LARGO — Having a dog in an elementary school classroom could be a distraction for everyone involved.

But that’s not the case in Scott Finn’s fifth-grade math class at Southern Oak Elementary School.

Finn, a former Marine who did two tours in Iraq, started taking his service dog, Buena, to school with him after his family pet died. Thanks to the excellent training the 2-year-old yellow Lab received from Southeastern Guide Dogs, Buena is like any other well-behaved pupil in the classroom, allowing Finn to draw the undivided attention of his pupils and earning the 28-year-old some well-deserved recognition. He has been named Southern Oak’s Teacher of the Year and is a nominee for the iCare Foundation’s Cheers to Public Service awards.

“It’s overwhelming,” Finn said during a class break on Feb. 8. “I feel like there’s so many great teachers that I see on a daily basis doing what they’re supposed to be doing that basically I’m just getting recognized for doing what we all should be doing. It’s like opening a present on Christmas Day — I don’t want all eyes on me because this is what you should be doing.”

Finn’s humble nature belies the impact he has had on his kids, a group that’s been together in his math and science classroom for two years and seemingly hangs on his every word during his lessons.

“This is a very deserving honor for him because he brings a lot of passion in connecting with the kids,” Southern Oak Principal Jeffrey Moss said. “He’s got a unique background, being a Marine, and it’s been exciting to see not only the energy and enthusiasm for the curriculum but the relationship he has with the kids is very telling, and his impact on them is apparent.”

Indeed, spending some time in Finn’s classroom provides a window into his unique teaching model. Kids listening intently and scribble notes and answers on tablets while Buena lazily watches the action, either from her bed under the teacher’s desk or smack dab in the middle of the floor.

Finn joined the Marines when he got out of high school and served five years before pivoting to teaching, which he’s done for seven years, the last three at Southern Oak. He said he explained to the students and their parents the important role Buena plays in his life and how she fits in the classroom.

“I front-loaded with them the expectations of the dog and what you can and cannot do and the whole reason behind having the dog and what she does for me,” he said, noting he needs Buena to help cope with post-traumatic stress disorder.

It often looks like Buena is just sitting and staring at him, but she is really waiting for signals from Finn that he needs her support.

“I explained what a service dog does and her benefit to me and how it’s important to be able to adapt and overcome. These kids have been together for two years, so they all hold each other accountable and that helps me a lot. It’s like I have a lot of little marines in the room doing what I ask them to do!”

An example of that came when Finn’s laptop briefly went blank; he asked the class, “Sometimes when the internet goes down, what do we have to do?” and the group replied in unison, “Adapt and overcome!”  Later, when Finn put the leash on Buena and grabbed her student ID to take a break for the interview, he jokingly told the room he would see them tomorrow, and the kids all cried out, ‘NO!’ as if he was serious.

According to Finn’s wife and coworker, Courtney, her husband’s popularity is legendary at the school.

“We joke Mr. Finn has a cult following,” said Courtney, who serves as Southern Oak’s MTSS, or multi-tiered system of support coach. “Everyone wants to be in his class. His strength is his relationship with the kids and the accolades come naturally.”

The Cheers to Public Service initiative is a part of Tampa-based Irish 31 Pub and Eatery’s iCare Foundation, which has recognized 1,511 educators working in the Hillsborough and Pasco school districts. Whether Finn is named one of the first award-winning teachers from Pinellas County when the winners are announced in May or not, it appears he will always be a winner in his student’s eyes, and that’s all that matters to him.

“I love what I do and I’m having fun,” Finn said as Buena enjoyed the break by chomping on a nearby stick. “The kids all know about doing the right thing when no one is around, and I can teach them to be a decent human being with values and integrity. It won’t be on a test, but you need to know it for life. A lot of times I walk around here, and I’ll hear them say, ‘Mr. Finn said don’t do that! You’re an integrity violator!’ and that’s really cool, because it lets me know what I’m doing has an impact on them.”

For more information on Scott Finn’s Cheers to Public Service award nomination from Irish 31, visit this link: