PROGRESS 2020: ACC welding teacher learns all he can for his students
ALPENA — Tim Ratz never misses a chance to learn.
Since he began his education as a student at Alpena Community College, ACC’s welding program advisor is still learning and still expanding his horizons any chance he can.
Last year, he spent time in Racine, Wisconsin, taking part in a weeklong seminar for welding instructors around the country. He also spent time in Cleveland, looking at welding technology he might be able to use at ACC.
He’s used summer breaks, spring breaks, and Christmas vacations to travel for advanced welding courses and certifications, always looking for ways to expand ACC’s programs, thereby offering his students more opportunities.
“We can’t ever just sit back and say, ‘I’m happy with what I’ve got,'” Ratz said. “We’ve always got to keep trying to learn more and do more and expand.”
Ratz keeps a full schedule most days. He currently teaches 10 classes at ACC, as well as technical math at Alcona High School as a part of Alcona’s dual enrollment program.
But he wouldn’t have it any other way. Teaching is his passion and he loves guiding students the way his instructors guided him.
After graduating from Alpena High School in 1996, Ratz was prepared to begin a career as a truck driver, but life had other plans and, at 19, he found himself without a job and wondering what came next.
At the time, he had no thoughts of going to school. But, once he arrived on ACC’s campus, all that changed. He immediately took to machining and welding courses and had instructors who told him he could do much more with his schooling than simply getting a job.
“I completely went from the mindset of, ‘I don’t want to go to school. I don’t want anything to do with college,’ to slowly realizing how important education is,” Ratz said.
Ratz went on to earn higher degrees, including his master’s degree in 2004, and returned to ACC as an instructor in 2003, on the advice of his former instructor, Ivan McLaren.
“My teacher that I had up here in machine tool was going to retire, and I saw him one time, he said, ‘You ought to apply for my job when I retire,'” Ratz said. “I got to thinking, ‘That’s not a bad idea.'”
The career technical education programs at ACC offer students opportunities to learn a variety of skills in many fields that can give them a leg up when they enter the workforce. The programs create what Ratz calls “go-to-work” jobs, where graduates can take the skills they have and find plenty of jobs in all parts of the country.
During his tenure at ACC, Ratz has sought to expand his own knowledge to help students, while also expanding the welding program. Ratz has earned his Certified Welding Instructor certification and become an Occupational Safety and Health Administration instructor to teach safety courses.
Ratz’s efforts leading the welding program include the transformation of the program from a one-year program to a two-year associate degree program that allows students to get their American Welding Society certification and transfer credits to Ferris State University if they want to pursue studies in welding engineering. Ratz has also helped the program gain advanced equipment to incorporate into the curriculum.
“Welding is found in approximately 50% of parts that make up the gross domestic product of the country,” Ratz said. “Welding is just so common, whether it’s oil and gas, shipbuilding, construction, fabrication, pretty much everywhere. Students can take welding in the direction they want.”
One of ACC’s first associate degree students, Jay Webster, graduated this past spring and is now working as a welding engineer for John Deere. Webster entered school just looking to get a job, but left ACC with bigger goals, thanks to Ratz’s guidance.
“I just kept chipping away at him, all the time, (telling him), ‘You can do more than just having a job,'” Ratz said. “The most rewarding part of what I do is to see somebody that comes here … they’re coming here because they have an interest in welding, but trying to push them to be the next level.”
Ratz’s enthusiasm for teaching hasn’t gone unnoticed by his students or colleagues. In 2016, he received an Individual Outstanding Instructor Award during the TRENDS conference, which recognizes staff and faculty who are passionate about career and technical community college education.
“That was a big accomplishment that made me feel like I was doing what I was meant to do, and I enjoy doing it,” Ratz said.
As passionate as Ratz is about teaching, the last several months have admittedly been a challenge, especially teaching classes in skilled trades.
Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Ratz has had to learn to make use of online software such as Blackboard and Zoom to instruct his students. Rather than getting a chance to show students the finer points of welding face-to-face, Ratz has filmed dozens of instructional videos for online learning and given tests online.
When he has gotten a chance for face-to-face instruction, Ratz has encouraged students to appreciate the time they have to learn in a classroom setting.
“The COVID thing has definitely put a twist on what teaching is all about,” Ratz said. “I tell my students all the time, ‘This is the classroom that I sat in my very first class, as uncertain as anybody. It can all start right here.'”
As an Alpena native, Ratz enjoys Northeast Michigan’s relaxed style of living and high quality of life, with plenty of opportunity for those who love nature and water. He hopes future generations will be around to enjoy that quality of life, even as the area has dealt with manufacturing losses and a declining population.
Bringing jobs to the area that allow people to earn a living and raise a family is key, Ratz said, and will determine how many students come through schools like ACC to take advantage of the career readiness opportunities.
“I think that trying to keep businesses, industry, manufacturing, something to keep that population so it can stay up at a decent level and get the trend going the other way,” Ratz said. “When you’re graduating 250 students (at the high school level) instead of 500, that eventually passes down to us.”