T.J. Edwards teaches technology, engineering and design at Mount Vernon Presbyterian School. His students have used a 3-D printer to manufacture prosthetic hands for a man who was born without fully formed fingers on his right hand.

Mount Vernon Presbyterian School teacher T.J. Edwards. (Special)

Q: What attracted you to teaching at first?

A: I’m a career changer, having first worked in the construction engineer fields and been owner/operator of a small business for a few years. In each of those instances, I felt a void of purpose. I made the change to teaching so that I could reignite my love for tech and design while sharing some knowledge and experiences that I wish I had in my own high school experience.

Q: Has the appeal changed?

A: I think the appeal has only grown. Over the years, students will come back and say they appreciate having a certain experience or how they enjoyed a class. Those relationships with students continually remind me that this is the right career for me.

Q: What keeps you going year after year?

A: Beyond the day-to-day interaction with students and a really awesome team of teachers, I’m continually invigorated by the way the conversations around education are evolving. Students are getting more opportunities to work on problems that matter — not ones invented by teachers — and as a result they are gaining a sense that their world is malleable and we trust them to shape it in a positive way. I think we are on the cusp of a major (and much-needed) reimagining of the way we “do” school.

Q: What do you think makes a great teacher?

A: I think it is really helpful for teachers know it is OK to be vulnerable with students. It is OK to not know all the answers. In fact, those problems that aren’t easily Googled are the ones worth solving, right? Some of the best experiences I’ve had with students is when we tackled a problem that none of us knew the answer(s) to. In that way, I was co-creating and learning alongside the students.

Q: What do you want to see in your students?

A: I want to see students that are insatiably curious. In some ways, it feels like school can stomp that out of students as the get older. I want students to be problem-seekers and demonstrate diversity in both thought and action.

Q: How do you engage your students?

A: I think I invest a lot of time on classroom culture and expectations. We might spend a few weeks talking through craftsmanship, self-reliance, how to work in a team, and why it is important to be contributors to — not just consumers of — knowledge. I think that has helped students take ownership of their learning.

Q: Do you have a project or special program you use year after year?

A: One personality trait (or flaw?) of mine is that I continually like to try new projects and ideas, so no two semesters are exactly the same. Over the past four years, a theme of building assistive technologies for disabled individuals has emerged as a favorite. I think some of the secret to those projects is that students have a user in mind — one who has very real and observable needs. The empathy that is generated compels students to be successful because the stakes are higher than just a grade, which can feel relatively meaningless at times.

Q: Is there a “trick” that works to get students involved?

A: I don’t know if it is a trick, but I think kids by nature want to work on problems that they care about. Sometimes that means opening their eyes to issues they didn’t know existed and other time it means tailoring projects to meet their personal strengths and preferences.

Q: What do you hope your students take away from your class?

A: Maybe there are two big things: 1) I want students to gain the super power of X-ray vision — an ability to imagine how designed objects are fabricated and 2) to be both critical thinkers and critical makers. Maybe that’s a new discipline/department I’d like to create: Art of the Possible.

Editor’s note: Through our “Exceptional Educator” series, Reporter Newspapers showcase the work of some of the outstanding teachers and administrators at our local schools. If you would like to recommend an Exceptional Educator to be included in our series, please email editor@ReporterNewspapers.net with information about the teacher or administration and why you think he or she should be featured.