Everything about Emily Walukas’ workspace is intentional: coffee shop-style classroom seating to promote conversation, a makeshift kitchen in case co-workers need a snack, comforting messages lining the walls.

Those who know the Santa Fe High School engineering teacher praise Walukas for motivating kids and carving out space in the STEM fields — science, technology, engineering and math — for all students.

“This teacher has created an incredibly welcoming, student-centered classroom, including both physical and emotional environments for learning,” said Ruthanne Greeley, director of the nonprofit Partners in Education, during a robing ceremony for Santa Fe High seniors Monday evening at the Santa Fe Community Convention Center.

Before a crowd of upcoming graduates, their families and school staff, Greeley presented Walukas with a 2022 Teachers Who Inspire award.

The honor came as a surprise for Walukas, 30, who uses they/them pronouns; they have taught for only five years.

“I was expecting not to receive anything, at least not in my first 10 years … or ever,” Walukas said in an interview a day after the event.

The teacher, who has an endorsement in bilingual education, is studying for a graduate degree in curriculum and instruction at New Mexico Highlands University and said they hope to continue working in education for years to come.

Walukas is the fourth recipient of this year’s Teachers Who Inspire awards. Three other educators in Santa Fe Public Schools will be honored this month. Partners in Education has operated the annual awards program since 1992, honoring teachers nominated by their colleagues and the community. Each awardee receives $1,500.

Walukas said success in the teaching field often comes from going above and beyond.

They often work 10-hour days and prepare project assignments on weekends.

In addition to teaching, they sponsor several student activities, including the Santa Fe High Sexuality and Gender Acceptance club, a gaming club and two groups supporting girls and Native American students in the sciences.

“I think the burnout rate is real because it’s a really emotionally demanding job without the resources we need to do our job well,” Walukas said of teaching. “No teacher is set up to succeed, and we do so because we’re stubborn and creative.”

Walukas, who hails from North Carolina and studied chemical engineering, was initially interested in pursuing a career in water treatment. But after studying abroad and settling in Santa Fe, they decided to become a substitute teacher at Santa Fe Public Schools and then sought a teaching license through an alternative licensing program.

Walukas has focused their classroom on hands-on, project-based learning to keep students engaged in the sciences — prioritizing student interests in areas like robotics and 3D modeling.

“I get to design the curriculum,” Walukas said of their engineering classes. “So I have a lot of freedom to see what the students are interested in.”

They hope to make it an open space for students underrepresented in the field of engineering, including LGBTQ students.

“In the engineering department for years, most of my students have been white, masculine-presenting and from rich families,” they said. “It’s been a real struggle to figure out how to … make engineering and design accessible to people who aren’t already told that it’s theirs.”

In Walukas’ classes, students collaborate on big group projects, talking among themselves.

“I rarely talk at the front of the class,” Walukas said. “I think I modeled it after my own education. … If I don’t have someone to bounce ideas off of, it’s not going to sink in.”

At the junior level, Walukas assigns classroom managers for each project, who check in on classmates and track progress. “It’s this beautiful model where leadership becomes a role the students take on,” Walukas said.

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