Career change works out well for Mike Meinert

INA, IL – Mike Meinert was not sure what he wanted to do when he was in college, but a career in education was “the furthest thing from my mind.”

But a part time gig at Rend Lake College turned into a full-time opportunity, and Meinert said he hasn’t regretted anything ever since.

“I was one of those students who didn’t really know what he wanted to do,” the welding instructor said. “But once I did find out, it all clicked.”

Meinert has been awarded the 2022 Rend Lake College Foundation Outstanding Faculty Member of the Year award. He said he was completely surprised and elated to receive such a distinction.

“I’ve never won anything before,” Meinert says after he was surprised by fellow RLC faculty members and colleagues.

Meinert admits that he was not a perfect student his first two years at Rend Lake. He walked on to the RLC golf team but overloaded his semester with 19 credit hours in an attempt to figure out what path he should take. He left the team and took a welding course on a whim. He had first started welding at 16 years old but did not think it was going to be the decision that shaped the rest of his professional career.

Meinert graduated from RLC in 1997 with several certificates in welding. He worked in the field until 2010 when he ran into his old welding instructor. Meinert found out that RLC was in need of a part-time welding teacher. At the time, Meinert was managing a fabrication shop in Christopher, and he was thankful for the opportunity for extra work.

What started as a two night per week stint morphed into four nights.

“I just started doing it and kind of fell in love with it,” he said. “It’s something I liked right away.”

Meinert had to step away from his teaching career in 2015, after the shop he was managing shut down and he took a job working in the coal mines. Still, Meinert said he knew the hiatus was temporary, and in 2018, he returned to RLC when a full-time welding instructor position became available.

Because RLC had since started offering an Associate in Applied Science degree specializing in welding technology, Meinert returned to the classroom as a teacher and a student for one year in order to get those missing credentials. He said the experience gave him a new perspective on what may students go through.

“That was a rough while,” he said. “I felt the pain that some of these students go through with having to work and go to school at the same time. It was something I took for granted.”

Meinert has developed his teaching philosophy after much thought about what kind of instruction best suits his students.

“One thing I like to tell my students is that I want to be the type of instructor that you have never had,” he said. “I try to make a bond with those students and make it fun, but still remain some sort of authority.”

Meinert said the most rewarding about being an instructor is the chance to witness firsthand how education can positively change the lives of his students even years after they have completed their programs.

“The best part about my job is watching a student who comes in and is not sure that this is the path that they should be taking,” Meinert explains. “Then, it’s watching them complete the program and ultimately running into them a year or two down the line, and you see them succeed. They got the truck they wanted or bought the house or got the job they were after. Seeing them years later after they leave is just as enjoyable as seeing them succeed here.”

“The students have taught me as much as I’ve learned,” he said. “They will teach you what you need to excel at. That right there is an asset.”

One example of the great report that Meinert has with his students includes his unconventional ways he motivates them. One year, while his dual credit students were preparing for the high school welding competition, Meinert gave some extra incentive to place in the top five. If one places, then he would let them shave his head.

More than one student rose to the occasion, Meinert said his students placed first, third, fifth and eighth in the contest. And the next day, the winners spent the class period discussing what type of haircut their mentor should receive.

Meinert, who has also trained Labradors for the past 11 years, said both patience is an important virtue to have inside the classroom. Students, like puppies, learn at different ages and stages, and the more willing he is to teach the basics and build from there, the more receptive they are going to be to learning.

“It’s worked for me,” he said. “I know exactly what to do, what we’re going to work on and what we are not going to do. Each semester it’s getting easier and easier.

Never once in all the years I have worked here have I thought, ‘Ugh, I’ve got to go to work today.’ It’s the only job I’ve ever had that’s like that.”

Meinert lives in Benton and has two children, Henry and Vada.

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