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Lori Merrill 

The Association for Career and Technical Education (ACTE) has awarded Lori Merrill, Lead Medical Professions Instructor for the Cochise Technology District for her resilience and versatility in the face of distance.

Merrill, a Saint David resident, won the Association’s New Teacher of the Year Award for the state of Arizona last year, and was further recognized with the Region V tier of the award in May. ACTE’s Region V includes 16 states and six territories, spanning from American Samoa to Wyoming. Merrill is among three other Arizonan educators who were recognized by the Association in their eight Regional award categories.

ACTE will announce the winner of the national award on December 2-5 at their CareerTech Vision conference in Nashville, Tennessee.

Technology Districts

“We have a lot of rural schools in Cochise County,” said Merrill. “The Cochise Technology District is a bridge in between high schools and Cochise College.” When serving as the connection between different institutions, flexibility is important. Merrill said staying flexible and prepared is one her greatest strengths.

Because of Arizona law, many schools do not have the funding to support their own Career and Technical Education (CTE, or JTED alternatively) programs, so schools across counties must pool their resources to make a centralized organization such at the Cochise Technology District.

According to Cochise Technology District’s programs coordinator Tina Gudvangen, the CTEDs and JTEDs provide high quality career education in lucrative fields.

Merrill primarily taught Home Health Aid and Medical Professions last school year, both for high schools and Cochise College, and the District provides access to many disciplines through their programs. Merrill is currently the only teacher employed under the District.

In order to serve all residents of the county, from Benson to Bisbee to San Simon, Merrill had to travel often and master the art of hybrid distance teaching. The “hybrid” part of that term refers to Merrill’s ability to know students face-to-face while still reaching all her students virtually.

“We do as much as much as we can to keep students engaged… my students know me well, and one of the things which made that possible was the travel; meeting them, connecting with them, knowing who they were, you get to know their names a lot quicker.”

COVID-19

While she had the help of teachers assisting her in the other classrooms, her colleague Gudvangen will attest that Merrill’s job was far from easy. These skills became more critical after all learning moved online in order to observe social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Merrill’s prowess was so well recognized that the Pima JTED (Jobs and Career Technical Education) hired her to teach classes to their teachers about Zoom functions and security, keeping students involved in class at home, and carrying out lab assignments without a lab or teachers present. She said the JTED will likely do some of their health classes in the hybrid format next year. Pima JTED had formerly trained people at the district and provided support to the much smaller organization, but now the relationship has gone both ways.

“We have a great partnership with Pima JTED,” said Gudvangen.

Gudvangen said Merrill has left behind a legacy, both in her students and in the teachers she’s mentored, that will greatly improve the state of health education in Cochise County even after she leaves.

“Everyone knows what Zoom is now, but we’ve been doing this for a while,” said Merrill of distance learning. Her classes are lab intensive, and she says about half of her class was labs this year. She didn’t let the limitations of quarantine keep her students from executing their lab assignments.

“So many people have a negative experience with online learning,” said Gudvangen

“We had some lab check-offs they needed to do for Home Health Aid: they needed to assist with feeding and assist with feeding, and so they got a family member and they did both of those things. It was great,” said Merrill.

A JTED serves the same purpose as a CTE (Career and Technical Education).

Merrill’s coworker and programs coordinator at the Cochise Technology District Tina Gudvangen said, “I was the District’s first teacher and third employee, so I’ve been there since the beginning. We’ve had lots of new teachers come in and I’ve mentored them, and they’ve gone on to better things,” said Merrill, who joined the District in 2014. These teachers have gone on to teach everything from health to law enforcement to drones while staying in Cochise county.

Change in direction

Once Merrill graduated high school, she thought she wanted to pursue elementary education, but realized that wasn’t for her soon afterward. Instead she pursued nursing, and has been one for 15 years. She will start working on her doctorate as a pediatric nurse practitioner in the fall at the University of Arizona.

Next year, Merrill will transition into a role more focused on Professional Development, which focuses on continuing education, and will keep teaching educators how to teach in the hybrid format. Even after she finishes school Merrill plans to continue teaching and organizing health programs within school in conjunction with her career in nursing. She wants to continue serving the rural communities in the county because “any rural community is an under served community.”

Lila Tenniswood, certified nurse’s assistant and the Medical Professions teacher at Willcox High School, will step into what Merrill’s role was last year.

“She’s going to be wonderful, I’m very excited,” said Merrill about Tenniswood.

“I’m happy for (Merrill) but sad for us at the district. She has left a legacy,” said Gudvangen.

“Combining different places and cultures open up students’ minds… that’s something very important in healthcare,” said Merrill about her classes with school from all over the county. She does not allow for rivalries in her classes but encourages her students to work together and learn from each other.

“(In Home Health Aid) I recently… had a group of three students from Tombstone, a student from Benson, and a student from Bisbee, and those five girls worked together so well and had a really good experience. It was not awkward for them to do labs with each other, check off skills for each other because they knew each other,” said Merrill.

“The positives of the inter-connectivity between students are huge,” said Gudvangen.

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