By Daniel F. Murray
Mr. Murray (Washington and Lee University ’13) majored in English and minored in Poverty and Human Capability Studies. After being placed in Newark through Teach for America, Danny Murray is a third year 8th English teacher at his placement school, North Star Academy Vailsburg Middle School. Danny is also a Curriculum and Lead Lesson Planner for the entire Uncommon Schools network and coaches the varsity boy’s basketball team. Last spring he received his masters from the “Relay Graduate School of Education.”
“If you treat an individual as he is, he will remain how he is. But if you treat him as if he were what he ought to be and could be, he will become what he ought to be and could be.” -Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
“A teacher’s greatest challenge is empowering students with skills while also holding them accountable to become their best possible self,” writes Murray, a teacher in Newark, NJ. Pictured here with student Dalvin Volquez.
Although I am contradicting my advice to my students to avoid overusing an introductory quote lead, Goethe’s wisdom epitomizes the most profound realization from my first three years in the classroom—the transcendental power of high expectations. No teacher preparation program or required reading can fully prepare us for the demands of working in urban education, but my time in the Shepherd Program provided crucial opportunities that fostered the necessary mindsets that I bring to teaching each day.
Like for many Shepherd students, Poverty 101 changed the course of my academic career and more accurately my life. From analysis of institutional barriers of access to narrative exposés of people living below the poverty line, the introductory course was the first time I truly started to formulate a life philosophy directly linked to the vitality of education. However, these takeaways might have remained in the abstract without a service learning component, which is the pulse of the program. Entertaining the prospects of a career in law, in my sophomore year, I shadowed a Lexington public defender transcribing interviews with clients and working directly with their families many of whom lacked the education to be their own advocates. I may not have fully comprehended it at the time, but I was looking directly at insidious nature of a broken education system whose pervasive influence is felt far beyond the classroom. With a mere taste of education inequity, I returned to the roots, the classroom. For my Shepherd Internship, I was placed at a charter school in Brooklyn. As an English major, I expected to work with their reading program, but the tumultuous nature of charter school life had other plans for me. Over the course of the summer, I served as afterschool enrichment coordinator, part-time secretary, occasional custodian, and countless other roles. Schools are crazy, yet potentially wonderful places. I did not witness any educational miracles that summer, but something special occurred within me. The myriad of options that muddled my future crystalized into one clear path: teaching. Without the Shepherd Program, I would not have realized my passion and innate urge to teach, and my experiences in the program gave me the courage to be honest with myself and the realities of the world we live in.
I spent the next two years completing my minor in Poverty and Human Capabilities studies invigorated by my experiences, and I narrowed my focus to educational inequity. I worked in the Rockbridge Schools as a mentor and teacher assistant. Rural Rockbridge County is the polar opposite of Newark, where I now teach, but a common thread links these poles—the power of high expectations. Students who are held to a higher standard that demands excellence will ultimately rise and flourish. A teacher’s greatest challenge is empowering students with skills while also holding them accountable to become their best possible self.
Three years later, I now have the privilege of serving the 8th graders of North Star Academy Vailsburg Middle School in Newark, NJ. Teaching a curriculum including works such Animal Farm, Othello, and The Narrative Life of Frederick Douglass, my students are fully aware of the flaws of educational system and the inequity across the country. As I facilitate the debates regarding the merits of education in the face of institutional oppression, I am struck by influence of the Shepherd Program in my classroom. My students relish the opportunity to quote Douglass, who argued that “education is freedom.” There is no one solution or quick fix to combating poverty, but I know that an education with high expectations and student empowerment is a significant piece of the puzzle. My students, who constantly surpass all expectations and transcend all labels, are living, breathing proof. My experience with the Shepherd Program and now teaching instilled an empathy that enables the optimism that we can and will fight widespread inequity.
With this privilege comes the responsibility of being my absolute best each and every day. I fall short of that duty, but I write this essay knowing that if I live by Geothe’s words and challenge my students to redefine their expectations then they will leave my classroom with crucial skills, but more importantly a sense of pride and self-awareness—a notion that cannot be underestimated.