RIVERTON, Utah (ABC4) – It’s almost never good when an administrator shows up at a high school class and asks the teacher to follow them. However, for one Riverton High School teacher, it ended up being better than he could have imagined.

Auto Tech teacher Jay Hales had no idea why he was being escorted from his class right as school began this morning. His students and fellow faculty had teamed up to give him the surprise of his life. As he rounded the corner to the front of the school drums began playing, cheerleaders began cheering, and Hales caught site of a check for $50,000 with his name on it.

Hales was one of 25 nationwide winners of the 2023 Harbor Freight Tools for Schools Prize for Teaching Excellence.

Hales had applied and been a finalist in 2020 and 2021 and was one of more than 1,000 teachers who entered to win. Hales will get $15,000 for himself and $35,000 for his school’s automotive program and he already has ideas on how to put the money to use.

“The kids turn a lot of drums and rotors in this area, so I’m looking forward to getting one of those,” Hales said. “We have a small engine program, so I’d like to possibly invest in a few small engines to give them more experience for hands-on applicable activities.”

Hales gives his students hands-on experiences like changing tires and working on brakes so they will have the skills after graduation and hopes to get more students interested in a career in the service industry. He says his favorite part of teaching is the growth he sees in his students.

“Every day I just try to improvise, look at what goes good and bad, and try to make the best,” he said. “I’m just trying to help the industry to get more people involved.”

As someone known for giving back to his community, Hales has taught at Riverton since 1999 and was a member of the Utah Army National Guard as a light-wheel vehicle mechanic. He holds 11 Automotive Service Excellence (ASE) certifications, has been named Advisor of the Year for SkillsUSA Utah, and previously won the Huntsman Award for Excellence in Teaching.