Former Navy officer and powerlifter is helping teens flex their IT muscles
This feature first appeared in the Spring 2020 issue of Certification Magazine. Click here to get your own print or digital copy.
Individuals are the sum of their experiences. Each event, whether good or bad, contributes to who we become. Fortunately, while experiences shape our character and influence our outlook on life, they do not determine destiny; we are always free to choose how we respond to situations and conditions.
While navigating life’s challenges is seldom easy, oftentimes it’s our interactions with others that make the difference between accepting our lot or deciding to leave familiar surroundings and strive to be more. Sometimes the right person at the right time can help set us on a path to unimagined success and joy. Such is the journey of Jay Mathis, the CTE-Cybersecurity teacher at Blacksburg High School in Blacksburg, Va.
Mathis was born and raised in Morristown, Tenn.— childhood haunt of famed frontiersman Davy Crockett. Sleepy little municipalities rarely offer abundant opportunities for young men fresh out of high school and Morristown had no surprises for Mathis.
After taking stock of the situation, Mathis realized that his choices were limited. “I was never a good student, and I knew that college, for me, was not an option,” he said.
Needing a job and yet not wanting to stay in Morristown, Mathis figured the Navy was at least a place to start. “I didn’t sign up out of love of country, that came later,” he admits, “all I knew was that I wanted to somehow better myself.”
Join the Navy and learn IT
In the Navy, Mathis’ first occupation choice was law enforcement. Unfortunately, the Navy was not accepting MPs at the time of his enlistment, so Mathis settled on becoming a radioman. “It was what would fulfill my obligation and get me out the quickest,” he said.
As a sailor, Mathis developed a strong sense of patriotism, and took advantage of educational opportunities. “The Navy provided pathways for certification and training and, in the process, I found out that I really loved information technology (IT) — especially cybersecurity.”
Mathis’ IT baptism happened while stationed on a frigate in the middle of the Arabian Gulf. His duties typically involved frequency management and communication via satellites, up until the day the Navy recognized the importance of joining data processing with communications. Navy command decided that radio operators were the right people for the job.
“They made us all IT specialists on the spot,” said Mathis. “They just showed up with thousands of feet of cable and lots of routers and told us to build a network for the ship.”
It was trial-by-fire for Mathis and his crewmates. Without instruction or guidance, they ran cables and configured routers and switches until they had a working catergory-5 network.
“We learned from necessity,” said Mathis. “No clue what we were doing, just figuring it out and having fun doing it.” Crimping all that cable and setting up routers formed and solidified Mathis’ passion for IT. “It was something I never would have considered doing if not for building that network,” he explained.
Excited about his new duties, Mathis continued developing his skills and knowledge. He eventually stayed with the Navy for 20 years, rising to the rank of Chief Petty Officer and eventually serving as the cybersecurity specialist for an air-wing on the aircraft carrier, U.S.S Harry S. Truman before retiring in 2014.
Professional success and a compelling invitation
Fresh from sailing the seven seas, Mathis became the information security administrator for a national healthcare organization where he observed firsthand the difference training made for younger people working in IT, particularly with certifications. “Training and certifications really made a difference in helping them do their jobs,” he explained.
Nothing lasts forever and when you’re good at what you do, it’s not long before opportunity comes knocking. That opportunity came in 2018, when Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam called for establishing cybersecurity programs in every state high school. The CTE Director for Montgomery County at the time was Mark Husband, a farsighted individual committed to preparing students for IT careers.
Husband made achieving the governor’s goal a top priority and began scouting for skilled IT pros who could teach. A mutual friend arranged a meeting between Husband and Mathis. Impressed with Mathis’ abilities and experience, Husband knew he had his man.
The timing was perfect for Mathis to transition from the corporate world to the classroom. It also helped him fulfill a long-held dream of teaching high school. As a poor learner from a background less than conducive to academic achievement, Mathis struggled in school. He attributes graduating to the love and attention shown him by his teachers, and their efforts to help him realize his worth and potential.
