‘The Pied Piper of English’: Utah’s new Teacher of the Year fills her class with lamps and laughs — and the students come running

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Cottonwood High School English teacher Lauren Merkley is honored and humbled as she is interviewed following her announcement as this year's teacher of the year during the school's pep rally on Friday, Sept. 6, 2019.

Lauren Merkley never turns on the buzzy, bright fluorescent lights in her classroom.

Instead, the English teacher walks around the desks and chairs and shelves to where she’s placed 12 different lamps — a colorful assortment she’s picked up at her local thrift store — and slowly switches them on until there’s a warm glow. It feels like a living room. And that’s what she wants.

“It’s a sanctuary,” Merkley said. “It’s a place where students can have discussions and think and disagree and talk about books.”

In large part because of the welcoming and a little bit eclectic atmosphere she’s created in her class, Merkley was named Utah’s Teacher of the Year on Thursday night. With the award, she receives $10,000 — which, she jokes, she might just spend on more lamps.

“I could have like 50 in there,” she said with a laugh.

Merkley, 36, has taught at Cottonwood High in Murray for five years and started her teaching career there. On Friday morning, her students filled the school’s auditorium to congratulate her on the award and cheer as she walked into the bright stage lights.

“Merkley, Merkley, Merkley,” they shouted.

Cheerleaders shook their pompoms at her as the teacher accepted a bouquet of yellow roses and black balloons — the school’s colors — and tried to hold back tears when she got to the podium. Her voice was shaking, but it didn’t matter. Most of what she said was drowned out by the whistles and claps.

“You’ve already made me cry and it’s not even 9 a.m., so thank you,” she said. “I am touched and honored and humbled and feel unworthy. If you have had me, you know that I am not a perfect teacher, but I am your teacher.”

The students were also there for their Homecoming celebrations — but they asked Merkley to kick it off.

“She’s probably one of the best teachers I’ve ever had,” said Mary Neilson, a junior who is in Merkley’s advanced placement language arts class this year. “Her class is alive. She engages you.”

When the award was announced by the Utah Board of Education, Cottonwood High Principal Terri Roylance said she wasn’t surprised that Merkley was the 2020 winner. But, she joked, Merkley was.

“I will never forget the look of complete humble surprise,” Roylance said. “Mrs. Merkley had no clue. But she’s an outstanding teacher.”

With the award, Merkley also gets a trip to Washington, D.C., to meet President Donald Trump and the chance to compete for the title of national Teacher of the Year. She succeeds last year’s Utah Teacher of the Year, Kellie May, and will stand next to Rebecca Richardson from East High and Kelland Davis from North Davis Junior High School, who were named runner-ups.

At Cottonwood High, Merkley teaches advanced placement classes and English for 11th graders. As Teacher of the Year, she said, she wants to be an advocate for other teachers to not feel like they have to be perfect. When she’s seen others get awards, Merkley added, it’s been easy to think: “Their classroom must be full of angels.”

But being an educator doesn’t work like that.

“It’s the most challenging thing I’ve ever done,” she said. “And I was a fundraiser before this, asking people for seven-figure donations.”

The state faces a critical shortage of teachers. And fewer college graduates are choosing to go into the field, citing the long hours and low pay.

What many don’t understand, though, Merkley said, is that those are more than made up for by the chance to work with students and help those who are underrepresented. Cottonwood High has a large refugee and immigration population.

“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.”

In her English classes, Merkley tries to focus on teaching her students about equity and diversity and justice. One of her favorite books they read is “Just Mercy” by Bryan Stevenson. It’s about a black attorney defending those on death row in the American South.

Pamela Muvunyi, a senior and a black student, remembers reading it last year and being blown away. Merkley then recommended she read “Between the World and Me” by Ta-Nehisi Coates about being black and young in the United States.

“I felt included and like my voice matters,” Muvunyi said.

The point of both the literature selections and the lamps is to make the classroom more inviting for everyone, Merkley said. It’s something she learned from one of her high school teachers, Mr. Wolfe, when she was in his literature class in 2001 growing up in Chicago. It was cozy and all perspectives were included.

“He was the spark,” she said. “The most inspiring teacher I ever had — I need to tell him about being Teacher of the Year. It’s because of him.”

On Friday, Merkley said the credit also goes to her students for being engaged and excited. The head counselor at Cottonwood High added that Merkley is like “the Pied Piper of English class.”

“Kids enroll in her classes in droves because they believe she is personally invested in their success and has the ability to help them reach their goals,” Amanda Calton said. “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.”

Muvunyi joked it might have something to do with the lamps. In her English class this year with another teacher, she can’t stop focusing on the fluorescents overhead.