Mariah Pol, a social studies teacher at Barker Middle School, is one of Michigan City Area Schools’ rock stars. She’s been an educator for about five years, and in that time has won numerous awards and fellowships including 2019 Indiana History Teacher of the Year.
Pol, born and raised in Portage, never really wanted to be anything other than a teacher.
“Growing up, my teachers were always the most motivational people to me,” she said. “I grew up in a single-parent, first-generation Latina household and didn’t really come from a background where my immediate family was educated. Going to school, and seeing all the knowledge my teachers had, opened up those opportunities for me and really made me want to pay it forward.”
The person she credits as her biggest influence wasn’t actually a schoolteacher. Instead, it was her late piano teacher, Lee Marsh, who offered Pol free lessons from age 5 all the way to 18.
“She’s the real reason and inspiration behind me becoming a teacher,” Pol said. “She taught me a lot of skills like hard work, discipline, and things that I’ve transcribed into everything else I’ve done in life. She opened up a world of opportunities for me, so now I devote myself to doing the same for my students.”
Pol first chose history to teach mostly because she’d always had a knack for doing the readings and memorization involved. As she studied more she fell in love with how history can change how you look at and interact with the world. She recalled signing up for a Latino Studies course, and being blown away by the perspective it offered.
“Honestly I picked it thinking it’d be an easy A—I’d thought there was nothing you could tell me I don’t already know about Latino Studies having grown up in a Hispanic household,” she said. “Then when I took the class, I realized there was so much I never knew about my own people. It was so empowering for me to learn, so it motivated me to put those kinds of narratives and perspectives in my own lessons.”
Her efforts to make an engaging classroom have taken her all over the world, from South Korea and Japan to Morocco and Cuba. These trips help her incorporate more narratives into her lesson plans, and her classroom even has virtual reality headsets where students can take a simulated field trip around the world.
“It’s like I get to take them to places that they sometimes didn’t even know existed,” Pol said. “They really enjoy seeing all the different viewpoints that are out there, and they can apply what they see to their everyday lives, down to how they handle social interactions.”
Though her travels have taken her to stunning and diverse locations, Pol is always happy to come back to the Region.
“I feel like Northwest Indiana is a cultural melting pot,” she said. “It’s a diverse economy, with a diverse set of people who’ve settled here. Even the landscape is diverse with stuff like the Dunes. It all makes people from Northwest Indiana so much more open-minded.”