“In a lot of ways, my teachers were my parents,” he explained. “I wanted to teach since the age of 15 because of them. They got me through school. If it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t be where I am today.”
One teacher who really pushed him to succeed was his choir teacher, Ms. Jeannie Wheeler. “She was like a mom to me,” said Mathis. “She expected me to succeed and kicked my butt just enough to help me understand that I was good enough to graduate.”
Ready, set, teach!
Normally, establishing a new IT program requires an instructor to scrape together needed equipment and materials; not so for Mathis, as the county and school administrators fully supported him and worked hard to remove all obstacles. “They’re the absolute best when it comes to the needs of my program,” said Mathis, “I have gotten everything I ask for to teach successfully!”
Mathis is completing his second year in the classroom and loves his job. He says it’s everything he thought it would be: “I get to connect with young people and give them skills that will set them up to be successful, something tangible that will help them have a good life for themselves and their families.”
Although still a relative newcomer to the classroom, Mathis doesn’t hold back. He currently teaches three cybersecurity courses at Blacksburg High, along with a pathway program for a computer science associate degree in partnership with New River Community College in Dublin, Va.
The pathway program is the first of its kind in the state and was the brainchild of Husband, who recognized the need to prepare students for high-paying, in-demand IT jobs. Mathis jumped at the opportunity to head the program. “When Husband asked if I’d be interested, I said, ‘Darn right I will! Let’s get it rolling!’ ”
A key component of Mathis’ instruction is certification, because actual experience performing a task beats reading about it every time. “A piece of paper is important, but a hands-on provable skill set is always better,” he said.
While students can earn a variety of different certs through his classes, they have a distinct fondness for TestOut courseware because of its “comprehensive curriculum and great delivery platform that makes learning easy.” More than 85 percent of Mathis’ students who study for a TestOut Pro certification pass their certification exams.
“LabSim gives students experience performing tasks in a multitude of different environments,” said Mathis, “and it’s awesome from a teacher’s perspective because it provides a little bit of everything — just like students will face in the workforce.”
Mathis appreciates the simplicity and straightforwardness of certifications. “The process is simple: Practice this, then prove you know it.”
He also sees certifications increasing in importance in the future. “Employers want people who can do the job,” he explained, “and I believe they’ll continue moving to a skills assessment of applicants — actual simulation environments that make an applicant prove they can do what their résumé says they know.”
Fighting through challenges
With a wealth of IT knowledge and experience, Mathis’ excitement for the subject matter is infectious. “Jay’s training and education enable him to bring real-world experience into our classrooms and he builds great relationships with students,” said Husband.
Mathis has a strong rapport with students because he understands them. He is keenly aware of the sort of challenges kids face outside of class because it was the same for him. “It took wonderful teachers who cared enough about me to not let me quit,” he explained. “I get the pressure kids are under these days, but if they choose to come into my classroom and want to be successful, I’m going to give them every chance possible.”
Students respond to Mathis’ desire to help them. He encourages everyone to stick to to the class motto hanging in his classroom: It’s only when you stop trying that you truly fail.
Still, not every day is easy for an IT instructor. Unexpected disruptions happen, and even a teacher who loves what he does can feel frustration. One such occurrence happened last semester when a student new to the school was, for lack of a more appropriate course, thrown into one of Mathis’ classes.
“It was the middle of the semester; the student shows up and he’s already way behind. I admit, I was a bit miffed.”
Although the young man struggled to catch up and had difficulty paying attention and completing assignments on time, he showed a willingness to be in class. “He explained to me that he really wanted to succeed in class,” said Mathis. “He really wanted to learn the materials and because of that, I was willing to willing to work extra hard to help him.”
Throughout the remainder of the semester the student buckled down, worked extra hard, and eventually earned one of the highest scores in the class on the PC Pro exam. “He fought for everything he learned in that class,” said Mathis. “When the score for his certification exam popped up on screen, he was so excited. I stepped back and said to myself, ‘This is why I’m teaching.’ ”
That same student is now enrolled in the next level cybersecurity course and is doing well. “He wants a career in IT, and feels like now he can have one,” said Mathis. “Not giving up paid off for him.”
