Down-home IT educator is a cowboy of the modern day
This feature first appeared in the Spring 2015 issue of Certification Magazine. Click here to get your own print or digital copy.
In Louis L’Amour novels, the cowboy hero is the man with the can-do attitude. He takes no nonsense out of anyone and when something needs “gittin’ done,” he’s the one to do it. No matter the odds, in the end the good guy always wins because he never forgets his principles, his faith in God, and his respect and concern for others.
At 66, Marvin Schildknecht, is a lot like one of those cowboy heroes — “a man to ride the river with.” He has been around horses his whole life, used to bronc ride bareback, still maintains his own ranch, and isn’t afraid to speak his mind for important principles. (He even owns a 12-volume set of John Wayne movies, a gift from a grandson.)
Since 2003, Marvin has also been the full-time IT Professionals Instructor at the Northland Career Center (NCC) in Platte City, Mo., where he has been making a difference in the lives of his students. The IT Professionals program is a one- or two-year course that prepares beginning students to test for IT certifications.
If education is a debt due from present to future generations, then Marvin has helped settle a lot of accounts. Over the years, “Mr. S,” as his students call him, has taught IT to several hundred teens with great results. In 2014, his Year One class had 19 students, of whom 18 earned certifications offered by TestOut Corporation. Now in Year Two, those students are starting to take CompTIA exams, and Mr. S expects to have a 90 percent pass rate.
“Currently I have three seniors with A+, Network+, PC Pro, and Network Pro,” he proudly said. “Two of them have all those and are now working on their CCNA certifications, with one more working on Linux.”
Many of his students regularly participate in — and win — IT competitions at the state and national levels. As a good teacher who knows his students, Mr. S is protective of them, moving them along carefully. “I don’t and won’t let a student take an exam unless I think it’s a sure thing,” he said.
Mr. S requires students to pay for their own IT exams as a way for them to take ownership of what they’re doing and to encourage hard work, but in a few instances he’s pitched in out of his own pocket. “I have in the past had some students who didn’t have the money. If I really felt that they would pass and wanted it bad enough, then I’d pay myself, and they’ve always paid me back.”
For the past three years, the IT Professionals program has utilized software from TestOut to prepare for exams. Marvin said, “TestOut is our base study program and it’s just great. The students like it and have excelled with it. The class average is in the 90s for passing CompTIA’s A+ and Network+ certifications. With TestOut and the exams that come as part of the package, it really helps define the knowledge of the student before taking an expensive exam.”
Mr. S is a big fan of IT certifications. “They’re a great career start for more opportunities and more money,” he said. “The purpose of the certification is not just to see how much the person knows but to see how willing they are to work hard and master it.”
He frequently stresses that a certification isn’t to help him, the instructor, look good, but to help the students get the jobs and salary they want. “I’ve had students graduate from high school with one or two certifications, start out at $28,000, and in three years they’re making $60,000 and up. IT certifications make a big difference.”
Always understated about his own role in the successes achieved by his students, Mr. S failed to mention that he had been named “Outstanding Teacher of the Year” for the Northland-Kansas City area in 2014. Mr. S is modest and doesn’t talk about the award — it’s colleagues and others who proudly bring it up.
Deep professional roots
Marvin Schildknecht has a long history in IT. In 1967, he enrolled in an electronics program learning to repair radios and televisions. He’s also a graduate of the “school of hard knocks,” where he learned his lessons well. Like a true cowboy, he knows how to work. He openly talks about his love of farming and ranching and laughingly admits that he talked his dad into letting him start his own dairy farm while in high school. He started with four cows — two years later he had 22.
At age 19, decades before he was to become Mr. S, young Marvin signed up for a hitch in the U.S. Army, where he underwent an intense 36-week training program learning all there was to know about the ins-and-outs and control of HAWK surface-to-air missiles.
After three years with the Army, Marvin returned to ranching and farming. Unfortunately, in the money crunch of 1979, interest rates went sky-high and he lost his entire operation. “I had to sell everything,” he said. “All I kept was my wife, my two kids, my house and a car. I was devastated.”
Like the bronc rider he is, Marvin didn’t stay down for long after getting thrown off. “Through God’s grace and a lot of prayer, I became a welder, ‘til an arm injury ended that,” he said. It was time to cowboy up again, so Marvin enrolled in a technical school. It was a two-year program — he tested out in nine months. During that time he drove 72 miles to school and back. Classes were held from 4 p.m. until 11 p.m., and he never missed a day. Several times he was already at the school when administration called classes off due to too much snow.
Upon completion of his IT program, Marvin started his own business selling and servicing computers. Over the course of 18 years, his customers came to trust and rely on him for his knowledge and honesty. His recipe for success was simple. “What did I learn working with people? How to overcome their anger and frustration — keep the customer happy,” he said. “Communicate with them on their level, paint a picture of the problem and the solution, so they can understand you and the things you are doing.”
