Donner Trail Elementary educator is Teacher of the Year Finalist

Katie Fagundes
Special to the Bonanza
Courtesy Michael Gelbman

TRUCKEE, Calif. — Donner Trail Elementary teacher Judy Finney has been selected as the third finalist for the Truckee Hometown SEARS-Sierra Sun Teacher of the Year. The committee was excited to recognize Finney’s years of dedication and commitment to students.

Susan Phebus, principal of Donner Trail Elementary responded enthusiastically to Finney’s selection.

“She is without a doubt one of the strongest teachers I have worked with,” said Phebus.

Michelle Reed, Finney’s colleague and one of last year’s Teacher of the Year finalists, praised Finney’s dedication to her students.

“There is nobody that is more dedicated to students than Judy Finney,” said Reed.

On March 22, Charlie Riley, owner of Truckee Hometown SEARS; Michael Gelbman,, publisher of the Sierra Sun; and Cathy Preis, Plumas Bank Branch Services Manager, presented Finney with her finalist certificate. Finney also received a $50 gift certificate to The Office Boss in Truckee from Plumas Bank and a $50 certificate from the Truckee Hometown SEARS store.

Judy Finney

It surprises few to find Judy Finney at 7 p.m. in her classroom, long after the final bell has rung, busily correcting papers. She has impressed colleagues, students and their parents with her hard work and dedication to student success throughout her teaching career.

Finney, originally from Southern California, attend University of Oregon and earned a degree in Psychology. She went on to earn a MA in Recreation Administration and multiple teaching credentials from California State University Chico.

She currently holds a K-12 Multiple Subject credential as well as Single Subject credentials in English, Psychology and Physical Education. Proud of her alma mater and educational achievements, Finney keeps her degree in the classroom where students can see it as a goal for their future.

Finney has worked as a teacher for more than 20 years, most of that time for Tahoe Truckee Unified School District, after moving to the area in the 1980s. Her broad experience includes teaching high school, continuation high school, elementary school and subbing all grade levels. She currently teaches 4th/5th grade class at Donner Trail Elementary, where she has worked 18 years. Finney undoubtedly enjoys teaching this age group that she describes as fun, fascinating and creative.

“All the seeds are starting to bloom at this moment,” said Finney. “Every student has something to offer the world, my job is to find it, and help them recognize it in themselves.”

Parents appreciate her efforts to provide an environment where students grow. They recognize her caring and supportive classroom helps students to achieve academically.

“(Finney) gives the students nurturing, caring, positive reinforcement, life skills, you name it, to take the next educational step,” wrote one parent nominator.

Donner Trail Elementary is a small school where big things happen. Finney and other teachers at the school find creative ways to enhance student learning. Teachers use their unique outdoor environment and multiage, cross grade, cross curriculum activities to provide enriching experiences. Finney finds days like River Day, a day when students use the Yuba River, adjacent to the school as a learning environment, particularly fulfilling.

“Older students take the small children through the day,” said Finney. “It’s really rewarding teaching responsibility and leadership.”

Finney herself serves as a leader at the school. Teachers at Donner Trail share Principal Phebus with another campus. Phebus is there throughout the week but relies on teachers to meet the daily needs of students.

“Teachers provide the backbone at Donner Trail,” said Phebus. “Judy is one of the instructional leaders at the school.”

Finney recognizes that community support helps her to be a better teacher. She describes the Parent Teacher Organization at Donner Trail Elementary as phenomenal. The PTO contributes to the school through a variety of programs and events each year including a Thanksgiving Fundraising dinner that raises thousands of dollars for special school activities.

“I appreciate how the community values education,” said Finney. “It makes the job as a teacher so much easier.”

Finney finds the Tahoe community, as a whole, inspiring and supportive. The Tahoe Truckee Excellence in Education Foundation and Truckee Literacy Program are two ways Finney says the community shows support for education.

“Whenever a need is identified people say oh we can do that,” said Finney. “It is the same can do attitude I want my students to take into life.”

Finney uses her own positive attitude as a leader at school.

“She sets a positive tone and kids learn how to use their words,” said Phebus. “She greets (students) every day with a warm smile and a hug.”

It is clear to colleagues, students and their parents that Finney cares sincerely about the students she teaches each year.

“I have a saying, kids don’t care how much you know until they know you care and (Finney) exudes that as an exemplar,” said Phebus.

Colleague Michelle Reed agrees, sharing that students still keep in touch with Finney for support and have reconnected with Finney to thank her for being there during difficult times in their childhood.

“One of her most outstanding traits is her connection with children,” said Reed. “Students have a deep connection with Judy; they know she will do anything to help them be their best.”

After more than 20 years of teaching Finney is still excited to teach every day. She loves working with students that are curious to learn and open books. Her students are what keep her engaged and she loves to see their “ah ha” excitement when they learn something new.

“The kids every single day make me glad I come to this job,” said Finney.

Support Local Journalism


Support Local Journalism

Readers around Lake Tahoe, Truckee, and beyond make the Sierra Sun's work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.

Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.

Your donation will help us continue to cover COVID-19 and our other vital local news.