Randall “Randy” Burns didn’t dream of becoming a teacher.
He “came to it late,” as he puts it. After more than 15 years in construction, he says, he began working at Keene High School in 1991 as a long-term substitute before taking a position there in special education technology. Not long after, he transitioned to the construction trades program at the Cheshire Career Center — and he’s been there ever since.
Now, he’s set to retire this year after nearly three decades in education.
He says a lot has changed about the field since he began teaching at the center — which is at Keene High and also serves students from Monadnock Regional High School and Fall Mountain Regional High School — and that’s one of the reasons he’s ready to retire.
But throughout his career, Burns says one thing has remained constant: the drive and dedication shown by Keene High’s teachers. And it’s a subject he knows something about.
“When you come from a trade, you know what hard work is, and you don’t expect anything to be easy,” he says.
He’s much quicker to praise his colleagues than highlight his own accomplishments. Reflecting on his time at Keene High, he notes how much he’s learned from working with other teachers, whether collaborating on projects with the math, science or art department or digging up extra scraps of wood for various classroom needs.
What he’s found most rewarding is helping students find success in ways they might not in a traditional classroom setting. And among the graduating construction trades seniors clustered in the wood shop Tuesday, Burns’ wealth of knowledge and willingness to show up for students were recurring themes.
While Burns says he sometimes takes a “tough love” approach, students such as Keene High senior Noah Weston seem to respond well to it.
“He’s a crazy old man,” joked Weston, who lives in Keene and Swanzey. “But what it really comes down to is, if you really pay attention to all the stuff when he’s yelling, there’s so much to learn.”
There’s no doubt that the program will feel his absence, they said.
“Everybody just looks up to Mr. Burns, and he’s just a really loud, happy dude. I think it’s probably going to be different (when he leaves),” said Walpole teen Carter Smith, who attends Fall Mountain. “He makes everything fun.”
When asked the biggest thing they’ve learned from their teacher, nearly every student had the same answer: how to work in a group setting. And from Burns’ perspective, that’s the kind of skill everyone can benefit from, whether they plan to pursue a career in the trades or not.
“You don’t build a 28-by-52-foot house on your own. You’ve got to build it with people you don’t agree with or might not get along with, and you still have to communicate and cooperate, and you’re still responsible for safety,” Burns says.
He’s had plenty of students continue on in the industry, too. With a swivel of his chair, he can reach into his desk drawer and pull out at least a dozen cards for local businesses former students manage or work for.
“I have guys in the field everywhere — in the tile business, electricians, roofers, carpenters,” he says. “It’s very rewarding.”
One such former student is T.J. Ferguson, who went on to join his family’s business, Ferguson Roofing Company in Westmoreland. Ferguson said he signed up for the construction trades program partially because he wanted to have Burns as a teacher, and the two have kept in touch since he graduated from Keene High in 2008.
“I really liked that he was honest. There was no guessing where you stood with him,” Ferguson said. “You were able to gain a lot of real-world knowledge of how it was going to be in an actual workplace, and that’s something that I think is a very valuable opportunity.”
Burns says there’s a lot he’ll miss about Keene High — chiefly the teachers and students — but he is looking forward to having more time to take a vacation and visit his grandchildren.
He has no plans to remain idle, however — he already has plenty of carpentry work lined up. And he notes that, as the public education landscape continues to change, he hopes there will be broader support for Keene High’s teachers in the community.
“It’s not a business here. This is a people business. You have no control over the raw material. You’re focused on people’s emotional, intellectual and psychological development,” Burns says. “There’s no way that anybody can put a price on that.”