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South Salt Lake Journal

Cottonwood English teacher named Utah Teacher of Year, encourages students to have a voice

Oct 10, 2019 10:03AM ● By Julie Slama

Cottonwood High’s English teacher Lauren Merkley, seen here at a tailgate party before the school’s homecoming, was all smiles after being named state Teacher of the Year. (Julie Slama/City Journals)

By Julie Slama|[email protected]

Hundreds of students have benefitted from a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity — being taught by the 2019–20 state Teacher of the Year.

While many students have enrolled in her English classes the past five years, they have known something others outside of Cottonwood High are realizing now — that Lauren Merkley stands apart from her peers, intertwining fun with learning and making students feel successful.

“My daughter says that she makes every student feel smart,” said Cottonwood Alumni Association Co-president Jane Metcalf. “She is just fabulous with the kids.”

Not one to bask in the limelight and quick to embarrass, Merkley said she was humbled when the state Teacher of the Year Award was presented to her Sept. 5, the night before Cottonwood’s homecoming celebration where she was honored again at a pep assembly and at halftime of the football game.

“It was like the ‘teacher Oscars,’” said the five-year veteran teacher. “It was all fun. I wasn’t nervous because I talked about something I care about. I love teaching.”

Merkley, who graduated from Cornell University in English, knew she wanted to teach, but she didn’t begin that career until after working in the fundraising field for 10 years.

“I always wanted to be a teacher, but I got involved in grant writing,” said the beloved teacher who grew up outside of Chicago in Evanston, Ill. “I knew I wanted to teach kids from all over the world, and when we moved here and I interviewed with (then principal) Alan Parrish, I knew Cottonwood was the perfect school for me.”

While many first-year teachers are nervous about meeting students, grading papers and teaching the curriculum, Merkley said that first year “was a magical time. There’s no love like a first, and the relationship with those students was very special. It’s the hardest work I’ve ever done, but those kids mean everything.”

During that first year, Merkley’s students read George Orwell’s “1984,” and through discussion, they “learned the novel provided them arguments for what the most important thing was that they wanted the world to know.”

So Merkley embraced that concept and lead students outside where they wrote their messages on the sidewalk for what they wanted the world to know.

“One of the biggest things I do is to let everyone have a voice. They can express their opinion and interpretation, and others can disagree, but they need to be welcome. I remember Mr. (Warren) Wolfe when he taught me at Evanston Township High School, smiling and welcoming me to express my dissent about the interpretation of ‘A Streetcar Named Desire.’ I don’t know if he supported it or not, but we had an amazing discussion,” she said.

They also listened to Merkley recite Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” in a dark classroom, used for effect.

“I wanted them to experience a taste of what it was about,” she said.

Many of those students she had in the first year ended up being taught by Merkley again in her second year as she began teaching AP English Language.

“I want them to get to know rhetoric, how to read about the world, news, politics. We’ve had amazing discussions after reading about capital punishment. We’ve learned about 9/11, and I’ve shared what it was like living in New York at the time. We’ve analyzed citizenship and have read political cartoons. The class attracts students once they realize it’s more real world and not ‘old books’ as some students say,” she said. 

Cottonwood Assistant Principal Mike Miller said he learns something every time he observes Merkley teach.

“She’s simply amazing,” he said. “Every time I observe her, I wish I would have been as good as her.”

While Merkley admits teaching can be hard work and isn’t always fun — grading papers is her least favorite part — she has learned to keep a “locket” of notes from students who have appreciated her dedication and thanked her for teaching them. 

Some of those students may have been the ones who also have nominated her for Cottonwood’s Outstanding Teacher of the Year.

Last spring, Merkley knew she was one of nine educators and one administrator who won Granite School District’s Excel Awards. She received $1,000 and a sculpture at the banquet.

From there, she completed an application and wrote essays and was observed teaching by a committee before being named the district’s overall outstanding teacher in May.

Over the summer, the process didn’t lighten up as she wrote more essays and interviewed with the state board of education, PTA and teacher unions representatives, former Teacher of the Year and others before being awarded $10,000, a wooden mantel clock and the title of the State Teacher of the Year.

“I learned I was one of the five finalists earlier, but I didn’t know until the ceremony that I won,” she said. “I thanked my husband, who is my biggest supporter. He will sit beside me as I grade papers.”

She also thanked her students.

“Her speech last night was humble and advocating for all the kids,” Principal Terri Roylance said. “Her passion is the kids, but she was absolutely shocked to win. We are all so proud of her.”

Granite School District Superintendent Martin Bates agrees.

“We couldn’t be more proud, and flat out honored to have her on our team,” he said. “What a deserving person. The kids just worship her and there is a genuine gracious love for her. She really cares for them and is a great representative for the state of Utah.”

Merkley represents the state, and she and other state and territory winners will be considered by the national selection committee for the National Teacher of the Year, who will be introduced to the American people by the U.S. president. During the official year of recognition, the National Teacher of the Year will travel nationally and internationally as a spokesperson and advocate for the teaching profession. 

However, Merkley hadn’t even thought about any of that after receiving a 10-minute standing ovation at the school’s pep assembly and before going out at halftime on the football field of the homecoming game.

“This has all been shocking; it’s taken my breath away,” she said. “It’s all very touching. I just love the kids. I know it sounds cliché, but it’s the truth. I love being in their corner, being their champ, watching them find their way from squirrely 16-year-olds and blossoming in the world.”

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