Faculty mentors played key role in Vierheller’s passion as teacher leader

Emma Vierheller feature photo

In the four years since Emma Vierheller ’12 graduated from Marietta College, she has remained in contact with dozens of former students and professors — something she believes has helped her grow as a teaching professional.

But no one communicates with Emma more than Dr. Tanya Judd Pucella, McCoy Associate Professor of Education.

Emma estimates that she speaks with, emails or texts Tanya at least once a week. The only other person from her Marietta days that she converses with on a more consistent basis is her husband, Josh Maxwell ’11 — they have been married for two years.

The strong connection between Emma and Tanya developed in the summer between her sophomore and junior years. With a double major in Mathematics and Political Science, Emma realized she wanted to be a math teacher.

“So I went to Tanya seeking some direction,” Emma said. “She went out of her way to help me and I wasn’t even an Education major. She had the attitude that, ‘Emma wants to do this so we will figure out a way to make it happen.’ That type of support is why Marietta is special and remains important to me. The amount of times I walked into Tanya’s office, Gama’s (Perruci) office, Mike Tager’s office and Matt Menzel’s office, they always made me feel welcome.”

And she got it. Tanya, who is also the Director of the Worthington Center for Teaching Excellence on campus, encouraged Emma to get the Teacher Leadership Certificate, which is a cutting-edge certificate, developed collaboratively by the McDonough Leadership Program and the Education Department, for McDonough Scholars.

“Emma was a top student in the Teacher Leadership Program,” Tanya said. “Emma is passionate about teaching and about improving educational opportunities for students in low income areas.  I have rarely worked with someone so enthusiastic about teaching and learning and I am looking forward to seeing what she is able to do as she continues to develop as a teacher leader.”

Now Emma teaches mathematics at HOPE Christian School in Milwaukee, which offers a rigorous academic program that is focused on raising student achievement in an environment of encouragement and support. Emma has also added the responsibility of being a STEM coach to five other teachers at HOPE.

“Our school is expanding and this position opened up as we had more teachers who wanted and needed coaching,” she said. “I’m excited about the opportunity to coach other teachers. This is my dream job.”

Emma is proud what HOPE offers its students, which are predominantly from minority families battling to stay above national guidelines for poverty.

“All of my students are reduced or free lunch and all are African American. You don’t see the humanity of it until you teach in a class like this,” she said. “A lot of my kids have not enjoyed many advantages in life. This is my opportunity to change their trajectory.”

Emma believes her experience at Marietta helped transform her life. She competed on the track & field team, was named the first recipient of the Robert E. and Sally S. Evans Civic Engagement Internship, and completed an Investigative Studies project on the Supreme Court decision Tinker v. Des Moines (1965).

Her faculty mentor with that project was Political Science professor Dr. Mike Tager.

“Emma was an excellent student … it was a real pleasure to have Emma in class and to work with her on the Investigative Studies project,” Mike said. “A few years ago I got an excited message from her that she was going to see Mary Beth Tinker speak, and she was taking four of her students with her. So she got to hear the original the original plaintiff in the decision.”

Mike suggested to Emma that she get a photo of the two of them together.

“Instead she took a photo of Tinker with the four students,” he said. “She’s got the mind of a true teacher — always putting her students first.”

Emma added, “Ironically, (the case) had to do with the evolution the Supreme Court in regards to students being able to express themselves in school,” Emma said.

Emma has never had trouble expressing herself as a teacher — something she credits to the opportunities afforded her at Marietta.

“From the first time I walked into the door, I have always felt OK with expressing myself,” she said. “I think my time at Marietta and all of the things I’m involved with provided me strategies that benefit me and what we are trying to do at HOPE.”

Emma was a Teacher for America Corps Member and has been teaching in Milwaukee since her graduation from Marietta. She also received a prestigious fellowship, the Knowles Science Teaching Fellows in order to continue to develop herself as a math educator. 

“Teacher leadership has been so useful as I see my role as a teacher in a different light than do those who have not studied it,” Emma said. “I feel like I have a duty to advocate to my school on behalf of my students and see my role as a teacher as a part of a team, rather than accepting the traditional dynamic between teacher and administration. I also feel empowered to take on initiatives in my classroom and school — such as honors projects — because I have studied their structure and know the power teachers have without leaving the classroom.”