Hammering out success:Forging together two disconnected passions easy task for master welder
Thomas “Freddy” Thomas grew up dreaming of being a teacher and coach.
But financial stressors made going to col- lege straight out of high school difficult, so he pursued a career in construction and welding instead.
Then, at the age of 40, Thomas returned to college to secure the education needed
to teach welding in Mississippi’s public school system. It is an investment of time and energy that he says has paid off might- ily.
“This is absolutely my dream,” he said of his job teaching welding classes at Kemper County High School, where he also now serves as softball coach. “I grew up wanting to do this, and here I am. I love going into the classroom and the shop with students every day, guiding them and seeing what
they can do. This work is not easy, but the students truly do amaze me every day.”
Thomas, who graduated from Noxapater High School and started teaching at Kemper County High in February 2020, has been recognized for his work, being named the 2021-22 Teacher of the Year by the Missis- sippi Department of Education’s Depart- ment of Career and Technical Education.
The award is likely in part the result of his success teaching stu- dents the basics of welding, as measured on a national certifica- tion test both first and second- year welding students take at the end of the school year.
Under Thomas’ leadership, the school went from placing 18th and 26th in the state on the na- tional exams to placing ninth statewide among both first and second-year students.
“Those tests aren’t everything but we are definitely proud of the growth,” he said. “Our stu- dents have really stepped up. Without my students really buy- ing into this – really getting on board with what we are doing – then we would not have experienced this level of success.”
Thomas also has been able to meld together two of his biggest passions – softball and welding instruction – as part of an effort to turn the school’s old baseball field into a softball field. His welding students removed some metal poles from the fields ear- lier this year and will eventually take those poles and weld them together to support the new scoreboard.
“It was a great opportunity be- cause students were able to be a part of the project and also be- cause it allowed them to see the difference in working in the shop and working out in the field,” he said. “Out in the field, the envi- ronment is less controlled. You have to deal with things like wind – like weather.”
Thomas said he enjoys teach- ing students that some have struggled to reach.
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“We have a lot of kids who, un- fortunately, have been told they are not going to amount to much,” he said. “They think they can’t be successful or that they won’t be able to really live the lives they want to live. Through welding, I am able to show them a pathway to success — to mak- ing the money they would like to make. They see that they do have a skill that they can use and that the skill has a lot of value to them and to the community.”
Thomas said he encourages his welding students who plan to become professional welders to complete a community college or trade school program after high school. But he says that they learn enough in the high school program to work as assis- tants to welders.
“They can definitely get the ba- sics of welding from me,” he said.
Thomas said that he has to pri- oritize safety in his classroom, where he often takes rough and tumble young men and gives them high power, heavy-duty welding equipment.
“We start with a safety test and they can’t get started in the shop until they make a 100 on that,” he said. “And then, when we are in the shop, they know that if they are horse-playing, they will have to lose their break. You have to be consistent and firm about it, but if you do that it goes pretty well. The students are usually excited and they want to learn what you have to teach, so that helps.”
When Thomas isn’t coaching or teaching, he can often be found listening to heavy metal music. He also spends a lot of time ex- plaining how he has the same first and last name. The name was a tribute to multiple grand- parents with the name Thomas, he said.
“It can get confusing and when I was younger I dreaded answer- ing those questions,” he said, laughing. “But now, I have learned to be proud of it – to be proud of that heritage and his- tory.”
Thomas said it is his goal to continue transforming the cul- ture at Kemper County High School, helping students to see the value that can come from a technical education beyond high school.
“I have heard people make comments out in the world,” he said. “At the end of the workday, they see a welder and they are grimy and dirty and yes, they are tired. And someone will say ‘he is just a dumb welder.” But that ‘dumb welder’ will make more in a couple of days than you will in a whole week. I don’t think he’s dumb at all.”
Thomas is just as enthusiastic about his new responsibilities as Kemper County’s softball coach as he is about teaching welding. He played baseball throughout elementary and high school, and then played semi-professional baseball. He then coached his own daughters in softball and tried to learn as much as he could about the sport from their coaches.
He has a few players with travel softball experience, but most have primarily played recreation- ally.
He said he is going to view the program as one that is in the building stages – just as the new softball field currently is.
“We are going to be positive and we are going to celebrate growth and celebrate success,” he said, adding that more than 30 students came and tried out for the team. “So many times, in sports, parents and fans and even coaches get down on a team – get down on the kids and run them into the ground. And then you see the kids actually regress. But we are going to have a lot of positive reinforce- ment. There will be constructive criticism but we will work hard to make sure it’s from a positive place. I really do believe that is key.”
Thomas said that his classroom philosophies transfer well to the softball field.
“In sports and in work, I think it’s important to be able to really see what you want – to have a vi- sion,” he said. “And then once you see it and dream it, you work really hard. If you do that, it might not be easy, but you can achieve.”
He said when he thinks of Kem- per County, his vision is a posi- tive and hopeful one.
“We have some really good things going on,” he said. “We are rebuilding and I think in so many ways, the sky is the limit for us here.”