McKay High School teacher Larkin Foley (Courtesy/Salem-Keizer School District)

As a college senior at Willamette University, Larkin Foley got a chance to tutor local high school students.

She was at the whiteboard, writing out an algebra problem for a small group. As the math started making sense to them, Foley realized she loved helping others learn and decided to become a teacher.

“I still get goosebumps on my arms when there’s a moment that reminds me of that,” she said.

Foley has spent her decade-long teaching career at Salem’s McKay High School, teaching English classes for students struggling to graduate and serving as the school’s coordinator for the Achievement Via Individual Determination leadership program.

On Tuesday, she was named Teacher of the Year for the Willamette region, making her one a of 15 finalists for the state award. The Oregon Teacher of the Year will be announced in the fall.

Salem-Keizer Superintendent Christy Perry and McKay Principal Rob Schoepper nominated Foley, citing her efforts to get to know students personally and encourage them as a factor in boosting the high school’s graduation rate in recent years.

“Larkin makes a difference in our kids’ lives. She’s authentic, genuine and trustworthy, and on top of that, she’s an outstanding educator. This recognition couldn’t go to a better candidate,” Schoepper said in a news release.

Last fall, Foley was recognized with a Crystal Apple award from the Salem-Keizer Education Foundation. In her nomination packet, fellow teacher Terra Shiffer recounted a meeting they had over the summer to finalize the school planner. Foley was interrupted by a call from a recent McKay graduate, who had a scholarship fall through, jeopardizing her dream of being the first in her family to attend college.

“Larkin immediately went into rescue mode, and over the next few days she contacted every resource she knew of,” Shiffer wrote.

With Foley’s help, the student attended Western Oregon University as planned.

Foley learned of the award Monday after Schoepper asked her to video call him following a virtual staff meeting. On the call, Perry surprised her with the news.

Foley said she’s received emails from current and former colleagues and students congratulating her.

Reflecting on her career now is a blessing, she said, when teachers are working at home and it’s easier to feel alone.

“Selfishly, it could not be a better time for me to realize that this work is worth doing,” she said. “One really challenging thing about distance learning is we’re not seeing to see the faces and the impact in the same way we do when we’re in the buildings together. I think all educators could use minute-by-minute, hour-by-hour daily reminders this work is powerful and it matters.”

Foley said she shares credit with her colleagues and students who have given her honest feedback, encouraged her and pushed her to become a better educator.

“I really hope in some way this can feel like a win for everybody because there are hundreds of people who have supported me along the way when I’ve had doubts about ‘Am I even a good teacher?’” she said.

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