KINGVALE, Calif. — With youthful eyes glued to her, Judi Finney stands in front of a dry erase board and underlines the first “9” in the number 3.99.
She asks her fifth-grade students what the decimal would round to at the nearest tenth. The answer: 4.0.
“What happened?” asks one of her students. “How is it 4.0?”
Electing to go over the problem again, Finney navigates the children through each step of the solution before letting them tackle the next problem on their own.
“My philosophy is do what’s best for kids,” Finney said, whether that’s going over a problem again or forming an additional reading group to reach all her students. “That makes my job harder sometimes, but it keeps it more authentic.”
Finney, who has taught at Donner Trail Elementary for 19 years, is Tahoe Truckee Unified School District’s Teacher of the Year for the 2013-14 school year.
“(Finney) is a master at the art and craft of teaching,” said TTUSD Superintendent Rob Leri. “She understands it does not take much skill to give an explanation that only half the kids get, or to tell them to ‘read the chapter and answer the questions at the end.’
“What makes a teacher irreplaceable is the ability to form learning relationships with students, to interpret the difficult and enliven the dull, to engage and involve students in their own learning.”
On Monday, Finney took her multi-age fourth/fifth-grade class to the banks of the South Yuba River, just outside the elementary school in Kingvale, west of Truckee, where students drew what they saw and recorded what they heard, smelled and felt.
It was part of a riparian environment lesson that will continue later this week when the class goes to Mono Lake to compare and contrast the two water environments.
“She’s the best teacher ever,” said Isabelle Salmon, a fifth-grader in Finney’s class. “She makes learning fun. She doesn’t get mad at you when you get something wrong; she helps you.”
It’s a sentiment echoed by many other students in Finney’s class, all of them eager to share their opinion of their teacher.
As TTUSD Teacher of Year, Finney was recognized at the Sept. 4 school board meeting. She also competed in the Placer County Teacher of the Year program.
“As teachers, we must never forget the power we wield with our words,” Finney wrote as part of her application for the Placer County honor. “Each day I enter my classroom I think about the opportunity I have to change lives and the responsibility that comes with it.”
Finney, who comes from a family of educators, was inspired to become a teacher while working with high school students. At the time she was working on her master’s degree in recreation administration at California State University, Chico.
“What I realized was that I wasn’t in it for the income; I was in it for the outcome — seeing students be successful, seeing them change and grow, and knowing that you have an impact in that way,” Finney said.
To this day, she finds having that impact the most rewarding aspect of her job, she said.
Finney, who joined TTUSD in 1989, has been recognized in the past for her work. She is a Linda Brown Fellow, a Teacher Who Makes a Difference winner, and a finalist in the Sierra Sun’s 2013 Teacher of the Year award, sponsored by Truckee Hometown SEARS, The Office Boss and Plumas Bank.
“She deserves it,” said Brooke Hansford, a fifth-grader, when asked about Finney’s honor through TTUSD. “She spends time, she works for it, and she takes it seriously. When (she) gets nominated like that it makes you feel like you have one of the best teachers.”
When she’s not teaching, Finney enjoys reading, biking, fishing and watching her daughter play collegiate volleyball.
Finney has a bachelor’s in psychology from the University of Oregon and a master’s in recreation administration and a teaching credential from Chico.
“I just feel really blessed to teach in this school district,” she said. “I’ve taught in others, and to teach in this district and this community that values their children and education, is a gift.”
“What I realized was that I wasn’t in it for the income; I was in it for the outcome.”
2013-14 TTUSD Teacher of the Year