Tulsan Mark American Horse earns high honors for his teaching techniques
Meet the National Association of Career and Technical Education Teacher of the Year.
One of the primary challenges facing teachers today is the need to teach outside of the box — developing innovative ways to reach students and capture their attention.
One Tulsan has taken this challenge and run with it, resulting in national attention.
Mark American Horse, criminal justice instructor for Central Technology Center, was named the National Association of Career and Technical Education Teacher of the Year at the annual conference in Nashville in November.
The award recognizes teachers who provide outstanding career and technical education programs for youth and/or adults in their respective fields and communities, according to a press release.
Recipients of the award must have made significant contributions toward innovative, unique and novel programs that are serving to improve and promote career and technical education.
To achieve the honor, American Horse was first named Teacher of the Year for Oklahoma in August 2008 and regional Teacher of the Year in April 2009.
American Horse, who has been teaching at Central Tech for 10 years, is also an adjunct professor at Tulsa Community College and Oklahoma State University. He recently sat down with TulsaPeople to discuss the honor and his passion for teaching.
TulsaPeople: What was your students’ reaction to the honor?
Mark American Horse: They’re very excited about it. Of course, they were a lot more confident than I was that I was going to get the award.
Are there any official duties that come as part of it?
Not officially. Fortunately, my school is really good about sending me to conferences. … Central Tech, they’re a very progressive school, which is one reason why they’ve gotten that Gold Star School (designation) every year that it’s been offered. The reason why is they’re very proactive like that, thinking beyond that immediate “what’s in it for us.”
You transitioned from being a personal bodyguard into teaching. What encouraged you to get into teaching?
I had incurred an injury. I had a person of royalty who wanted to go mountain climbing, and he wasn’t really as physically able to do that as he should have been, and although I warned him against it, he wanted to go anyway. ... Sure enough, he fell, and when I caught him, it caused my shoulders to sublux partway out of the joint and pop back in again, which tore up my shoulders a little bit, beyond full repair. So I have 20 percent permanent disability in my left shoulder. … I came back to Oklahoma to convalesce.
… I sulked about it for a couple of days and then I saw that the Tulsa newspaper had an opening for a teacher at Central Tech, and I thought, “Why not?” I applied for the job, and my campus director, David Main, his first reaction as he was looking at my resume was, “I don’t think you’re going to be happy here” because I have a rather diverse background ... I said, “I’m permanently disabled. I don’t have a choice. I have to do something else for a living.” I was just blessed that he decided to take a chance on me, even though there were people who applied who had more experience and had teaching experience. … I fell in love with teaching, and I’ve been teaching ever since.
What about criminal justice is interesting to you?
No. 1, it’s kind of exciting. What I like about my classroom is that I teach criminal law, civil law, constitutional law, crime scene investigation, forensic science. There’s always something different in my classroom to keep the kids’ attention. The field itself is diverse enough that it keeps me interested. And then of course the students are an endless source of entertainment. They never cease to amaze me.
I think one of the things that has also made me successful is that I’m not afraid to have a good time in the classroom. I look forward to going to work every day, and the kids can sense that. They can sense if you enjoy your job and if you actually want to be there.
What is the age range of your students?
My youngest one was 16 and my oldest one was 64.
Is it a challenge to bring all those students together?
Not really. It’s so easy because they are highly motivated. They cannot wait to get to class. If their home school is out, they don’t have to come to my classroom. The majority of them show up anyway. And it’s hard to get my students to do internships because they don’t want to get out of the class.
You use a teaching approach called the “Puppy Strike.” Tell me about that.
It’s an end-of-year project that another instructor and I came up with. Five years ago, our state director, Dr. Phil Birkenbile, came down with a challenge for everyone. He said we have one of the best career tech systems in the world, and I’m tired of us being the best-kept secret in Oklahoma and in the nation. We need to do something about that. He challenged everyone to teach outside the box … I talked to Brian Babcock, a co-teacher of mine. He teaches in the IT field, network security administration. I asked him if he wanted to do a joint project with me where his students would role play as both good guys and bad guys … we wanted to create a situation where it was a domestic terrorist cell that was operating here in our county, and there was going to be evidence that was hidden in a computer. It was a very elaborate investigation that led up to the discovery of this information.
We wound up having a SWOT team operation that was held at 4 o’clock in the morning. What my students had to do was conduct an investigation, put together an affidavit for a search warrant … We got members of the local SWOT team and the county sheriff’s department to go out with us and actually supervise. It was really interesting. We wound up hitting it (a donated home) at 4 o’clock in the morning. They did a break-and-rake on the back window and did a breaching on the front floor on one end and took the bad guys down (click here to see the video).
… This last year we involved welding students, robotics students, health careers, computer forensics, network security administration, criminal justice. We had some ROTC students that were along with us. We’d start expanding out, so it’s pretty realistic.
What this is, is a culmination of what the students have learned all year — how to conduct an investigation properly. … The idea behind this is not just to prepare our students to go out there in the real world but also to be proactive about, what is the next generation of bad guy going to think of and how can we think about it now and beat them to the punch?
Have your students gone on to these types of fields and been successful?
I’ve had students go on to police departments, sheriff’s departments, corrections. One of my students just got back from a dig in South Africa. She’s studying to be a forensic anthropologist. She’s at the University of Tennessee right now and is getting ready to go on another dig in Peru, so I’m going to use Skype in my classroom so that she can talk to us from a mass grave where she’s doing forensic anthropology and bring her in live to the classroom.
Now that you’ve won this award, what are your goals to achieve from here?
My goal really is to try to live up to it. The people who were up for the award, they were all awesome teachers. It could have gone to anyone. … With it comes a lot of responsibility because everything is going to be followed up by “National Teacher of the Year.” And so I just want to be able to stay progressive and always be on the cutting edge of research and development and take my students to that next level and keep them interested and ultimately get them the jobs and careers that they want.
Why do you enjoy teaching in the career tech setting?
There are a lot of academics that are involved. The conference I’m going to in Florida, where I’m the keynote speaker, is really showing them how I integrate literacy strategies into my classroom — reading, writing, public speaking, math and higher-order thinking. You have that, which a lot of people don’t realize. They just assume that everything we do is hands-on. Although it is a lot of hands-on (learning), what we do is we take those literacy-type strategies, but we actually implement them. … The emphasis is on not just knowing it but being able to do it. ... As soon as the student finds out that they need it, as soon as you make it important to the student, they’ll learn it. That’s the thing that sets career tech aside.