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Tamara Markey, a high school engineering teacher in Lawrence Township, Indianapolis, takes a picture with one of her Introduction to Engineering Design classes. Markey is the 2019 Indiana Teacher of the Year.

Tamara Markey, a high school engineering teacher in Lawrence Township, Indianapolis, takes a picture with one of her Introduction to Engineering Design classes. Markey is the 2019 Indiana Teacher of the Year.

How being a black woman in engineering shaped the Indiana Teacher of the Year’s classroom career

Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask educators who’ve been recognized for their work how they approach their jobs. You can see other pieces in the series here.

Indiana’s Teacher of the Year knows the challenge of being one of the very few women of color in engineering.

That’s part of the reason Tamara Markey chose to work in the STEM field in the first place. And it’s the real-life experience that she brings to her second career in teaching — and her pursuit to introduce more girls to STEM and close gaps in academic outcomes between black and white students.

Markey, who teaches pre-engineering to high school students at Lawrence Township’s McKenzie Center for Innovation and Technology, was named Indiana Teacher of the Year last week. She talked to Chalkbeat about bringing the real world into the classroom, and how everyone has experience with engineering — even if they don’t realize it.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Was there a moment when you decided to become a teacher?

I always wanted to be a teacher. I had some great teachers at a young age who sparked my admiration for the profession. However, my high school counselor insisted that I study engineering. She said, “You’re a black female that loves math and science. You must study engineering.” Therefore, that is what I did.

However, the desire to teach never left me, and corporate America did not fulfill me personally. I had moments of accomplishment in corporate America, and I enjoyed my work. However, there was a huge void. I didn’t feel like I was being impactful. I believe that teaching is what I was gifted to do in life.

So, in September 2013, I decided to apply for a Woodrow Wilson Teaching Fellowship to teach high school engineering. I love the energy of school! The excitement to share experiences and learn alongside with my students. The ability to impact a young person’s life. The privilege to watch students grow in so many ways. Aside from raising my own children, it is the hardest, yet most fulfilling work that I have ever done.

How do you get to know your students?

Over the years, I have tried a few different methods to get to know my students. My tried and true are the name game, a great way for the entire class to become acquainted; one-on-one conferences conducted during the first term of the year; and whenever possible, supporting students in their extracurricular activities.

Tell us about a favorite lesson to teach. Where did the idea come from?

This is tough, as I have many favorite lessons. However, if I have to pick just one, it would be on simple machines. Every student has prior experience with simple machines — basic mechanical devices like an inclined plane, wheel and axle, or lever — even if they do not realize it. This lesson is part of the Project Lead The Way curriculum. (Project Lead The Way is a non-profit organization that provides training and curriculum for project-based learning.) However, in my Principles of Engineering course, this lesson culminates with a class-wide Rube Goldberg Machine project, a machine intentionally designed to perform a simple task in an indirect and over-complicated fashion by combining a series of simple machines. This project requires teamwork, collaboration, and critical thinking. At the end of the day, it is a fun and creative way for students to take learned theory and put it into action. I never tire of this lesson and the students love it!

What object would you be helpless without during the school day?

I honestly cannot think of any one item that would render me helpless if I did not have it. The loss of internet access almost had me, but I survived. Perhaps not having access to computers for an extended period.

What’s something happening in the community that affects what goes on inside your class?

As part of a Career Technical Education (CTE) program, we are excited to be amongst a growing Tech and Trades district in Lawrence, Indiana. This growth represents new community partnerships with our CTE Program. The relevancy of what I teach is enriched when I am able to bring in professionals to share their expertise. These community partnerships have even resulted in paid internship opportunities for my students.

The focus in CTE is to prepare students for high skilled and high demand opportunities after high school. Our work is relevant and aligned with workforce demands, and this is supported through our community partners. Each program in CTE has an advisory board of professionals that help ensure that we are delivering relevant content that adequately prepares our students for the next step. That next step could be a two-year or four-year degree, certification, or even an apprenticeship.

Additionally, I like to engage my partners beyond their advisory capacity if they are willing. In technical programs like ours, technology and work opportunities are constantly evolving.  For example, in my Civil Engineering and Architecture class, I will partner with a Surveyor from a local engineering firm to share their experiences with the students. The students get an authentic presentation and an opportunity to experience the latest existing technologies. This is better than any video or PowerPoint that I could ever share. It really energizes the students.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.

When your sole interaction with a student exists within the classroom walls, it can be easy to minimize the student’s life influences outside of the classroom. This all changed for me when one of my students was shot and hospitalized for weeks. When I was finally able to visit him in the hospital and meet his dear mother who had tirelessly remained by his side, I was struck by the desire to reach my students beyond the curriculum that I am teaching. I am invested in each student’s total character development, in hopes of influencing some of the difficult decisions that they might face in and out of the classroom.

What part of your job is most difficult?

Striving to meet each of my students at their point of need is the most difficult part of my job. In a given class, I have students with diverse academic, ethnic, and socio-economic backgrounds. So delivering what I call instructional equity is challenging. However, I am committed to understanding each student’s individual needs and designing educational experiences that will help them achieve growth towards success.

What was your biggest misconception that you initially brought to teaching?

My biggest misconception about teaching was related to the number of hours that teachers work. The work of a teacher goes far beyond the contracted workday. And summers, who knew. No one told me about all the professional development and required training. A teacher never stops learning for their students.

What are you reading for enjoyment?

I am reading “Bossypants” by Tina Fey.

What’s the best advice you’ve received about teaching?

The best advice that I have received about teaching is to be flexible. Effective teachers have to be able to adjust.