Hot Rodders of Tomorrow Instructor Named Illinois State Teacher of the Year

By SEMA Editors

Steve Elza

Out of the 150,000 teachers in Illinois, Steven Elza, Fremd High School’s automotive teacher and Hot Rodders of Tomorrow team instructor, was chosen as this year’s Teacher of the Year. Along with a vested interest in his students and their futures, Elza was chosen for the state’s highest honor because of his teaching advocacy and promotion of applied technology classes.

Since its inception, Elza has led a group of students in training for and participating in the Hot Rodders of Tomorrow Engine Challenge and has qualified four years for the Championship finals at the SEMA Show in Las Vegas or the PRI Show in Indianapolis. This year, Elza and his team again competed at the Hot Rodders of Tomorrow Engine Challenge Championship during the 2014 SEMA Show in Las Vegas, November 3–7. They finished their complete performance engine rebuild in 27:04 and placed sixth in a field of 15 teams.

Elza’s instruction in the classroom is now helping today’s students find their path to success and encouraging a new generation of auto enthusiasts. The efforts of Hot Rodders of Tomorrow and teachers like Elza have been noticed by many, including SEMA President and CEO Chris Kersting, who applauds Elza for his efforts.

“The world is waking up to the matter that we have left behind training for an important range of career paths, including automotive,” Kersting stated. “Mr. Elza is leading a revival—mentoring life skills through programs like Hot Rodders of Tomorrow while preparing individuals to fill the growing demand for technically trained graduates.”

According to SEMA’s Director of Education Zane Clark, “The importance of automotive education cannot be overstated and creates a quality pipeline of next-generation professionals. Instructors, such as Steven Elza, who inspire and equip students with the tools to be successful, are building a foundation that will benefit the industry for many years to come.”

Hot Rodders of Tomorrow works hand in hand with high schools across the country to give students skills they can use and a platform for success in an automotive career.

“I get students who run the spectrum, from football players to chess club to AP students,” relayed Elza. “To see them come together and form a team for a common goal and do what adults are doing for a living is incredible. They do this engine in the time as professional NHRA teams. It’s absolutely amazing to see them work together.”

“We’re trying to find a place for the kids,” he continued. “And that’s what it’s really all about. We’ve always focused on the core subjects—science or history or English. These are extremely important, and we as adults understand that. But trying to make a kid understand that these are important when they don’t see any immediate value in it is extremely difficult. In the past, we’ve just kept cramming it down their throats. Here we are now coming full circle and I get to share now how I was that student who was checking out of high school until I found career and technical education (CTE) classes. I ditched school. I caused trouble. I didn’t feel I had any reason to be there. Then when I found automotive my senior year in high school, things really turned around for me. It gave me a reason to do well in English and math. Now here I am as an educator, and I get to share that story with kids. And now as Teacher of the Year, I can start making that connection on a broader scale within education. We can start building a curriculum that applies what they’re learning in all classes. Automotive and CTE really are vital parts of our education system. It’s a powerful place to be able to share that information on a bigger platform.”

Elza concludes that his one piece of advice is to “get to know the kids. That truly is the bottom line. You have to build that trust with them. A lot of kids who come through the education system have been told at some point that they’re not going to make it because they’re not good at English or not good at math. But the thing is we’ve got to support these kids. We’ve got to care about them. You’ve got to find a place for them. As teachers, we get to know these kids and find out what we need to do to reach them.”

“What teachers like Mr. Elza are doing is vital as the automotive industry heads into the coming decades,” commented Jeff Swoboda, sales manager at the Performance Racing Industry. “He not only prepares these students in the classroom, but provides a platform out of the classroom that opens up doors in further education and the workplace that many of these students would not be able to achieve without this structure and guidance.”

As Teacher of the Year, Elza will be available to speak at teaching workshops, educational conferences and community meetings. He will also represent Illinois at the NASA Space Camp in Huntsville, Alabama. This is the first time in the 40-year history of the Illinois award that a CTE teacher has been selected as Teacher of the Year.