Carpentry course helped students find faith in themselves

In the end, it came down to one simple word; validation: "to establish the soundness or legitimacy of..." And that summed it all up for me. One word to describe one journey. The economy of it appealed to me. 


by Richard Dickenson

In the end, it came down to one simple word; validation: “to establish the soundness or legitimacy of…” And that summed it all up for me. One word to describe one journey.

The economy of it appealed to me. But, I’m getting ahead of the story, as I often do…

The call came last summer, from Jeff Sloychuk, union rep for the United Brotherhood of Carpenters, local 2499, in Whitehorse. He wanted to know more about my course: a carpentry refresher course that helped working carpenters challenge the RED SEAL Certification exam. He had heard that it wasn’t just another refresher course; it actually taught guys how to write the test as much as it refreshed their actual carpentry knowledge and skills.

He had also heard that I managed to “make the math easy” and this was a big deal for a lot of folks.

One of the things I have to deal with as an instructor is fear. My students often sign up with a tentative air of apprehension and dread. Often, they are embarrassed by their lack of “official” education. So, the first night is always a little awkward. They have been working without their ticket for years now, and their abilities are not in question, but that elusive bit of paper that confirms their vast skill set is still very much on the horizon. And nobody (and I mean nobody) likes tests.

So there they are, a crew of guys, nervous as hell, in a classroom under duress, but united in their ambition. And they are quietly eyeballing me something fierce, to see if I actually do know what the hell I’m talking about.

I start with the practice test I have had everyone complete prior to the first night. I see a universal sea of relief on their faces when everyone gets the same hard questions wrong. I do this on purpose. And I see a corresponding sea of relieved faces when I explain the process for solving those same hard questions. I want them to be comfortable with dealing with test questions. They bring their own stress, which I will systematically reduce in the course of the next five modules.

I move quickly onto the math. This is the moment they have all been dreading. I dispense with all the crap they rammed down our throats in high school. I give it to them in bite sized chunks and real world scenarios that they can easily digest. I see faces lit with glee and the dawning of comprehension. The sense of communal relief is palpable. Everybody begins to relax. The hardest part of the course (just getting there) is now over. Complete strangers begin to exchange bits of conversation. The seeds of community and solidarity in pursuit of a common goal have been planted.

By the middle of the second module, nobody feels like a stranger anymore. To me, this is the magical moment; little by little, guys start helping their neighbours. A minute later, the exchange is going the other way; the neighbours are helping back. Peer mentoring is an important part of my approach to preparing candidates to pass this test. You never really know how much you know until you have to explain it to someone else.

And once this process begins, it opens the mind of every student to accept more and more information from all sources, including myself. Every man in the room is now well on their way to becoming Red Seal Certified Carpenters. My job is almost done.

I received a text from one of my guys in Whitehorse recently. It said simply, “You changed my life.” When I asked another student how he felt after passing the test, he replied with one word: “Validated.” And that’s why I’m in the game.

I am most honoured and gratified by these spontaneous four- or five-word testimonials. And this course does change lives; part of my job is to motivate guys that have been failed by the system, for whatever reason.

In a matter of days they gain the confidence to master new skills, and recover a sense of purpose and value in their own lives, and gain a sense of worth to their enormous practical experience. They re-discover a faith in themselves that has often been lacking since boyhood.

On the surface, it seems like such a simple thing. But they walk out the door changed men.

I may be a bit of a sentimental sap, but when one man told me he “couldn’t wait to call his mom” to tell her he passed the test, I shook his hand and turned away.

If I could do it for free (and I have) I would.

I want to thank each and every Yukoner that took my course for being determined, focused and committed to achieving their goals. It was a pleasure getting to know you.

Richard Dickenson is a carpentry instructor who lives in Courtenay, B.C.

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