MANATEE COUNTY, Fla. (WFLA) – A Manatee County high school biology teacher is hoping to win $10,000 from an online yoga competition to use in her classroom to benefit her students.

Kayla McCarthy teaches honors and Advanced Placement biology at Parrish Community High School.

In addition to teaching higher-level science, she also practices and teaches yoga, something she’s done since college.

“So yoga became a way for me just to manage my stress. It wasn’t something I was really familiar with. I’ve never been a very physical person. Like, I’m not good at sports,” McCarthy explained. 

McCarthy wasn’t initially hooked on yoga. She said it wasn’t until about six or seven years ago that she gave it another try and said it’s been changing her life ever since, helping her breathe and learn how to approach situations differently.

“It’s really taken me from being a reactive person to a proactive person, where I can sit back and think about how I want to be instead of just responding to a situation,” she said.

She said that’s something she believes is needed more in schools, and she’s trying to share it with as many kids as possible. McCarthy teaches a free yoga class on campus every Tuesday, and the yoga studio where she teaches offers free classes every Friday.

“So if I can share what worked for me, maybe we can have this generation of healthy, socially capable, stress-managing individuals,” she said.

This year, McCarthy said she has spent around $5,000 of her own money to go toward her classroom, as things like pencils, paper, and pens are not provided to teachers or students. She said students sometimes come to class unprepared.

“Teachers are never going to let their lack of supplies take away from their learning. So any teacher anywhere is going to have a closet full of stuff and of course, those things add up,” McCarthy said.

It’s especially difficult in a science classroom. She calls it a “constant investment” with prices going up.

“Just because again, there’s so many materials that are consumable that are not provided because, you know, if you’re doing just plain old textbook work every day, of course, those textbooks are provided to you,” McCarthy said.

While she acknowledges incorporating different materials into her lessons is technically optional, to her, it just isn’t.

“It’s such a foundational part of a science education. So all of those materials. Whether it’s plates, it’s cups, gloves, vinegar, eggs, baking soda, whatever it might be, that’s all on the teacher. So it becomes sometimes a struggle between, ‘do I want to do this lab?’ and ‘can I afford this lab?’” she said.

McCarthy said a recent lab she taught cost around $60 of her own money. She’s done at least one lab per month between AP and honors classes and said it’s been early over $100 a month just in material.

She also helps out less fortunate students, spending money to stock up on snacks.

“Granted, they get free lunch, but it’s small, and they’re hungry. I cannot focus when I’m hungry, so we have in my room, we have this rewards system where they earn ‘bio bucks’ for positive behaviors, for turning in work, for winning games and they can spend their ‘bio bucks’ to purchase snacks, which of course is not really money, so the real money spent is on me,” she said.

McCarthy also has a cabinet of snacks specifically for students who don’t typically ask for help. There, she keeps healthier, more expensive snacks for students who are not getting healthier foods anywhere else.

She found out about the Yoga Warrior competition through Instagram, where she shares tips on the more mindful aspect of practicing yoga, rather than tips for difficult poses.

McCarthy submitted an application to the competition and heard back two weeks later. She’s since made it through to the quarter-finals.

The competition’s grand prize is $10,000. McCarthy is after the prize to help fund her classroom for the next few years. She said in addition to basic supplies and snacks, she would use the money to continue to create a comfortable, safe classroom for her students.

“I’ve got comfy seating. We have couches in here. Which is really abnormal for a science lab, but it’s so important to me that they have a place to go when they finish their work when they’re comfortable,” McCarthy said. “I have kids who get passes when they’re not feeling well and they come in and they spend 10-15 minutes just sitting. They all call this ‘the zen classroom,’ the chill room.” 

Overall, winning the competition would help validate everything she’s been working for, McCarthy said.

“It’s so hard sometimes with imposter syndrome and just feeling like, ‘am I good enough for this? Who am I to be telling you how to make your life better when I’m still struggling?’ I talk to the kids all the time about managing your emotions and healthy coping skills and how to maintain a positive outlook and I’ve struggled with anxiety, depression, mental health and it’s an ongoing struggle,” she said.

Those in the community can vote for McCarthy for free, once a day, with a Facebook account. Monetary donations are also accepted and count as votes and 25% of the proceeds from all votes will benefit a yoga charity for veterans.

“Winning this would kind of just be that validation that shows me, ‘you know what, I’m doing what I’m here to do. I’m doing what I’m meant to be doing. I’m here and I’m making a difference.’” McCarthy said. “Because that’s what really any teacher wants. Yoga teacher, high school teacher, that’s all teachers want. We’re in it because we love working with people.”