A professional demeanor
For Mathis, the payoff for teaching comes when students succeed. “It’s the best part; those light bulb moments when a student masters a lab or skill. You can tell they feel pride and know that the skill they just learned can help them with a career.”
A popular teacher, Mathis is also heavily involved in extracurricular activities with students. He currently serves as the co-president of the PTA, humorously describing his duties as, “usually in the concession stand at games slinging hotdogs and French fries.”
He also sponsors an informal powerlifting club. A powerlifter for most of his adult life, Mathis competed in the Navy, achieving personal bests of a 325-pound bench press, a squat of 585 pounds, and a 605-pound deadlift.
Although not as young and svelte as when he was when competing, Mathis enjoys sharing training tips with the kids — and he still benches an impressive 265 pounds. “I sometimes show the kids videos or photos of me when I was younger; they get a kick out of it saying, ‘Dude! What happened to you!’ ”
Mathis also focuses on teaching students to be professionals in the workforce. His goal is to change the way young IT pros are perceived in the workplace: not as uncaring geeks, but as competent and respected teammates. “Soft skills are an important part of my curriculum, because in the workforce you are part of a team and there is no reason to be cocky or unprofessional,” he explained.
He wants students to have a good “desk-side” manner as an IT professional because “at the end of the day, as important as knowledge is, you have to make the people you’re serving feel comfortable and confident that you know what you’re doing.”
With the full backing of Montgomery County school administrators, Mathis’ students are fast learning to be professionals, communicate clearly, both orally and in writing, and to always show respect to others. In fact, Mathis and his program have a reputation throughout the state for these results.
E-sports and beyond
One unusual aspect of Mathis’ approach to education is e-sports. He coaches three e-sports teams for the school. His teams participate in League of Legends (LOL) tournaments. League of Legends is a multiplayer online battle arena where teams square off and attempt to capture each other’s bases.
“E-sports give kids not involved in other school activities a place to be with people, and an activity they enjoy,” said Mathis. “LOL especially emphasizes the development of soft skills in a fun situation. The kids have to communicate and work together as a team, make decisions, develop strategies, and solve problems — all things they will do in school and on the job. It’s been great for the kids and the school.”
E-sports in Virginia high schools is very competitive, as teams across the state compete to be crowned state champions. Two of Mathis’ LOL teams are currently ranked in the state’s Top 10 and one of his teams made it to the state quarterfinals in 2019.
A proponent of IT training and certifications for everyone, Mathis believes verifiable tech skills are essential in this day and age. “IT training is one of the most critical subjects that can be taught at the high school level,” he said. “Not only for those interested in the field as a career, but for all students. Everyone needs at least some knowledge of how the computers and the networks they use work.”
Mathis also believes that, with work, anyone, regardless of their background, can become proficient in IT. “I’ve had kids come into my classes without ever having done anything with a computer beyond surfing the net. They walk out of class certified and excited about their new skills.”
Although Blacksburg’s program is still fairly new, students with certifications are already finding opportunities they never considered. Five were awarded paid IT internships last summer, and a number of (very) recent graduates have gone on to college where they are studying and working in IT.
“Certs make a student stand out in a crowd of applicants,” said Mathis. “Certifications on a resume get them noticed and hiring managers instantly know they’ve had the proper training for the job.”
On top of a full teaching schedule, serving in the PTA, and coaching e-sports teams, Mathis makes time to sponsor the Fellowship of Christian Athletes at Blacksburg. A devout Christian, his beliefs are reflected in interactions with students. Because teachers showed love and pushed him to succeed, he tries to apply the same Christ-like actions in his classes.
“It’s cliché, but I ask myself, how would Jesus do it and then I try to do the same. There’s a lot of potential in my students and it’s fun watching it blossom.”