Keeping customers happy is what led Marvin into teaching IT. One of his customers was a school in Atchison, Kan., that had an IT Professionals class — which he had helped start as a business advisor by supplying and maintaining their systems. The regular instructor had called it quits, saying, “I can’t teach these kids this stuff.” The school knew Marvin and asked him to interview for the position.
Marvin laughs when he tells the story of how he was hired. “In my interview for the job, the lady interviewing me asked, ‘Why do you think you can teach? You have no experience.’ Wow! I begin to think about the question real fast and this is what I came up with: ‘I’ve worked with horses most all my life, and there are a couple of ways to do this. One is training and the other is breaking. Training is gaining their confidence so they’ll do what you want them to. Breaking is overpowering their will, forcing them to do what you want. People are a lot like horses. When I started my computer business I started with nothing and had to gain the trust of the customer to be able to exist for 18 years.
I firmly believe that if I have the confidence of the folks I’m working with, everything will fall in place.’ ” The interviewer, also a horse-lover, offered him the job on the spot.
Full-time entry into mentoring
Running his own computer business while teaching full-time soon became too much to handle, even for Marvin. He soon sold his business and dedicated himself to teaching, or as he calls it, “mentoring.” After teaching in Kansas for four years, he moved to NCC and found some big challenges. “When I came here, the class was two years old and in a mess,” he said. Marvin soon began setting things right.
Realizing he had 28 students, but only 6 computers, he started asking around for spare IT equipment and found a ready response from the community. “Boy, were we blessed that summer,” he said. “Just before class started, I was able to get 20 used systems from Compaq — some of you seasoned instructors may know the brand.”
Marvin does more than just teach IT to his students. He is a believer in developing soft skills, the interpersonal skills required to deal with people and communication. When school started he had his students write to area businesses asking for donations of PCs, printers and any other devices they might use.
“The students really took this project by the horns,” he said. “What they didn’t realize was that they were learning soft skills, English and writing and being diplomatic. Wow! These students could learn and have fun at the same time.” By the end of their first semester the class had equipment “running out our ears.” From that point on, the students never lacked for projects to work on.
Writing is a significant part of Marvin’s IT classes. He is adamant that students learn to communicate through writing. “Writing isn’t stressed enough today,” he said. “You might be working with people around the world in different locales, and you need to communicate clearly and effectively.”
To help students learn to write, he gives out daily 150-word essay assignments. Topics typically include current events in IT, whether those events are good or bad, and why. Students have to quickly research the topic and write about it. Each day, several students are called on to share their essays with the class. He also trains his students on presenting information in front of a group as a way to help them better understand what they themselves are learning. Between the fourth and sixth weeks of class, each student creates and shares a PowerPoint presentation covering an aspect of the TestOut course materials used in class.
Typically, some students resist at first. “They say they can’t. I say, ‘You can and you will,’ ” said Marvin. “And they do — they are phenomenal! Other students ask questions to keep them on task, and all of a sudden they’re verbally teaching TestOut and beginning to really understand.”
In preparation for their job hunt, Marvin requires each student to write a resume and cover letter, and practice their interviewing skills. As he put it, “These things need to be taught. Too often they are shoved under the table due to politics. I’m in Career Education (vocational education) and we need to get back to these basics.”
Mr. S is also big on teaching respect. Last year several certification executives visited his classroom and were surprised to find a poster welcoming them, as well as all of the students dressed in a shirt and tie, or a dress. Their attire, as several of the students explained later, had been encouraged by Mr. S, as a sign of respect for their visitors. It was completely optional, but every student participated.
As one of his students put it, “Mr. S teaches us about values and respect, as well as about computers.” One of the executives ran into Mr. S later on at a conference, and mentioned how impressed he had been with the grizzled instructor’s innate desire to impart knowledge and appreciation to the younger generation: “I noticed a man giving some guidance to an aspiring angler, who was fishing in a small pond situated between the terrace and the edge of the forest — not many yards off.
“I quickly recognized the folksy drawl. As I approached Mr. S and his young friend, Marvin turned, and greeted me in his usual warm fashion. He explained that he had invited his grandson and his daughter to accompany him to the conference, with the intent that his grandson have a chance to see some of the American West.”
Education = job prospects
Training is no good if you don’t have a job in which to use it, so Marvin also helps students find IT employment — his program currently boasts an 82 percent placement rate. Graduating students have used their IT certifications to work for organizations like Intel, IBM, NASA, and scores of others. Some have started their own businesses, and a sizable number have gone into the military. “I had one young man who went into the Navy and trained in the Internet of Things (IoT). Right out of boot camp he got an extra stripe because he had PC Pro and A+ certifications,” said Mr. S.
One of his former students, Duane LeMasters, works for the Platte County R-3 School District as a network administrator, and what he said about Mr. S would make any teacher proud. “Mr. S is one of my greatest mentors,” he said. “I wouldn’t have the job I have today if it weren’t for him. He helped me learn the skills I need for this job, and then he literally helped me talk to the right people so that I could get this job, and now I’m on the path to a great career. I owe him a lot.”
