Phil Tanner was settled into his career, enjoying the perks of working for a company that paid well with fringe benefits.
Then he changed gears.
Twenty-seven years later, a lot of people are happy Tanner made that move. The Careers and Technology auto body teacher at Irmo High added to his collection of national awards recently, winning the 2009-10 I-CAR Auto Collision Repair Instructor of the Year.
"The element that makes him, or any teacher, outstanding in their field is a true love and compassion for students," said Don Lawrimore, District 5's director of Careers and Technology Education. "I have observed interactions between him and his students, and the care and respect he gives them forms a significant bond."
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The bond transcends work in the garage.
"He has a lot of impact on everybody's life," said Chase Suggs, a senior and third-year student of Tanner. "Not only does he teach you about auto body, he teaches you life lessons.
"If you're ever down, he'll come up to you and ask what's wrong. And he'll talk to you about it, if you want to talk. If you need help with anything, no matter what it is, he's always there to help you."
This is the third time Tanner has won a national teacher of the year award, and he credits his students for his accolades.
"The kids are what drive it all," Tanner said. "If they weren't out there winning competitions and being involved, I wouldn't get these awards."
Of course, students are just as quick to credit Tanner.
"He works with us," said David Tyler, a senior who has taken Tanner's class three years. "He's just a great teacher all the way around."
Tanner cares about each student, and even helps them with other classes, Tyler said. He credits Tanner for motivating him to go to school in Tennessee to pursue a career in auto body work.
"He told me if I ever needed his help, I can call him and he's got my back," Tyler said.
Tanner was working at a Chrysler dealership when he became involved with a mentoring program there. He was distressed at the lack of skills students had when they came to the program. So when the job in District 5 became available, he applied even though at that point he had never considered teaching as a career.
"The first year probably was the hardest, but after that it became a pleasure to watch the guys and girls come in here and start progressing," Tanner said.
Tanner came to District 5 with a vast knowledge of auto collision work and has kept up-to-date through the years, changing what he teaches to coincide with industry advances. For example, he teaches more math now than he did 27 years ago as well as computer skills.
But he still teaches his students much more than how to fix dents, dings and scratches.
"He teaches his students to always be honest in everything they do: To give back to the community through civic projects; to take pride in their work; loyalty to their school, family, employer and nation; respect to each other and their teachers," said Ellen Baumgardner, a District 5 school board member who nominated Tanner for the award and whose two sons were in Tanner's classes when they attended Irmo High.
For the past nine years, Tanner's students have participated in Operation Santa, providing food and gifts for dozens of families at Christmas. He also works with some students in Junior Achievement and donates proceeds from that to charity.
After 27 years, Tanner was on the verge of retiring after the 2008-09 school year. Then one of his female students changed his mind when she won the state auto body competition and finished fifth in the nation, earning a full scholarship to a prestigious technical school in Nashville, Tenn.
"That's what it's all about," Tanner said, "getting students, male or female, involved in what they're interested in."
And that attitude is part of what makes Tanner deserving of the national teacher of the year, said Baumgardner.
"Mr. Tanner has a passion for Career and Technical Education," she said. "He knows and understands the opportunity that CATE provides for students."
- Lezlie Patterson, for Lexington-Richland 5