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South Salt Lake Journal

Lauren Merkley of Cottonwood High is Granite District’s Teacher of the Year

Jun 18, 2019 02:25PM ● By Heather Lawrence

Surprise! Students and faculty at Cottonwood High School celebrate as English teacher Lauren Merkley learns she has won Granite District’s Teacher of the Year 2018-19. (Photo courtesy Granite School District)

By Heather Lawrence | [email protected]

Most high school students study Shakespeare. But when Granite District’s Teacher of the Year Lauren Merkley teaches his plays, she takes it up a notch.  

“My first experience observing (Merkley) was the day she was introducing ‘Macbeth.’ She rearranged the seating, dimmed the lights and then slowly walked across the room quoting the lines in a Scottish brogue. Her students were completely starstruck!” said Cottonwood Principal Terri Roylance.

Merkley, who grew up in Chicago, has taught English classes at Cottonwood for four years. “I always wanted to be a teacher, but somehow I got sidetracked and worked for about 10 years in fundraising while I was living in New York,” Merkley said. 

When her husband moved to Utah for work four years ago, it provided the push she needed to look into teaching. “I found that Utah has the Alternative Routes to Licensure program. I got a job at Cottonwood using that program and have been here ever since,” Merkley said. 

Merkley is no stranger to recognition. “I can confidently say that Lauren is a truly gifted teacher.  She was the Murray City Teacher of the Year from Cottonwood in 2017-18, and an Excel Award winner for 2018-19. She is fabulous!” said Roylance.

Granite’s process for selecting a teacher of the year starts with a nomination process. Teachers who win the Excel Award during the current year or in past years are eligible for Teacher of the Year. This year there were over 20 applicants. 

Merkley stood out at Cottonwood in many ways, one of which was by encouraging students to take more rigorous courses. “Lauren is a member of Cottonwood’s Equal Opportunity Schools (EOS) team. Through her work, there was an increase in AP course enrollment of 150 students,” Roylance said. 

Merkley said, “When EOS came into our school for the first time this year, I was recruited to the team. I saw that the demographic of students taking AP courses was not representative of our Cottonwood population. We have a high refugee and immigrant population. They may not know what an AP class is or that you can get college credit while in high school,” said Merkley. 

Merkley assisted in administering a survey to every student in school. “We wanted to know what barriers were keeping underserved students from signing up. Eventually, we met one-on-one with over 300 students that were good candidates and extended an invitation to be part of these classes,” Merkley said. 

Merkley’s experiences at Cottonwood have taught her something she was unprepared for: love. “I had no idea how much I would love these kids. I feel like it’s taught me a capacity for love. I did not know how much I could care about 186 squirrely 16-year-olds,” Merkley said.   

Roylance said she sees the effects of Merkley’s student-centered teaching approach in her students. “I was speaking to a couple of athletes who were in my office to discuss graduation.  The subject of inspiring teachers came up. Both boys spent the next 10 minutes telling me what an impact Ms. Merkley had in their lives,” said Roylance. 

In addition to being the AP English language teacher and the English 11 teacher, Merkley serves as a member of Cottonwood’s leadership team. “She’s very approachable and always makes positive contributions to our team meetings,” Roylance said. “Lauren is an invaluable asset to our school and has been from the minute she received the assignment to teach at Cottonwood.”

Merkley said the recognition is nice, but for her it’s always going to be about the students. “There’s that magic moment when a student learns something or understands something; I could live off that for weeks.”