Lance Gunnersen, trades and industry instructor, El Dorado High School, Placerville
Teacher builds love of woodworking into decades of advocating for vocational skills.
Lance Gunnersen knows he’s teaching his students skills they can use straight out of high school and beyond. As a trades and industry instructor at El Dorado High School in Placerville, he teaches everything from woodworking technology to engineering and design for grades 9 through 12. He also spends a fair amount of his time as an advocate of career and technical education.
He’s a board member of the California Industrial and Technical Education Association. The group provides workshops and conferences for educators in career technical education across the state as well as doing outreach to legislators about career technical education.
“Students who are graduating from our schools can readily find good employment and a good career in any of the trades, Gunnersen said. “There’s an absolute dearth of trained technically skilled people in every single trade in California and CTE helps meet that need. Whether that’s teaching students skills that lead through college to be an architect or an engineer or teaching skills for a career in skilled trade directly out of high school. We still need auto mechanics and people who can build cabinetry and homes and people who can fix and repair things.”
How has your work changed during the pandemic?
Gunnersen said it’s difficult to teach a hands-on program online, which is how he started at the beginning of the pandemic. “But there’s a great deal of what we call hands on, minds on learning to do as well. I started with lots of videos and our safety training program. Of course, there is academic work in the career tech programs in the high schools all around the state. So that’s how I got through the first part of the year, going through those academic skills in math, science and writing.”
The high school switched to a hybrid model, with some time with online learning and some in-person learning, with smaller classes in person.
“And boy do they love it. Students figured out they really miss school, and they loved my program anyway. They’ve been really interested in our classes and they’re happy to be back.”
Why did you become a teacher?
“I’ve been teaching most of my life. I just enjoy teaching, no matter what the subject. I did come from industry, where I made furniture and cabinets and did home construction to put myself through college. When I wasn’t working for someone else, I ran my own woodworking business for a short time. I always enjoyed making things. When I realized I could put my passion for making and teaching together, it was the obvious choice to become a trades teacher.”
Gunnersen got his start as a substitute teacher in woodshop class and he knew that was something he wanted to do. “I think that was a way to give back, what woodworking in high school had done for me. It turned my life around for the positive. Because of my woodworking classes, I felt competent and confident about learning, which inspired me to go to college. I wasn’t planning to go to college prior to that.”
How long have you been teaching?
Gunnersen has been teaching in public schools for 27 years, but before that, he also taught outdoor education programs for years. He also taught professional development and team building experiences for youth, college students and professionals.
He started his public teaching career in the Bay Area before moving to Davis and finally to Placerville. “It was all because I was following my soon-to-be wife. It’s all about love. I’m very happy in this district. It’s a supportive community for the classes I teach. We have a supportive school board and administration.”
Did you have a favorite teacher?
Gunnersen had a few favorites, but one who stands out was his construction teacher. “He was one of those teachers that was just amazing, he took me under his wing and saw potential in me, he helped me learn about life, not just the curriculum. I remember a day centered on math skills that he was teaching when we were learning about building homes. If as students we ever wondered why do we need math, that lesson brought it home. We learned that we’d better know it if we want to go into the building trades. Geometry and math skills were important, so it made a bigger impact on us.”
What’s one thing you’re proud of as a teacher?
“The reason I got into teaching was to help students be successful in life. I can say that every student who I’ve had an impact on—whether they’ve gone into one of the trades as a profession or not—any student I’ve made a connection with, that makes me feel good. I’ve had students who write or call me years after graduation and tell me that I helped them in some profound way, some have even become shop teachers, that makes me proud.”
What’s something fun about you?
Gunnersen was featured on “Shop Class,” a television show on Disney+. “Someone from the show called me out of the blue and ask if I’d like to do this show they were producing. I was recommended to them by a fellow teacher and I still don’t know who that was.”
The 2020 reality show featured kids making things in competition with other teams. “It was kind of a serious competition at times but mostly a lot of fun. All the teams and instructors were great fun to be with. There was a camaraderie between us. The program focused on kids enjoying the process of making, so I was in full support of that idea!”
In Gunnersen’s spare time he, no surprise, is into woodworking. Music also figures prominently in his free time as he plays the piano and other electronic keyboards.
And if that’s not enough, he’s an outdoor enthusiast, a whitewater river guide and rock climbs from time to time. His rock climbing accomplishments include the face of Half Dome and El Capitan—the “hard way” and he has run Class III, IV and IV rivers all over the United States.
Tell us about your family
Gunnersen moved districts to be with his wife. “She’s why I wound up in Davis, and then we decided to move up here to the Placerville area. We live with two cats and six chickens and a very large garden.”
Plans for retirement?
“They won’t let me retire. I’m one-of-a-kind,” Gunnersen joked. “First, I’ve got to find someone to replace me in this position, at least that’s what I’ve been told and that’s a problem. They don’t make us shop teachers like they used to. There just aren’t enough trades education teachers in this field. That’s one of the things we’re working to change. Our society needs these skills.”
Ideally, Gunnersen thinks he would retire in four or five years and perhaps helping part-time. If he takes some time off, it will be for whitewater rafting down some rivers he hasn’t tried yet, maybe on the East Coast.
Teacher Talk is a series of profiles on California teachers and other educators. To be considered for a future profile, please email Communications@CalSTRS.com, with Teacher Talk in the subject line.