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Idaho’s new Teacher of the Year wants students to ‘know it’s OK to talk about not being OK’

UPDATED: Thu., Sept. 26, 2019

Timberlake Junior High teacher Stacie Lawler reacts after hearing that she is Idaho Teacher of the Year at the school in Spirit Lake on Thursday, Sept. 26, 2019. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)
Timberlake Junior High teacher Stacie Lawler reacts after hearing that she is Idaho Teacher of the Year at the school in Spirit Lake on Thursday, Sept. 26, 2019. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)

A Thursday morning surprise at Timberlake Junior High brought about 300 students to their feet at the Spirit Lake school’s first assembly of the year.

Stacie Lawler, a physical education and health teacher known for her love of students and promotion of mental health, will be Idaho’s Teacher of the Year starting in 2020.

“I am shocked,” said Lawler, who was sitting on a desk talking to students when her family and a parade of elected officials, including Gov. Brad Little and Superintendent of Public Instruction Sherri Ybarra, walked into her classroom before the assembly.

“I just knew I couldn’t be in the gym,” she said through tears.

Mental health and suicide prevention will be at the forefront of Lawler’s platform as state teacher of the year, she said. She’ll be a representative for educators at the state Legislature and travel to Washington, D.C., as a nominee for National Teacher of the Year.

“I just want people to know it’s OK to talk about not being OK,” said Lawler, who happened to be wearing a T-shirt from a suicide prevention and awareness 5K walk.

Her passion for mental health started about five years ago when her son was a freshman at Boise State University, she said. He was admitted to a mental health hospital after having suicidal thoughts.

That’s when lesson chapters she taught her health classes about social-emotional health hit home, she said.

“My passion started because I was a mom,” Lawler said.

She said she realized she was ill-equipped to help her son, and that concern extended to her students, as well as to whether other teachers were prepared.

Lawler helped build a program that brought in outside experts to train school employees how to address students’ difficult issues and helped create a community coalition to talk about suicide. She also co-wrote a grant application that instituted a program at the school to train students in changing campus culture and prevent suicide.

In her classes, she decided to make her lessons on mental health more real and relatable by openly discussing her son’s struggles, as well as other instances of mental health issues within her family.

“There is nobody in this world that is more dedicated to you guys,” Principal Chris McDougall told the student body.

After the assembly, dozens of kids hugged Lawler on their way back to class.

“She’s been my favorite teacher since the day I got here,” said eighth-grader Nacree Kyllonen, who had Lawler as teacher and track coach last year. “She’s always there for us.”

Kyllonen and Kayla Thompson, another eight-grader, said their bond with Lawler happened instantly.

“She cares deeply for us,” Thompson said.

Lawler is the first teacher from the Lakeland Joint School District to be named teacher of the year. Over the last five years at the junior high, she has earned district teacher of the year three times. She was also named district teacher of the year while at Twin Lakes Elementary School.

“This is one of the coolest things I’ve experienced as an educator,” McDougall said.

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