For Md. Teacher, First Year Has Been a Learning Experience

Fifth-graders in Paul Murdock's class at Langley Park-McCormick Elementary School look back on his first year in the classroom. Video by Nelson Hernandez, edited by Francine Uenuma/The Washington Post
By Nelson Hernandez
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 19, 2009

On the last day of Paul Murdock's first year as a teacher, he stood before his two dozen fifth-graders at Langley Park-McCormick Elementary School and opened the June box.

It was a treasure chest full of things Murdock had confiscated over the course of the school year: several Tech Deck finger-size skateboards, a blue flashlight, a green pencil sharpener, a bag of Doritos, a Rubik's Cube and a neatly folded note that began, "Dear Johanna, You make my heart pound when I see you!"

"Why you wanna keep our stuff?" a boy asked Murdock.

"I don't want to keep any of this junk," the teacher said.

"Our stuff is not junk," Ashley Gajardo, 10, said.

Junk or not, Murdock returned most of it to the owners yesterday as school ended in Prince George's County. Such year-end rituals are playing out this month in thousands of Washington area classrooms. But for Murdock, 26, a lanky rookie teacher, this was the last first.

The Washington Post had profiled Murdock in August. Back then, he was a newly minted instructor from the small town of Hyrum, Utah. Filled with idealism, he was sent to work in Langley Park, where more than 90 percent of the school's 440 students come from families poor enough to qualify for meal subsidies.

Murdock's optimism hasn't been crushed. But he has learned a lot this year, a June box full of lessons he began to unpack as he sat this week at a student's desk and ate a peanut butter-and-jelly sandwich: How to keep order in the classroom, how to teach a student to read, how to earn respect.

"I think now the first week was really pretty good," Murdock said, because he was still an unknown quantity and the students had their first-day jitters. "Not too long after that, they were like, 'Mr. Murdock is the new guy; let's run him through the ropes.' "

Students admit that they gave him a hard time.

Abel Benitez, 10, said Murdock was cheerful in August and September but has been "a little bit grumpy" lately. "Because we don't pay attention to him sometimes," Abel said. "Kids these days just wanna be cool, and that's why they don't want to pay attention."

Murdock had some successes, such as the boy who started the year reading at the first-grade level and now reads at the third-grade level. And he had problems he was not able to solve, such as the missing blinds in a corner window and the impulsive boy who needed almost constant supervision.

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