TSD's automotive teacher Keith Baker wins $50,000 for the program

A high school teacher in Austin, Texas was surprised on Tuesday, October 3 with a $50,000 prize recognizing excellence in skilled trades education.
Keith Baker, is an automotive teacher at Texas School for the Deaf, and one of 25 winners of the 2023 Harbor Freight Tools for Schools Prize for Teaching Excellence. 
In total, Harbor Freight Tools for Schools is awarding $1.5 million in prizes to 25 skilled trades teachers nationwide. The full list of winners will be announced on Tuesday, October 3.

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About Keith Baker


“In my classroom, I want students to feel successful. I want to help them acquire skills and a work ethic that they can take back to their home communities.”


Keith Baker teaches Auto Collision Repair and Refinishing (ACRR) in the Career Technology Education (CTE) program at the Texas School for the Deaf (TSD) in Austin. TSD’s CTE program is one of the largest in the country for students who are deaf and hard of hearing, and many TSD educators, including Baker, are deaf and communicate in sign language. As a boy in Oklahoma, he spent summers on a farm with his grandfather, working in the hay fields and fixing broken farm equipment, which helped him realize he was mechanically inclined and liked to work with his hands. He received his Bachelor’s of Science in Deaf Education and began teaching while attending graduate school. Baker’s hobby was restoring classic cars - and when the automotive position at TSD opened, he was hired and obtained his ACRR certification. He also has a Texas Teacher Certificate and I-CAR Certificate of Advanced Training. In 2006, his program was featured on an episode of Monster Garage - his team was challenged to and successfully built a running Rat Rod in five days (and in extreme heat).

Students come to TSD and Baker’s program often from public schools where they were likely the only student who was deaf, and with limited connections to people fluent in sign language. Baker works to help his students feel successful and acquire skills they can take back to their home communities. His shop also serves customers who bring their cars for restoration work. The students help restore vintage cars and have also been working on food trucks, popular in Austin. Baker’s garages are specifically designed to be visually accessible and include ample space for students to work. He and his students can most often be found there, where he shares information about the vehicles they work on, including history, design, and challenges they might expect to encounter. Students meet with the customers, prepare work orders and understand the vehicles’ problems, then present the project to the rest of the class. Students learn many industry skills, including how to communicate with clients, negotiate fees, create work orders, order supplies, and complete a job to the customer’s satisfaction.

Many students who attend TSD were previously not supported in their home schools and communities. In addition, for two years during the pandemic, students were forced to learn from online instruction, with little hands-on experiences. Returning to school has been a challenge after being at home for so long. The school makes students feel welcome and provides a safe environment for them to grow, learn, and become connected with the Deaf community. The CTE programs offered align with Texas standards, and curriculum adaptations and modifications help meet students’ learning needs. Students come to TSD from all over the state, and Baker helps them develop foundational skills to find employment or further training programs after graduation. His students participate in the Texas SkillsUSA statewide conference.

Baker strives to keep his garage up to date with the evolving standards and practices in refinishing and repair, to best provide foundational skills to his students. He also sees the challenges, which heightened during the pandemic, of successfully communicating in an academic environment with his students. He uses identified best practices for language deprived students to help them focus and learn, ensuring there are ample opportunities for practice. Next year, he plans to find afternoon and summer opportunities for students to gain work experiences and to help employers see the value of having employees who are deaf or hard of hearing. Baker hopes his efforts can encourage employers to become comfortable using communication technologies so that more people can be employed and demonstrate they are a valuable part of the workforce, making career pathways more accessible.

“I believe former students would say that they learned how to live in the world as a person who is deaf or hard of hearing, for example, how to access Vocational Rehabilitation Services, job placement programs, independent living programs, interpreting services, and they begin to learn how to advocate for themselves. They also would say that they started career exploration for work they might do in the future.”

About the Harbor Freight Tools for Schools Prize for Teaching Excellence

The Harbor Freight Tools for Schools Prize for Teaching Excellence was started in 2017 by Eric Smidt, the founder of national tool retailer Harbor Freight Tools, to recognize outstanding instruction in the skilled trades in U.S. public high schools and the teachers who inspire students to learn skills to prepare for life after graduation. 

With this year’s prize, Harbor Freight Tools for Schools will have awarded more than $7 million to more than 130 U.S. public high school teachers and their schools’ programs – supporting tens of thousands of students along the way. The 2023 prize drew more applications than ever – more than 1,000, from all 50 states. Winners were selected by an independent panel of judges with expertise in career and technical education.


About Harbor Freight Tools for Schools

Harbor Freight Tools for Schools is a program of The Smidt Foundation, established by Harbor Freight Tools owner and founder Eric Smidt, to advance excellent skilled trades education in U.S. public high schools. With a deep respect for the dignity of these fields and for the intelligence and creativity of people who work with their hands, Harbor Freight Tools for Schools aims to drive a greater understanding of and investment in skilled trades education, believing that access to quality skilled trades education gives high school students pathways to graduation, opportunity, good jobs and a workforce our country needs. Harbor Freight Tools is a major supporter of the Harbor Freight Tools for Schools program. For more information, visit: harborfreighttoolsforschools.org.



The Texas School for the Deaf is the oldest continuously operating public school in Texas. Educating deaf and hard of hearing students of Texas since 1856, the campus also provides outreach and educational resources for students, their families and professionals in the field throughout the state of Texas. With educational excellence and a strong belief in a culture and community at TSD, students form a unique identity based on their individual strengths and talents. TSD is an environment where students learn, grow, and belong. For more information about the Texas School for the Deaf, visit http://www.tsd.state.tx.us/.


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