MURRAY — In ways big and small, Cottonwood High School celebrated one of its own Friday after English teacher Lauren Merkley was named Utah’s 2020 Teacher of the Year.
The accomplishment was observed during Cottonwood’s homecoming pep rally in the school’s auditorium, where students cheered, screamed and chanted Merkley’s name.
“You’ve already made me cry and it’s not even 9 a.m. so, thank you,” she said clutching a bouquet of yellow roses and a bunch of gold and black balloons, Cottonwood’s school colors.
Merkley, a large-gifts fundraiser turned high school English teacher, has taught at the Granite District school for five years, which is her first teaching job.
Although the honor was announced at a banquet in a downtown hotel Thursday night, Merkley said sharing the recognition with Cottonwood students the morning after was in many respects “more moving.”
“To see them cheering, that moved me to tears,” she said. “They’re the reason we do everything we do. It’s the reason I do everything I do.”
Merkley, 36, said she was inspired to become an English teacher by her own high school English teacher, Mr. Wolfe.
Mr. Wolfe’s classroom was furnished with couches and lamps, she recalled. “It felt like we’re in his living room having a discussion.”
Merkley’s classroom is also lit with a dozen lamps, which Cottonwood senior Scott Stephenson said gives it a “natural, homey feel.”
It’s a place that students feel comfortable speaking their minds “because you know you’re not going to be judged,” he said.
Stephenson, who had Merkley as a teacher his junior year, said she taught English, “but she taught us life skills outside of school, too. The biggest thing I remember was teaching us to challenge everything we hear on news or media because sometimes, not everything is true out there.”
Cottonwood student Pamela Muvunyi said Merkley’s classroom is inclusive and “she makes you feel welcome in her class,” which has not always been her experience, she said.
“She’s one of the first teachers that actually made me feel I can do it,” Muvunyi said.
Students enroll in Merkley’s class “in droves because they believe she is personally invested in their success and has the ability to help them reach their goals,” Cottonwood High’s head counselor Amanda Calton wrote in a nomination letter.
“I’ve never seen anything like it — especially as it pertains to first-generation college students and kids who have never before taken advanced classes. They come to her classes, they succeed, they build confidence, they continue to challenge themselves elsewhere.”
Teaching is a second career for Merkley, a Chicago native educated at Cornell University in Ithica, New York.
She worked in fundraising for a decade before moving to Utah five years ago with her husband.
“I asked people for millions of dollars. That was my job. That’s what I did. ... I was asking people for seven-figure gifts and this,” she said, referring to teaching, “is way harder than that.”
At a time when schools struggle to fill teaching vacancies and enrollments have waned in college schools of education, Merkley said people’s perception that teaching is hard work is accurate.
“It’s so, so, so hard many days. I want to be honest about that,” she said. “But the gifts that it gives are of untold value. The students are everything. They’re the reason I do everything.”
Teaching high school English — she teaches AP English and English 11 — gives Merkley the opportunity to shape young minds, instill a love of literature, teach them to think critically and to use their voices effectively, she said.
Merkley said she particularly enjoys teaching from the nonfiction book “Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption,” by Bryan Stevenson, a Harvard-educated lawyer who grew up poor in Delaware and is founder of the Equal Justice Initiative.
Afterward earning his law degree, Stevenson, who is black, represented poor clients in the the deep South.
“Just Mercy” focuses on his defense work and his clients, in particular Walter McMillian, whom Stevenson represented post-conviction. McMillian, who is black, was convicted and sentenced to die for the murder of a white woman who worked in a dry cleaning store in Monroeville, Alabama.
McMillian’s conviction was overturned by the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals and he was released in 1993, after spending six years on death row for a crime he did not commit.
“It’s sort of a window, this portal into another world for the kids. It’s a beautiful piece of text as being well as really effective. The kids say that’s the book they think about the most,” she said.
Merkley said another of her roles is to advocate for students by pushing back against policies that create roadblocks to their success.
For example, school attendance policies require parents to telephone the school to excuse their students’ absences.
“I have students whose parents can’t speak English,” so they are unable to communicate with school personnel and unexcused absences can affect students’ citizenship grades.
“I love thinking about and working on how do we remove these barriers, but it is an incredibly tricky, tricky issue,” she said.
Merkley serves on Cottonwood’s Equal Opportunity Schools team where she works to identify students from underrepresented groups to consider taking a more rigorous coursework, such as AP classes, concurrent enrollment, Career and Technical Education or honors courses.
She is also a member of Cottonwood’s leadership team.
“This team looks at school data to help identify the positive things that are going on in the school, as well as coming up with solutions for problems,” said Principal Terri Roylance.
Utah’s Teacher of the Year is selected by the Utah State Board of Education.
As this year’s winner, Merkley was presented a $10,000 check and will compete with top educators from other states for national honors. She will meet with fellow teachers of the year at a national conference, meet the president in Washington, D.C., and attend space camp in Alabama next summer.