Businessman turned shop teacher finds unique ways to train students for real world careers

There's something special happening in Olivia, Minnesota, that all started with one man's transition from the business world to a high school classroom. Now, the entire district and community are experiencing the benefits.

Rob Van Der Hagen, a man not originally destined for the teaching profession, unexpectedly found himself at the heart of this transformation. Van Der Hagen recalls, "We were at a graduation party last year around this time. Mr. Menton showed up to talk to us and mentioned that he was looking for a shop teacher for next year. Instantly, I had eight sets of eyes upon me. I was like there's no way."

The year was 2021, in the aftermath of COVID. Van Der Hagen had recently sold his auto parts stores without a clear next step in mind. Despite his initial resistance, the idea of teaching kept nagging at him.

This past fall, he decided to channel his over three decades of retail experience and local connections into the Industrial Tech Program at BOLD High School in Olivia. The only thing missing was a lesson plan.

"Basically, I went to those business owners and I said, All right,'You're the resident electrician out here… If I've got a kid that wants to come and work for you over the summer as an intern, just help out. What do you want him to know how to do?'" he explained. "What do you want her to know how to do?"

And when Van Der Hagen says "teach", he implies something more akin to "employ".

"Okay, you now work for me, okay? Everybody's going to go through an orientation," he said. "We go through safety training. Here's your job description. This is what you're going to do."

Now all they needed was projects, inviting members of the public to bring in anything that needed repairs – from golf carts to chainsaws to four-wheelers to motorcycles.

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