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Apprentices love Larry's approach to learning

Call TAFE Queensland engineering teacher Larry Grant for a brief chat, and you’ll end up covering just about everything. His sociable nature and his 40+ years trades experience makes him a fantastic conversationalist, and a brilliant teacher.

Most of his students at TAFE Queensland's Innisfail campus call him ‘Uncle Larry’ owing to the father of five’s warm and emotionally-intelligent style and dedication to teaching.

“You're a mentor for life. I’m still in touch with so many students — many who did pre-vocational courses with me now run their own businesses and come to me with their apprentices,” Larry said.

Larry's focus on building rapport with his students is no doubt just one of the contributing reasons he was awarded this year’s VET Teacher or Trainer of the Year for Tropical North Queensland at the 2021 Queensland Training Awards.

“To succeed at TAFE, and then in the workforce, students need resilience and they need to have a strong work ethic. We can’t actually teach these qualities, but what we can do is lead by example,” explained Larry.

Larry’s own interest in trades began at age 14 when he was challenged by his father to replace the engine in a Cat D4 dozer. He succeeded, and his work ethic quickly emerged as he began an apprenticeship and launched an extensive career as a plant mechanic, diesel fitter, automotive electrician, engineer, and most recently, inventor.

In addition to teaching at TAFE Queensland, Larry has his own business which sees him design and manufacture agricultural machinery. Recently, he produced the first fully hydraulic-drive elevating work platform bagging machine (for the banana industry), which he made in partnership with a local engineering company.

When he’s not teaching or inventing Larry is training horses, and believes training students and training horses are not too dissimilar.

“You read people as you’re going, just like you would read a horse. You can see from eye movement or body language if a student is following you,” he said.

“It’s about giving them personal attention, getting them to fit in, and then helping to continue that so that you haven’t lost them."

“Students like to think a trainer is talking to them and only them. One key thing is to keep learners engaged — getting them to work on lots of practical skills and putting theory into practical components. I find students learn best when they’re hands on and it’s one on one,” Larry explained.

Larry is highly flexible in his delivery approaches and engages students with projects they themselves design. Coordinating projects like this can be a lot of work but for Larry, the benefits far outweigh any negatives. With students kept busy, behaviour problems hardly arise and the ownership that students have over the project helps to maximise student retention.

“In fact, just last week I had a struggling student tell me that I'm the only teacher he’s understood. These little wins are the best wins,” Larry beamed.

In addition to this one-on-one earnest approach, Larry is focused on training where students learn best, which is often in their employers’ workshops.

Larry has also introduced flexible delivery to the region for his courses, giving students and employers a choice of delivery options.

“That way I’m not locked into one type of delivery, I don’t have to teach a generic training plan, I can teach different competencies to suit the local people because they require different skills, specific to the industries in this area,” he said.

“For example, boilermakers in Innisfail learn to build structural steel sheds — that doesn’t happen for the same qualification in Cairns. In Innisfail and Tully, a lot of farmers need packing and machinery sheds, so we spend time teaching apprentices those skills. You have to be specific to the area and train apprentices to suit the needs [of the area],” Larry explained.

Making training fun is also key to Larry’s approach. In his first engineering classes he challenged his students to design and build a mobile esky by the end of each year. At the beginning students didn’t think it was possible, so having them accomplish that goal provided a great sense of achievement for the students, and himself.

In addition to teaching students, mentoring new TAFE Queensland teachers, and developing and writing up curriculum, Larry dedicates a lot of his time to encouraging students and graduates to stay local and not just head straight to the mines once they’ve completed their qualification. He does this by managing apprentices’ expectations.

“I ask for FIFO workers to come in and tell them about the reality of mine life, and in particular the sacrifices they have to make, including their social and family lives."

“Graduates need to know the full story, and employers need to encourage graduates to pursue a certificate IV or diploma, so they have an option to learn and earn more down the track."

"I also spend a lot of time explaining how a business works, how they [apprentices] can add to the business’ profit, how they can make themselves more valuable, and ultimately how to eventually run their own business. My approach is always focusing on the long-term outcomes for students and employers,” Larry said.

And this approach is clearly working.

It might sound like a lot to take on, however Larry is focused and unrelenting. “I’d rather go home tired than disappointed,” summarised Larry.