REACHING BEYOND THE CLASSROOM
Why connecting with students is crucial to their success
Story and photos by Carla Kucinski
For Don Ellington, teaching is a lot like welding.
“Whether you’re building a fabricated item or you’re building a person, it’s creation,” Ellington said. “We’re here to turn our students into better people; that’s what I’m here for.”
Ellington is an assistant professor of welding technology at GTCC, and reshaping students’ lives is at the core of his teaching principles. He equips his students with the necessary skills to be a proficient welder and successful in life. With each student who enters his classroom, he takes time to connect with them and strives to bring out their best.
“Inside every student is a gem, and that gem can either be shined up or it can stay locked up,” he says. “So how do you get that gem out of every single person? You have to talk to them, develop a rapport. You have to understand somebody in order to understand their drawbacks and their goals in order to help them. It takes extra effort and care.”
Teaching came naturally to Ellington, but it wasn’t his initial career. He came to GTCC in 2001 first as a student. A native of Buffalo, N.Y., he received a bachelor’s degree in landscape architecture from the State University of New York, but while he was developing a design project for the Greensboro Convention and Visitor Bureau, he needed to enhance his computer drafting skills and learn how to weld to complete the assignment. He turned to GTCC to take a few classes and fell in love with welding.
“I love the magic of it. This is lightning we’re welding with. I’m like Zeus,” he says, laughing. “You’re taking this lightning and changing something from solid metal into liquid just for a brief second. While it’s in that molten state you have the ability to change it and shape it and mold it. That is very god-like. You’re creating something that was not going to be there except for your hands, and when you’re done with it, there’s such an incredible sense of satisfaction.”
Ellington experienced that same feeling in the classroom when he started out teaching welding as an adjunct instructor at GTCC. He taught one evening continuing education class while working full time for Greensboro sculptor Jim Gallucci, an experience that Ellington says fulfilled him and improved his fabrication skills. He also went through a brief stint as a bartender and a disc jockey, but teaching made him recognize his purpose.
“I realized this was who I really was,” he said. “I knew I had something to offer. And the students responded well to me. Teaching gives me tremendous satisfaction that lasts a long time; it’s a natural high that just doesn’t go away.”
He thanks former Welding Technology Department Chair Randy Owens for believing in him and offering him a full-time teaching position at GTCC more than eight years ago.
“He’s truly my mentor and an inspiration to me,” Ellington said. “He’s been on my side the entire time.”
And now Ellington is paying it forward with his own students, guiding and supporting them. But it can be a challenge, he says, especially when students have other obstacles in their way – poverty being one of them.
“Probably 50 percent of my class is in severe poverty, and it’s a real challenge to get them through school,” he says. “We need some grace and some sympathy for these students and help them if we can. I understand how hard it is when you don’t have anything. I’ve been in their shoes.”
In the first grade, Ellington and his family became homeless when his step father’s VA benefits had stopped and they lost their apartment. They pawned everything they owned, including Ellington’s toys, to stay in a hotel. He remembers watching his mother beg for food at a truck stop and eating in food shelters when money ran out. Eventually, his step father’s VA benefits were re-instituted and life became more stable, but the experience left an impression on Ellington.
“Having been in those situations and realizing what poverty is really like, I have a real feeling for these students and what they’re going through,” he said.
But education, he says, gives them hope.
“I see it change their lives pretty fast,” Ellington says. “Once they get into our environment, the positive energy starts spreading. Now they’re talking about professions and moving forward, and I love that. That’s what college really is; it’s positivity; it’s looking to the future.”
— Published in GTCC Magazine, spring 2015.