When Misty Smitherman asked to work in an auto shop at Mansfield High School, the teacher called her mom.
“We don’t have jobs like that for girls,” her teacher said.
Twenty-five years later, Smitherman is the Mansfield school district’s first female auto tech teacher, and one of the few -- if not the only -- female auto tech teachers in the state of Texas.
“The kids are funny,” Smitherman, 41, said. “On the first day of class, I stand at the door, waiting for them. They walk down the hall, look at their schedules, then walk away. I say ‘What are you looking for?’ They say, ‘Auto tech.’ I say, ‘That’s me.’ They’re like, ‘A girl?’”
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It doesn’t take long to make them believers.
“It’s pretty cool,” said Justin Stacks, a Legacy High sophomore. “Different people think women can’t do this. It just depends on how much you know. She knows a lot.”
That doesn’t mean they don’t put her to the test.
“I didn’t doubt her abilities at all, I did like to crack jokes,” said Chance Waller, a Legacy High senior who was in Smitherman’s class last year. “The first thing I said was ‘Guys, we’re going to learn how to clean up oil spills.’ Mrs. Smitherman laughed, then she said ‘You’ll see.’
“By the second week of school, I realized I didn’t know as much as I thought I did and she knew a lot more than I thought she did,” Waller said.
Smitherman knows a lot, say her students, her co-workers and her principal. She’s been studying auto tech for most of her life.
When she got her first car, her dad required that she watch while he did any maintenance on it. Then she fell for Larry Smitherman, a diesel mechanic who races cars.
“He got me started in dirt track racing,” she said. “That’s where a lot of my knowledge came from, late nights in the garage working with my husband.”
Her husband still races, and their two children, Brooke and Trey, raced go-carts and bomber cars, she said. For the past 15 years, she has worked at the Kennedale Speedway as the pit steward, posting the lineups and checking in drivers.
After stints as a machine shop administrative assistant and teacher’s aide, Smitherman was hired as a diagnostician’s assistant in the Mansfield school district in 2004. By 2009, she was looking for a new position and saw a job opening for a tool room attendant at Ben Barber Innovation Academy.
“I applied and got the standard response, ‘We’re looking for someone with experience,’” she said. “My friend Kendrea Hayes said ‘They don’t know who they’re talking to.’ She called Rick Curlee.”
Curlee, who was one of the auto tech teachers, agreed to interview Smitherman.
“Within two minutes after starting the interview, he said he knew he was going to hire me,” Smitherman said. “He asked me a couple of tool-related questions. He was like ‘Oh, OK.’”
With encouragement from Curlee and co-worker Jackie Bishop, Smitherman got her certification and began teaching last fall.
Ben Barber Principal Cathy Hudgins says she can’t confirm that Smitherman is the only female auto tech teacher in the state, but she’s the only one she has heard of in her 18 years in education.
“She has great rapport with the students,” Hudgins said. “She is very strict, very disciplined. We always called her the mom of auto tech. She keeps the teachers in line, too.”
And she’s a good teacher, Bishop said.
“Her students are far ahead of students that had a different teacher,” he said. “She’s good.”
That’s because she understands them, Smitherman said.
“In auto tech, you don’t have as many students that want to sit at a desk,” she said. “They want to take something apart and see how it works. That was me.”
Smitherman said there still aren’t many female students in her auto tech classes, only three last year and just a couple this semester.
“My goal is to make it more appealing to girls,” she said.
Male and female students can benefit from taking auto tech, Smitherman said, even if they don’t plan to make it a career.
“You’re going to own a car,” she said. “You need to know the basics, how to test your oil, how to check your tires. You don’t want to be taken advantage of. If they tell you that you need blinker fluid, you probably don’t.”
Smitherman says she feels at home as Mansfield’s lone female auto tech teacher.
“I don’t see myself doing anything different,” she said. “It brings everything I love together.”