Seeing the growth of his students as IT professionals and people is what Marvin loves about teaching: “Seeing young adults come to life and start to blossom into the real-life workplace. Students are amazing to watch. Some come in with little or no understanding of IT. At the end of two years I enjoy seeing them work and achieve anywhere from one to six certifications. Graduation is really neat when I get to read off all the accomplishments these guys and gals have completed.”
Marvin said he has had so many wonderful students that he is hard pressed to pick a few favorites.
One story that he enjoys sharing is of a young lady who was married and had two children. She enrolled in class and, after a few weeks, wondered what she was doing there. “She was very timid, with a lot of potential that she was afraid to unleash,” he said. “Getting though the first year she came to me and discussed dropping out and not finishing the second year. I did a lot of talking and convinced her to pull herself up by her boot straps and stay. She stayed and became the student body president.
“She also spoke at graduation and did a fine job. She said, ‘Two years ago, I didn’t have a job and couldn’t talk in front of people, but with the help of Mr. Schildknecht, I’m now speaking in front of more than 250 people. I have certifications in CompTIA A+ and Microsoft Office, and have a full time job with a school district as an IT technician. What else could I ask for?’ ”
Mr. S also teaches important life lessons. Sabrina Warren, one of his IT students, said, “I’ve learned more than just things about computers. He has taught me the true meaning of work ethic and what it really means to try your hardest. I’m always pushed to be the best that I can be. I wouldn’t be going where I am in life today if it hadn’t been for Mr. Schildknecht and his class, and I thank him for that.”
Another student, Gavin Finch, recalled wandering into the class with almost “zero prior knowledge of computers,” and wasn’t sure if the class was for him. He was intrigued with Marvin’s teaching style and visited with him after class. “I’d never seen a teacher mess around with their students by tapping a baseball bat in his hand, but I could tell it was all in good fun,” Gavin said. After class Gavin was able to sit and talk to Mr. S about himself. He left the classroom, he said, “feeling like I had been there for years and, more importantly, that I belonged there.”
Like so many other students, Gavin would grow close to Mr. S. “I went from being frightened and not confident about working on computers to boasting about my achievements and feeling like I could conquer any computer problem thrown my way,” he said.
Gavin also talked about the life wisdom he received in class, how he could approach Mr. S about anything. “The problems sometimes don’t even have to be about a computer. They can be about things in your life that you want guidance with. I’ve learned just as much about being a better man, as I’ve learned about being an IT professional.”
Gavin sees Mr. S as a mentor and said, “The things I’ve learned here, on and off the computer, will help me through the rest of my life.”
Not just riding off into the sunset
A full-time teaching gig would be enough to keep most people on their toes, but Mr. S has many other demands on his time and attention. During the summer, he rents 400 acres of land to mow, rake and bale hay on. During the school year, his day starts early: By 6:00 a.m. he is driving, with his cup of coffee, the 50 miles to school and says he enjoys the drive. “This is the time I can get things together for the day ahead of me. Things like thanking God that I’m alive, and what are the students going to hit me with today.”
After school, he returns home to chores, some family time and getting ready for the next day. He sums up his philosophy as, “Working, living and having stuff is just a state of mind. I love being a husband, dad, grandpa, great grandpa and tutoring my students. This is what God has given me to live for.”
He won’t have quite as many balls to juggle soon. Marvin Schildknecht is retiring at the end of May and he will be missed. Brian Noller, NCC’s Director, said, “He has had an incredible impact on students … his successor will have big shoes to fill.”
In the past 66 years, Marvin has learned a great deal about life and people. Three years ago, a fight with cancer cost him a third of a lung. While he is naturally sober about life’s challenges, he’s also grateful. “I’ve been married for 43 years. We have a daughter and a son, nine grandchildren, and one great granddaughter. God cured me of cancer and let me come back to the classroom for an additional three years. I have truly enjoyed these past years with the young adults I’ve gotten to mentor and watch grow, but now it’s time to say good bye to the students I’ve grown to admire.”
Mr. S’s students cried when they found out he was retiring. He promised to do everything in his power to get a good replacement, but it won’t be the same for many of them. Student Hank Kaminski perhaps put it best when he said, “We are thankful for him helping us strengthen our weaknesses and wanting to see us succeed. We’ll never forget being a part of Mr. Schildknecht’s last year teaching.”
The IT field has seen a lot of change since Marvin got into the mix back in 1967. When asked about the future of IT education, he said he knows things will continue changing even more. His one concern is that the basics of IT continue to be taught. “Today’s young people are more tech savvy than ever. The question is, are they learning anything about the basics or the foundation of the industry? As old guys like me leave the world of IT, who is going to keep up with the foundation that makes the world of IT stand up?”
Not to worry, Mr. Schildknecht. As with the cowboy hero who rides out of town at the end of the movie, the course of the future is in the minds and character of those who’ve been influenced by his deeds. We’re confident that many, many students have taken those lessons to heart.