When she was a plumbing student at Queens Technical HS in Long Island City, Natalie Kavral was focused, driven and quick to assist any classmates who were struggling with an assignment.
“Natalie was the first one there if she could help,” said Sean McCarthy, one of her teachers. “She would go over and explain it to other students.”
Now, more than a decade later, Kavral teaches plumbing at her old high school. After working in the plumbing trade for two years, she entered the Success Via Apprenticeship program, a collaborative effort of the UFT, the Department of Education and the City University of New York in which CTE graduates become CTE teachers. Kavral began student teaching in 2013. Three years later, McCarthy, her mentor, became her colleague.
At the time, there were three plumbing teachers at Queens Tech. But Kavral, one of only two female plumbing teachers in New York City public schools, now leads the program on her own.
McCarthy, who recently retired, called Kavral “an amazing teacher” who has earned the respect she commands. “She’s pulling the full weight, and that’s not easy to do,” he said.
Kavral initially wanted to pursue business at Queens Tech, but she chose plumbing after being exposed to all the trades in a rotation during freshman year. “I got to explore it, and I fell in love with it,” she said.
The program was satisfying because she put the theory she learned into practice right away. “In plumbing, you learn something and you come in here and whatever you learn, you’re going to do,” she said during a recent class as the room filled with the sounds of students hammering copper pipes. “I like that instant gratification.”
Many of her colleagues were once her teachers. “This school is kind of like home. I graduated from here and I came back here,” she said. “I tell the students I feel like I’m a super, super, super senior.”
In her plumbing class of 28 juniors, four are young women. Kavral was one of three female plumbing students in the Class of 2011. There have been other years with more girls,
“Typically, a lot of girls, their initial thought is that they don’t want plumbing, and then they come in and they try it” during the freshman rotation, Kavral said.
Locally and nationally, a majority of the students in construction-trade programs in high school are male, and that gender imbalance continues into the workforce. In New York City in 2020, just 8.7% of all workers in the industry were women, according to a March 2022 New York Building Congress and New York Building Foundation report.
But there is greater wage equity than in the overall workforce. The median weekly earnings of full-time female workers in the construction trades were 93.4% of what men earned in 2019, compared with 81.5% of what men made in the workforce as a whole, a 2021 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics report found.
McCarthy said he always stressed to his female students the importance of being able to support themselves in life. When it comes down to it, “a union wage is a union wage, male or female,” he said.
One recent morning, juniors peppered Kavral with questions as they measured, cut and soldered copper pipes to create a segment of a water-supply system. She answered each of them but said next year, she will be tougher. “My seniors, every time they have a question, I minus 10 points,” she said.
It’s all part of preparing them for the trade. “I tell them when you work in plumbing, your boss isn’t going to come with you. The boss doesn’t want to be bothered every time you have a question,” she said.
Kavral likes teaching plumbing theory. Plumbing is “kind of like a puzzle” to solve, she said. “It has to run, and you just have to figure out how you can do it.”
She also enjoys seeing the look on her students’ faces when something clicks.
She hasn’t encountered any problems as a female teacher in a majority-male program. All teachers have to prove themselves to their students, she said. “Every time they have an issue and I can resolve it, they start to realize, ‘Oh, she knows what she’s talking about,’ ” Kavral said. “We earn their respect.”
What matters is that Kavral knows plumbing and is a great teacher, said 16-year-old Ali. “She’s more experienced than all of us,” he said.
Jonathan, 16, who initially chose the computer technology trade, said Kavral is an inspiration and pushes students to excel. “She’s the best,” he said. “I don’t really like learning and, if I’m being honest, I don’t really like school to begin with, but I just focus on plumbing and the reason is Miss Kavral.”
Math teacher Jessica Ferrara, the UFT chapter leader at Queens Tech, said Kavral is a role model for students, especially young women, who see there is opportunity in a nontraditional career path.
“She really stepped up to the plate and took on a huge workload,” Ferrara said, “and she’s doing a phenomenal job at it.”
The print version of this New York Teacher article incorrectly states there is only one female plumbing teacher in New York City public schools. There are, in fact, two. Denise Montes teaches the trade at Bronx Design and Construction Academy. We regret the error.