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How one Indianapolis educator went from crying every day to Teacher of the Year

Micah Nelson is a middle school teacher at Center for Inquiry at School 2. She was named IPS teacher of the year in 2016.
Micah Nelson is a middle school teacher at Center for Inquiry at School 2. She was named IPS teacher of the year in 2016.
Dylan Peers McCoy

Teaching didn’t come easily to Micah Nelson.

When she joined Indianapolis Public Schools 13 years ago, she relied on traditional lectures that left her students disengaged, she said. She cried nearly every day of her first year.

But these days, Nelson is known for projects that ignite student passion.

At a surprise ceremony Friday, Nelson learned that she was named IPS Teacher of the Year. For the next year, the middle school social studies teacher will represent educators across the district, talking about and modeling strong teaching — with the chance of becoming Indiana Teacher of the Year in 2017.

As a student, Nelson was successful and self-motivated, so it was easy for teachers to get her involved, she said. But it was a different story when she entered the classroom as an educator.

“When I started teaching, I taught how I was taught, which is just lecture and notes and all of that,” said Nelson. “I had to figure out how to actually teach — how to be a good teacher.”

She taught at the now-closed McFarland Middle School, which had the highest percentage of students involved in the juvenile justice system in the state, she said. Her students weren’t interested in the lessons she was teaching and she struggled to manage her classroom, so she started looking everywhere for new ideas — watching other teachers, talking to consultants and reading.

“It’s hard when you teach history or geography and people have never left the city,” she said. “They’ve never gone outside 465,” she added, referring to the interstate loop around Indianapolis.

In late spring of her first year, Nelson tried a new approach, having her students create travel brochures about Asian countries. They were interested and they were having fun. She was hooked on project-based learning.

“It was a sense of relief,” said Nelson, who now teaches at Center for Inquiry at School 2.

Now, Nelson uses projects to get her students interested in subjects such as Navajo communities facing extreme water poverty and the plight of child soldiers. For one project this year, she asked students to write diary entries from the perspective of someone involved in a significant historical event, like the Trail of Tears.

“That was one of my favorites,” said eighth-grader Leah McDonald.

Nelson didn’t originally intend to teach, she said. But she was a history student at Purdue University when terrorists struck on 9/11, and she was stunned at how little her peers understood about world events.

“I realized there was a really big gap in learning for students about global issues and world events, and I thought I could teach that,” she said. “That’s kind of what I’ve always been dedicated to doing.”

Nelson, who previously taught at the Key Learning Community, was recruited to join School 2 because of her experience teaching thematically, said principal Andrea Hunley.

“She sparks her kids to think deeply and to also realize that they can take action to make a difference in the world,” Hunley said.

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