic drives, torque converters and hydraulics.
“Hydraulics is a big part of construction and agricultural equipment,” Teer said.
And you can certainly add electronics to the must-know list in Teer’s classes. It’s one of the biggest industry advances during Teer’s tenure. Increasingly, diesel machinery is equipped with electronic systems to heighten their performance. It’s something the diesel students have to learn to troubleshoot, with the aid of diagnostics.
That’s not to say that students can gloss over the basics.
“My students, I find, have to know not only the electronics stuff, but they also have to know the older stuff because this equipment stays around for so long,” Teer said.
“Once you overcome your fears, you can start to figure out how things work,” he added.
Teer has helped many students overcome their fears to become confident players in the world of diesel.
Under his leadership, the career center’s Diesel Power Technology program was named the Career and Technical Education Program of the year. Its curriculum design was the first in the state — and one of the first at Hannaford — to offer dual enrolled college credit, in partnership with Vermont Technical College.
“My kids can leave here with eight college credits,” Teer said proudly.
Coale said more than 80 percent of Teer’s students go on to post-secondary education, and “when they are interviewed as alumni they repeatedly attribute their post-secondary success to Mr. Teer.”
Teer is particularly proud of the role he played in:
•  Participating, as a Vermont high school student, in the Plymouth Troubleshooting contest. The contest called upon students to diagnose and fix problems in a fleet of vehicles that had been disabled. Teams that got the vehicles running in the shortest time were the winners. Teer and his teammate went all the way to the nationals in 1969.
He founded a similar, local competition — with scholarship money for top placing teams — focusing on tractors, thanks to help from Champlain Valley Equipment.
•  Taking Hannaford Career Center teams deep into “Skills U.S.A.,” another mechanics troubleshooting competition. He has, at least four times, taken FFA teams to the nationals in that event.
•  Seeing a group of his students — including a single mom with three kids — renovate a backhoe that went to the Albert Schweitzer Memorial Hospital in Haiti. It was used for improving drainage and water systems.
“It was a global community service project,” Teer said, adding his students also participate in the United Way of Addison County’s annual “Days of Caring” event, during which volunteers extend aid to area nonprofits.
The diesel program, according to Teer, got a huge shot on the arm with the opening of the career center’s North Campus building in 2006. The space accommodates students and a variety of heavy equipment — including a 5-ton crane. These kinds of amenities have helped keep the diesel program enrollment solid, even as student demographics throughout the state have been in decline, Teer noted.
Students are a chief source of the equipment they get to troubleshoot in class, according to Teer. They either have an engine in the family that needs work, or know someone who knows someone who has a challenging technical problem to solve.
Looking into the future, Teer believes the diesel program’s emphasis will shift more on the truck market.
“More farms do have trucks,” and trucks are the biggest market in the diesel sector, Teer noted.
While he’s enjoyed his job, Teer said he’s become concerned about some trends he has noticed.
“A downside is cell phones,” Teer said, calling the ubiquitous devices a constant distraction for some students. “We’re trying to train people for work, and (employers) don’t want someone who’s always on the phone.”
And he believes many students these days don’t seem to be as willing to put in the study hours as they used to.
“I get frustrated by the work ethic,” he said. “I expect an awful lot from the kids. I expect people to work.”
Teer also gets ticked with some of the profanity that he hears a lot of young folks weaving into everyday conversation.
“There’s a time and place for everything,” he said.
Still, he’ll leave the job with a lot of fond memories — such as seeing a student revive a dormant engine thanks to hard work and what he or she has learned in class.
“What’s kept me in this business is seeing some of our students go on to own their own businesses, have key management roles in dealerships, or be real top-notch technicians,” Teer said. “We have outfitted a lot of the garages around here with former students. That’s the rewarding part.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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