Alumna wins Indiana History Teacher of the Year

By 

Mariah Pol

School of Education alumna Mariah Pol was a continent away when she found out she had been chosen as the 2019 Indiana History Teacher of the Year. Pol is in her fifth year teaching seventh and eighth-grade Social Studies at Barker Middle School in Michigan City, Indiana. Pol has incorporated her international work into her classroom lessons and calls teaching one of the most rewarding professions.

What was your reaction when you found out you had won the Indiana History Teacher of the Year?
I found out that I won while I was on my recent teacher fellowship in Morocco. I had been checking my email every chance I could while I was out there. When I saw the email come through, I thought, "Well, get ready for the rejection email, Mariah. At least you tried." However, then I read that it said "Congratulations!" I freaked out. I was with another teacher when I found out and they were so excited for me as well. I immediately called my family and school principal who had nominated me. It was amazing to see the Indiana Department of Education give me a shout-out as well. I never expected to be nominated or actually win with only five years of experience as a teacher. I'm humbled especially knowing there are other amazing teachers out there with more years of experience. I'm glad that all of these teacher fellowships that I have pursued have continued to spiral and grow for me as a young educator and I look forward to what the future brings. 

Why did you decide to become a teacher?
Growing up, I always greatly admired my teachers. I thought they were incredibly inspirational, with all the knowledge that they possessed. Teachers were also always an example to me of success looked like. Being a first generation college student and Latina, they always were a great example for me to achieve. I also admired how teachers gave so much of themselves to help others. I could never have achieved all that I had, without teachers throughout my life, working hard for their students. One of the most influential teachers in my life was my piano teacher, Ms. Lee Marsh. She passed away after my first year teaching. Throughout my whole life, from when I was 5 years old until I was 18, she taught me piano lessons for free because she saw potential in me and knew my mom couldn't afford the lessons. She opened up a world of opportunity for me. I later became heavily involved in music and I wouldn't have succeeded if she didn't teach me the foundations of music through the piano. I also learned life skills such as dedication, hard work, patience, teamwork, time management, etc. All of these skills, I learned at such a young age. I believe these skills have helped me to become successful in any endeavor I have achieved throughout my life. Although I do not teach music now, she taught me so much and I will forever be grateful to her. I hope that I can be that type of teacher or person for a student and pay it forward.

Why choose to teach history?
When I first started college at IU, I originally chose to major in Secondary Social Studies Education because history was my favorite subject in school. However, as I continued in that major, my reasons for teaching history changed. My sophomore year, through the Hudson and Holland Scholars program, I had the opportunity to study abroad to Ghana and England for a month in the summer. This trip truly changed my motive for teaching history. On this trip, I discovered the multiple perspectives to the Transatlantic Slave Trade and its implications today. I never had been exposed to such perspectives in world history before. As I continued my time at IU, I continued to investigate more lenses in world history, including becoming involved in the Latino Studies Program. I became involved in the solidarity group Cubamistad, gaining the opportunity to travel to Cuba twice to witness different narratives regarding the Cuban government. I also did a huge research project on depictions of Puerto Ricans in U.S. textbooks from the past to present. I also did an additional student teaching placement abroad in Ireland through the Global Gateway for Teachers program. At IU, I realized that history isn't just names, dates and places on the map.  All of this encouraged me to make sure my future students were exposed to all these perspectives in history and have empathy towards them to encourage creating a more peaceful tomorrow.

It is such an amazing and beautiful feeling when one of your struggling students connects to what you are teaching, and you see them grow.

You are very involved in a project involving collecting oral histories of Korean War veterans. How did you get involved in this project?
As a part-time job, I work for the Korean War Legacy Foundation (KWLF) and help them to create classroom curriculum. I became involved with them in Fall 2017. I went to one of their conferences in Orlando, Florida, that they had for teachers. I pursued this conference because I felt that I did not know enough about the Korean War or Korea in general. For my 7th grade curriculum, I am responsible for teaching about the Eastern Hemisphere. Everything for this conference was paid for except the flight, and it was during my Fall Break. I thought it would be a great opportunity to expand my knowledge for my classroom. While at this conference, I networked with the foundation leaders. I met a lot of people who were involved with the National Council for the Social Studies and the C3 Framework for Teachers. After the conference, the KWLF had a lesson plan contest for teachers to design a C3 lesson on Korea. I ended up being one of the winners, having my lesson plan published by them. They later reached out to me asking me to become a Teacher Fellow with the foundation. As a Teacher Fellow, I became a part of the meta-data team. I am responsible for listening to Korean War veteran video interviews and creating veteran profiles on koreanwarlegacy.org. I write the summaries and find their statistical data. I also pick short clips that would be appropriate for teachers to use as primary source materials in their classroom. As I have continued to work for the foundation, I have become a Teacher Ambassador with them. I present at educator conferences around the U.S. about the curriculum we offer. I also have promoted the documentary "Beyond the Bridge of No Return," which the foundation made that follows Korean War Veteran Arden Rowley returning to South Korea with his great grandson. Other responsibilities include transferring slides to digital for primary source materials and I am leading a larger research project for the foundation where I am examining U.S. Social Studies textbooks narratives on Korea in comparison to China and Japan. I also have done projects at my school where my students have interviewed local Northwest Indiana Korean War Veterans and digitized their letters and photos, submitting them to KWLF. It's been a great way for my students to become local historians and bridge the gap between different generations in the community. This summer, I am also traveling to South Korea with the foundation to witness how the Korean War has impacted the government and economy of modern South Korea. KWLF has been a great resource for me to grow as an educator.

