After graduating from Virginia Tech in 1986 with a degree in agricultural engineering, Phil Arnold worked for six different companies, and at one time, was an independent consultant before finding his true calling.

He traveled all over the world, going to places like Taiwan. He worked in software development, telecommunications, computer systems, and programming and management systems. He built a tremendous reputation and diverse career in doing so.

Yet in 2010, Arnold made a drastic turn and decided to pursue a starkly different career path. He became a high school teacher – and he absolutely has no regrets.

“No matter what you plan for your career path, it kind of unfolds the way it was intended to,” Arnold said.

Arnold’s success as a computer-aided design architecture and engineering teacher at The Career and Technology Center in Frederick, Maryland, during the past COVID-plagued school year earned him national attention in late April. The Washington Post tabbed Arnold as its 2020-21 Teacher of the Year.

Arnold beat out 16 other finalists from an area that encompasses all the schools in the District of Columbia, schools from eight counties in Maryland, schools from six counties in Virginia, and schools from four cities in Virginia. He received a trophy and a $7,500 prize for winning.

“I still feel a little uncomfortable with it,” Arnold said of the attention. “There is still so much about teaching that I need to learn, and there are so many teacher mentors that I have worked with who are so much better than I am … I have these wonderful examples of teachers that I can try my best to emulate, and if I even begin to come close to that, then I know my students are better off.”

Saied Mostaghimi, an associate dean for research in Virginia Tech’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, remembers teaching Arnold in a soil and water conservation engineering class at Virginia Tech. Mostaghimi has been at Virginia Tech since 1984.

“Phil had an inquisitive mind. He was very much interested in the application of what I was teaching [when he was a student at Virginia Tech], and I spent quite some time with him discussing practical applications of the subject,” Mostaghimi said. “I am not surprised that Phil chose to be a teacher, as he was very much concerned about the affairs of society as a student, and to him, education was the best tool for helping fellow human beings.

“I’m so glad to hear to hear about him winning this prestigious award.”

That Arnold became a teacher still ranks as a bit of a surprise more than a decade after the decision. He had taken time off from his career to provide hospice-style care for a woman whom he considered a surrogate mother, and before her passing, he received a call from a woman at The Career and Technology Center. The person in charge of information technology was going to be out for several weeks while on paternity leave, and a friend of Arnold’s passed his name along to the school as a potential temporary replacement.

“I was not tied into anything, so I thought, ‘Yeah,’” Arnold said. “That would give me the chance to do some work and figure out what’s next.”

On the last day of a six-week stint, he found himself cornered by an administrative assistant in the main office before he walked out of the building. She asked him to fill in as a substitute teacher the next day for the CAD engineering and architecture classes.

“Absolutely not,” he quickly responded.

But he considered her a good friend and heard the urgency in her voice. So he reluctantly agreed to be the substitute for a day – the regular teacher was out on medical leave – provided another staff member was in the classroom with him at all times.

That decision changed his life.

“I went into this classroom, which had some issues,” Arnold said. “They had been through a variety of substitute teachers, so the kids in there were kind of struggling. At the end of the day, just spending a day in there with them talking about their work and their problems and what they wanted to do and needed to do … I went up to Karla [the administrative assistant] and said, ‘How do I stay here? This is what I want to do.’”

She arranged for Arnold to be a long-term substitute for the rest of the academic year. At the end of the year, the regular teacher retired, and the school system hired Arnold on a provisional basis while he worked on getting a teaching certificate. He took courses at night and ultimately earned the certificate.

“I’ve been there ever since,” he said. “And I love every day of it.”

Phil Arnold working with students on a submarine project
As a teacher, Phil Arnold (second from right) lets his students pick their projects. This group of students built a submarine in his class.

Arnold loves teaching so much that he refused to let a prostate cancer diagnosis two years ago keep him away from his students. The school system set up a “co-teacher” situation, which allowed Arnold to attend doctor’s appointments at Johns Hopkins and to receive treatments, while also continuing to teach.

During that school year, Arnold underwent radiation treatments for 40 consecutive days. Fortunately, he continues to be in remission, and doctors check his blood work every three months as a precaution.

Teaching, though, was his true antidote.

“Through all of that, I was able to continue to teach,” he said. “That’s what I was after. In the classroom is where I can make a difference. You can’t make much of a difference when you’re sitting at home. It’s fulfilling to be in the classroom – and perhaps healing.”

Arnold credits his students for all his successes, including overcoming cancer and winning the Teacher of the Year honor. His success is a reflection of their efforts and their impact on him.

As a teacher, Arnold lets them pick their projects and run with them, offering input only when needed. That strategy has worked, as they have put together an incredible list of accomplishments over the past several years, especially considering their age.

Approximately 20 of his engineering students worked over a two-year span to build a prototype stove that creates drinkable water from contaminated water. In 2019, seven of those students, a parent, and a teacher went to Ethiopia to install the stove at a school there. Arnold missed the trip while recovering from radiation treatments, which made international travel impossible, but he helped with fundraising efforts.

The group was able to secure a grant from the prestigious Lemelson-MIT InvenTeams Program, a program that assists high school students and educators with inventing technological solutions to real-world problems. That grant helped with the building of the full-scale, working prototype, while the Rotary Club of Frederick, the Rotary Club of Carroll Creek, and Northrop Grumman contributed money to help offset travel expenses.

Other projects in Arnold’s class have included building a prototype chairlift as a low-cost option to help people with limited mobility to get in and out of automobiles, and also a trap for lionfish, one of the most invasive marine species in history, as a way to capture these creatures that decimate ecosystems and have no known predator.

His architecture students won medals at the NAACP Afro-Academic, Cultural, Technological and Scientific Olympics (ACT-SO) for a design concept for the Barack Obama Presidential Library, for an independent living housing development for aging adults, and for a community education center.

His students also have won national awards for a high school renovation and expansion plan; for a school design for special needs students; and for the design, architectural plan development, and modeling to promote the restoration of a historic building at a local park and nature center.

“I think my kids have done incredible, amazing things, and they are making a difference with their education in real-world situations that make the world a better place,” Arnold said. “For kids from Frederick County to be on the state and national and international stage with their work is the extraordinary thing. They’re doing the hard work, and I’m getting the attention, but really I’m just getting to go along for the ride.”

His ride is not one that he ever anticipated when he graduated from Virginia Tech more than three decades ago, but he certainly enjoys it. Like most graduates from the university, he lives the school’s motto of Ut Prosim (That I May Serve).

But there is a difference between him and most other graduates. Thanks to a seemingly innocent decision to be a substitute teacher on that day in 2010, he now lives that motto every single day.

“I’m glad I had the courage to make some choices that changed my direction,” Arnold said. “I’ve loved every one of the new adventures that I’ve embraced.

“The thing that I’ve found so remarkable at teaching is the level of fulfilment that I get from helping young students who are interested in pursuing a similar path that I loved, helping launch them into college and beyond. It is just so fulfilling.”

—    Written by Jimmy Robertson

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