August 01, 2002 2 min read

Armchair Educator

A woodworking instructor hammers home life lessons.

In an industrial arts classroom filled with chatty high schoolers, Jim Quinlan begins to teach but does not say a word. Upon gathering the necessary tools for the day’s woodwork-ing project, he dons his safety goggles and starts to measure, drill, and file. Soon, intrigued by the teacher’s craftiness, the class is silent and intently following the lesson.

“That’s ‘the silent treatment,’ ” explains Paul Rolando, a student of Quinlan’s for two years. “Works every time.”

The silent treatment is just one of many unconventional teaching methods that Quinlan, a woodshop instructor at Vernon Township High School in New Jersey, has tweaked to perfection in his 26 years at the school. Quinlan trains students who have a variety of mental and physical disabilities. “Unlike most teachers, I don’t prepare my students for college because generally that’s not where they’re headed,” he says. “Rather, I try to provide the skills necessary to survive in the workplace-like punctuality, honesty, pride, and responsibility.”

This goal inspired the teacher to create the Roaring Lion Chair Co. about 10 years ago. Technically it’s a class, but Quinlan runs the endeavor as if it were a bona fide small business: Students manufacture and sell $75 Adirondack chairs, investing any profit in new equipment or special activities such as the annual “company picnic” at an amusement park. Roaring Lion students also contribute some of the 50 or so chairs they produce each year to school and community fund-raisers. And they’ve presented their chairs to prominent figures such as George Bush, who keeps one at his home in Kennebunkport, Maine. But, stresses Quinlan, Roaring Lion-named by a former student with a fondness for the king of the beasts-is not about money or fame.

“Our profits are not measured in terms of dollars but in terms of personal growth,” he says. And the many tasks involved in a business venture give the teacher ample opportunity to tailor activities to individuals’ capabilities and goals. “I offer an array of jobs-from foreman to filing clerk and everything in between-so everyone can participate,” Quinlan explains. All students are required to follow written directions, keep records, and correspond with customers.

Rolando, a 2002 graduate, praises Quinlan for sharing these real-world skills- knowledge he’s finding useful as he adjusts to life after high school. “He made work interesting but, at the same time, taught us that we can’t fool around on the job,” the former student says. “I will never forget that.”

—Sarah Wassner