Story and photos by Mary Martin. Video by Vanessa Phillips.
Tami Gamble-Gurnell possesses a rare strength. It is a strength that goes beyond lifting lumber and circular saws, although she does both each day. It is a strength that lies in envisioning a new path forward within a male-dominated industry, and mentoring students in the hard and soft skills that will prepare them for confident and successful careers.
Tami, or The Girly Shop Teacher, has been teaching construction technology at Duncanville High School for the past five years, and recently created an all-female team of construction students for a specific set of projects in the community. Starting with awnings for a bird sanctuary at the Dallas Zoo, her team of girls were recruited from architecture and agriculture classes to work on the design-build assignment. But the girls have stuck around, joining the Panthers Under Construction team, and told Tami they were ready for the next project.
This semester the team began working on a rope barrier for the African American Museum at Fair Park. “The design is meant to represent railroad ties, with rope between,” Tami shares. “It will protect a large piece of artwork entitled Woman Works, but our rope and wood structure will also act as a piece of art itself.” The students measure, cut, sand, and add texture to pieces of recycled wood donated by Home Depot. Tami has learned to make her budget stretch to accomplish the student projects. The entire construction and architecture department at Duncanville High School is allotted only $20,000 each year for tools and supplies, which is split between four teachers, so partners like Home Depot, Construction Users Round Table, and Construction Industry Institute help to fill the gaps. Even the NFL has donated spare metal discarded after a stadium demolition.
Together with the community, Tami is able to represent a wide view of the construction industry. “These students come into my classroom to learn about hand tools, but I am able to show them how many career options are open to people with construction skills – set design, aircraft design, art installation, plus every construction trade,” Tami explains. While in her class, students receive training through NCCER and are prepared for industry certification.
Though her own career has taken various turns, Tami landed naturally in the construction industry. Growing up in Detroit her step-father worked as a construction teacher at the Federal Bureau of Prisons, offering trade education to inmates. After work, he would invite a young Tami to help in his basement woodshop, working on kitchen remodels and even a custom dollhouse.
After graduating from Howard University with a Psychology degree and an Education Minor, Tami taught at a mental hospital then worked as a personal assistant for Steve Harvey – she later shifted to homeschooling her three boys and taking on the occasional house remodel project for friends and family. Then one day as she sat at the hair salon, her stylist mentioned a job opening as a woodshop teacher at the local high school and all of Tami’s experience suddenly came together into the perfect job. Her charisma, paired with a no-nonsense attitude, has given Tami a strong rapport with her students, encouraging them to try harder and dream bigger.
Tami is using her influence beyond the classroom as well. Her volunteer work with the Girl Scouts of Northeast Texas STEM Center for Excellence led to a display last month at Galleria Dallas, with wooden sculptures covered in Girl Scout Cookie boxes. Also in March, Tami brought The Girly Shop Teacher to the eighth annual ROCKTEEN Summit and Stomp Wars at the University of Texas Arlington, where 6,000 students, parents, and teachers came from across the country to learn about careers in the skilled trades industry. Hosting a workshop activation on construction STEM skills, Tami led 300 students through stations featuring PPE (Personal Protective Equipment), safety rigging harnesses, pipe fitting, power drills, and wall framing.
Wearing bracelets made from hex nuts, Tami doesn’t shy away from bringing a feminine touch to her construction work. “I’m inspiring students to see construction in a new light because I simply put a new face to construction trade,” Tami says with a smile. And her face will soon be representing construction gear on a national platform, as Tami recently won the opportunity to model work gear designed for women by Duluth Trading Company.
As the school year comes to an end, Tami is working to pass on a vision for what a community looks like when students graduate with skills in construction technology. She said, “I’m simply serving as a conduit for students to build their future, be it young men or young ladies, who I especially admire walking into the trades, I hope to see them build buildings that leave legacies for generations to come.”
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Story and photos by Mary Martin.