Former U.S. Marine’s can-do military energy fuels successful IT program
This feature first appeared in the Summer 2019 issue of Certification Magazine. Click here to get your own print or digital copy.
The United States Marine Corp has a long and distinguished history since its founding in 1775. Their battlefield accomplishments are legendary, and many a leatherneck has gone on to later prominence in government, business, sports, and entertainment. “Semper Fidelis” is the Corp’s motto. It means “Always Faithful,” and for 243 years, marines around the world have honored that ethos.
Less well known is the Corp’s slogan, “Improvise, Adapt, and Overcome.” It’s basically “never give up.” Even after leaving the service, marines improvise, adapt, and overcome whatever their location, circumstance, or age. One marine doing so is Joseph J. Tokar, IT instructor for Beaufort High School, in Beaufort, S.C.
In the Corp, Tokar’s military occupation specialty was aircraft radar and communications systems. After leaving the service, he enrolled in college and purchased an IBM 486sx33. Within a couple of weeks, it stopped working. Getting it going again required an eight-hour phone call with the IBM help desk. It soon stopped working a second time, necessitating another marathon session with the help desk.
The third time his computer stopped working, Tokar had had enough and decided to tackle the problem on his own. “I bought and read a copy of Repairing Computers for Dummies and, before too long, the 486 was up and running,” he said. “I was proud that I fixed it myself.”
Tokar continued to repair his computer as needed and, as his skills increased, friends soon began asking for help with their computer problems. “With each repair, I just kept getting a little better, and pretty soon, I was good at fixing computers,” said Tokar.
Turning IT wizardry into a successful business
In 1992, a stranger phoned asking for help with a computer problem and Tokar fixed the issue in short order. What he did not realize was that this phone call would change the direction of his life. “It turned out that the guy owned a computer repair company and was interviewing me without my knowing it,” said Tokar. “Based on my ability to fix his computer, he offered me a job. I accepted and dropped out of school to repair computers full-time.”
When the company was sold the following year, the new owner failed to recognize Tokar’s technical acumen and decided to show him the door. “He called me into his office and said, ‘Some people think they’re smart enough to work in a particular job but they aren’t, and should find another job.’ ”
Most young repair techs would feel crushed by such a rude brushoff, but not Tokar. He knew how to improvise, adapt, and overcome, and was not at all inclined to take such a disdainful dismissal lying down. “It may have been the marine mentality,” he said.
In a gutsy move that every fired employee would envy, Tokar walked to the building manager’s office at the end of the block and asked if there was any open space he could rent. He got his space, just two doors down from his old employer, and opened his own computer repair company.
Competing with his former employer was not going to be enough for Tokar — he was going all-in to win. “Over time, I managed to lure a lot of their customers away,” he said. Eventually his old boss went out of business.
After eight years in operation, Tokar sold his company in 2001. For the next two years, he stayed busy with random IT jobs until the school district lured him over to be the network administrator for Beaufort High School.
A sidelong route to education
As the network administrator for Beaufort and several feeder schools, Tokar would often come into the classroom to explain concepts behind repairing and networking computers. “I really enjoyed my job and figured I had found my calling,” he said.
Recognizing a number of students who had interest in networking, he soon started an internship program for the students to help meet the needs of the IT department. “After they had taken a couple of classes, I was able to have them help out and give them deeper exposure to networking and other topics they were learning.”
Tokar’s role would expand even more in 2010 when the regular IT instructor announced he was resigning. Beaufort’s principal approached the teachers asking for a volunteer to take over instruction. The principal knew Tokar spent a lot of time in the classroom, and that he enjoyed teaching, and according to Tokar, “When no one volunteered, he asked if I would be interested in getting my teaching credential and teaching the class.”
Excited for the opportunity, but concerned with the pay cut accepting the position entailed, Tokar and his wife spent a lot of time discussing and praying whether he should accept the position. After a time, they decided to take the position and he began his teacher certification process. “I was honestly worried about the cut in salary, but I knew it was where God wanted me to be,” said Tokar.
His official start date was August 1, 2010. “It was one day before the school year began and there I was without any guidance or textbooks and with no idea what to teach.” He downloaded CompTIA’s course outline standards and, starting at section 1.1, began teaching the topics covered by the CompTIA exam. “It wasn’t all that hard to teach,” said Tokar. “I just talked about what I did on my previous job.”
Overcoming challenges in education
Every good IT pro has a wealth of experiences and Tokar drew on his. “As I taught, I would tell stories all about customers and technicians that I had worked with. The kids loved it and I still find and share new stories about working in IT.”
The classroom had plenty of workbenches and tools on hand, as well as some older computers donated by individuals and businesses. Tokar soon added even more equipment from his earlier business. “I had a ton of old printers, scanners, and computer stuff in various storage rooms that made excellent teaching tools,” he said.
Relying on his knowledge and experience while innovating, adapting, and overcoming, Tokar was unaware that the class had any sort of textbooks. “It wasn’t until my third year teaching that administration called to tell me they had new books for my class,” he said.
During the ensuing decade, Tokar has thrown himself into teaching and has an impressive record of achievement. Most of his students are 11th and 12th graders with a smattering of interested and determined 10th graders.
Beginning students take two classes, each of which meets daily for 90 minutes. The classes involve a lot of hands-on work, which students find advantageous. “The kids pick things up faster when they complete online labs and work with actual computer components,” said Tokar.
