A Rookie Teacher Gets His Midyear Marks

By Nelson Hernandez
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 1, 2008

Paul Murdock has come a long way this semester. When the 26-year-old teacher agreed to be profiled by The Washington Post in August, he was a raw rookie. The walls of his fifth-grade classroom at Langley Park-McCormick Elementary School were bare, the desks piled up.

Now, with three months under his belt, the desks are arranged in clusters, a chattering student behind each one. Student papers hang, suspended by string and clothespins, from the ceiling. The "Wonderful Word Wall" he spent hours making is stocked with such specimens as "accountable," "earthquake," "ominous" and "summit."

Days before Thanksgiving, things in his reading class were going well. The only problem was that Murdock had lost the most important item in his teacher's toolbox: His voice.

Murdock sat at a table with a small group of students reading the book "Sandman to the Rescue." On the other side of the classroom, the sound of talking students escalated until Murdock's hoarse whispers could barely be heard by the students sitting three feet away.

It was time to intervene. Murdock clapped several times as a signal for quiet, and the students clapped along with him.

A sympathetic young girl chastised the class: "Be quiet! He lost his voice!"

"I can't teach them today like I need to," Murdock said during a short break. He sounded a little tired, and perhaps not just because of the laryngitis. He was worried about his students.

"They haven't been doing well on their spelling tests," he said. Evidence of their idiosyncratic orthography was on a nearby table in a boy's essay about a holiday.

"Eid is in December," the boy wrote. "It is when muslim people go to a farm and kill sheep. Me and my cousin's usally play with the sheep and the chicken. last time my cousin's chast a chicken and it went on the roof."

"They know what they need to do," Murdock said. "They're pretty much pushing all the limits."

It was time to escort them to physical education. He held his fist in the air, and the students steadily followed with the same gesture until they were silent. They lined up outside. The wavering column of children snaked down the hallway, some kids stopping to look at whatever interested them. Murdock kept them moving, then handed them off to the gym instructor.

Back in the classroom, he mused on all that he'd learned so far. "It's like home," he said of his classroom. "It's funny, but you can kind of tell the day kids are going to have by how they come to school in the morning. Sometimes they woke up on the wrong side of the bed, and you can tell."

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