It's obvious international work is a huge part of your career. How does traveling and participating in international projects help you as a teacher?
When I first started teaching, I did not feel fully equipped for my curriculum. Although I studied history and geography, a lot of my classes and study abroad opportunities were only on particular world regions such as Europe, West Africa, and Latin America. This would have been great if I taught 6th grade, which is Western World History in Indiana, but it wasn't applicable to seventh grade Eastern World History or eighth grade U.S. History. My lessons where I did incorporate my knowledge and travels were far more exceptional than the others. I didn't like that I had to become dependent on my school's Social Studies textbooks. After all my research I did in undergrad on textbooks lack of narratives, I felt like a hypocrite. During Winter Break of my second year of teaching, I decided to research opportunities where I could continue growing as a Social Studies educator. Since then, I have earned 11 different teacher fellowships traveling to various places in the U.S. and abroad. Four of these fellowships have been international as well. Nations include Japan through the Oleander Initiative, Bahrain through the U.S. Arab Bilateral Chamber of Commerce, Morocco and Spain through a Fulbright-Hays seminar with the University of Arizona's Center for Middle Eastern Studies, and South Korea through the Korean War Legacy Foundation. In these fellowships I have been able to immerse myself in these various regions, gain much photo and video evidence, collect cultural artifacts to share with my students, and meet leading scholars on these perspectives in history. It has also allowed me to network with other exceptional teachers across the U.S. and share and plan curriculum with them that I bring back to my classroom. My participation in these international projects has allowed me to grow professionally as well as personally and love what I do! It helps me to have my students fully step back and immerse themselves in another perspective in world history if their teacher has done so as well.

Can you take me through a typical day or lesson in your classroom or a lesson you’re particularly proud of?
Every year I have my students participate in National History Day. Starting in November, my students work on creating independent historical research projects. They can choose to work individually or in small groups. Last year, my students designed projects relating to the history of the atomic bomb and Japan. I used resources gained from my participation in the Oleander Initiative, which was a 10 day teacher fellowship in Tokyo and Hiroshima, Japan. My students could choose to create their projects as a traditional research paper, documentary, website, exhibit, or performance. This allows multiple intelligences in the classroom and for my students to showcase their creativity. We have a local history fair at our school where students present their projects to local community leaders. Every year, I have had students advance to the regional and state competitions, showcasing their projects to college professors and university students. I am always proud to see my students take a vested interest and passion in history.

The environment today for teachers is incredibly challenging – from teacher pay to school safety to standardized testing, there are so many obstacles out there for teachers. How do you approach these and other challenges?
When I first started teaching, it was very difficult. I walked into a very negative environment. It is understandable too with the struggles regarding teacher pay, school safety, standardized testing, etc. It's really easy to let all of this bum you out as well. I remember my first year of teaching, I cried on the way home every day. I had to remind myself why I became involved in this profession. Although I wasn't in a pleasant environment at first, I realized I had to reach out and find other opportunities for me to grow and be the educator I want to be. Through investigating online, I found all these summer opportunities for teachers which have been pivotal for me. As I mentioned, I have met so many like-minded educators with great resources, ideas and friendship. I have been able to bring these back to my district and become recognized. I approach these challenges by not losing my drive and focus and continuing to improve in what I do.

What advice do you have for a person thinking about going into teaching?
Teaching is not an easy job. It's not just about your content area. Often times you are the only trusted adult a student may have in their lives. It is filled with many negative factors, and you aren't always supported. However, teaching is also one of the most rewarding professions. It is such an amazing and beautiful feeling when one of your struggling students connects to what you are teaching, and you see them grow. If you are passionate in creating a more positive future, teaching is for you! Don't lose yourself, your focus and your drive in what you do!