At the end of the first year, students have an impressive array of basic computer skills. “They are able to assemble a computer, install Windows and Linux operating systems, attach a computer to a domain, and install various tools like anti-virus and anti-malware programs,” said Tokar. “They also know how to work with command line interfaces, and the basics of TCP/IP.”
Building a successful IT program
The final exam for first-year students is the TestOut PC Pro certification exam. On average, 80 percent of the students earn their PC Pro certification. Those finishing in the top half of the class receive a free voucher to take the CompTIA A+ exam — almost half of the students sitting for the exam earn an A+ credential.
Tokar’s second-year classes are more in-depth, focusing on network topology and the OSI model. Each student learns to install Windows Server and set up their own domains with e-mail, DNS, DHCP, and IIS. They also design a website, make it live, and set users and computers up in their domains. Finally, they learn how to set up Domain Trusts and attach their servers to each other through routers.
The second-year classes prepare students for the TestOut Network Pro and CompTIA Network+ certifications, with 70 percent of them earning Network Pro and approximately 25 percent earning Network+.
A typical class size is between 17 and 18 students who come from a wide range of socio-economic backgrounds. Boys make up the overwhelming majority of each class.
“Our department actively recruits young women, but most girls in the school just haven’t been interested in the field,” said Tokar. “I have no idea why, because the girls that do take the class perform as well as the boys and in some instances preform even better.”
One year, the school held a fair to generate interest among the students. In hopes of having more girls visit their table, the IT department had computers on display and robots in operation. “Each department had a table set up and we were all in a horseshoe formation, with IT at the bottom of the shoe,” said Tokar.
Unfortunately, the girls skipped right over the IT table and went to the English department. Just one girl spoke to Tokar all evening. “I was excited when she asked if I was Mr. Tokar. I said ‘Yes!’ Then she asked if I knew the volleyball coach’s telephone number. It was kind of a letdown.”
In spite of the department’s attempts to interest more girls in IT, there are usually just one or two girls per class. “My own daughter had every opportunity to become a nerd like me,” joked Tokar. “I even made her take my class, but in the end, she decided computers weren’t her thing.”
Students who complete Tokar’s classes are qualified to work on help desks and in basic network administration. Each year a number of current students land internships with local companies. Those who graduate often go to college, where they work as computer repair techs. Others enter the workforce with large companies like Dominion Energy, or South Carolina Electric and Gas.
A fair number also chose military service and work in network administration or cybersecurity. Those who have earned an A+ certification often receive meritorious promotions. It’s common for former students to contact Tokar to tell him how they breezed through the military’s IT training. “I love those phone calls and e-mails telling me how easy their training was after my classes,” he said. “They say it was the easiest thing they’ve ever done.”
In addition to helping students perfect their IT skills, Tokar is a big believer in soft skills. “I stress soft skills on a daily basis,” he said. “Professionalism, dress code, hygiene, customer support, and interpersonal skills are all very important and they are graded on all of them.”
Communicating clearly and concisely is also important. “I want students to think about what they will say before they say it,” said Tokar.“ The kids lose points for using space-fillers such as ‘like’ and ‘um.’ Students become so aware of them that they eventually count and comment on how many space-fillers others use.”
Tokar is an unabashed “fan of all things nerdy,” and uses a few unconventional aids to teach communication and critical thinking. “The number one complaint I hear from employers is the lack of interpersonal skills young people have upon entering the workforce; they can’t even talk to one another” he said.
To help students develop their crucial interpersonal skills, Tokar utilizes board and strategy games like chess, Magic: The Gathering, and Dungeons & Dragons (D&D). Tokar is a big fan of D&D. He is the “Dungeon Master” for a weekly game he hosts with friends. He also enjoys painting miniatures for tabletop games.
“It’s too easy to be impersonal when playing a computer game,” he declared. “I want the kids to put their phones away, sit down, and interact with one another.” Participation is mandatory and the students enjoy it. “They have fun learning and their horizons are broadened.”
Tanner Ogden, a former student, credits Tokar with teaching him not only IT, but also the “professionalism that enabled me to jump start my career at such an early age.”
Figure IT out yourself
It’s important to Tokar that his students learn to figure things out by themselves. “I don’t believe in giving answers to problems and having the students parrot it back,” he said. “I’m constantly saying, ‘go figure it out.’ In the workplace there will always be things you have to figure out on your own.”
Tokar also loves certifications believing that they show ability as much as a college degree and are often more relevant. “Certifications will continue being a relevant part of the IT industry for a long time to come,” he said.
The secret to Tokar’s success with students rests on his love for them and the subject matter. “I absolutely love teaching IT,” he said. “I love my kids, I love the programs, and I especially love when a student works hard and manages to figure something difficult out. The excitement and sense of accomplishment they feel, and I feel, is amazing.”
The one thing Tokar doesn’t love is how difficult it is to expand the school’s IT program. Each year more students want to enroll than there are spaces. “It’s really difficult to find people knowledgeable and passionate about being an IT instructor. “The industry pays too well for them to go into teaching.”
Fortunately, marines are at their best when the fighting is thickest and the lines are thinnest. Tokar finds success by innovating, adapting, and overcoming and, along the way, helps change a few young lives for the better.