For the Rookie, It's Been a Learning Experience

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.

During the year, he did "a lot of reflection, a lot of praying," Murdock said. "I have more confidence in myself as a teacher now than I did before. Quitting was never a thought."

Studies show that almost 30 percent of beginning teachers transfer to another school or leave the profession by the end of the first year. But Murdock had made it, and he planned to stay.

The Final Days

With only a few days left in the school year, almost everything that had to be finished was done. The Maryland School Assessments, the state's exams for elementary and middle school students, were taken in March -- ancient history. Textbooks had been returned.

The main job was keeping the students focused for a few more days, and so the last week followed age-old rhythms. Students came in at 7:30 a.m., turned in their homework and started getting breakfast.

Murdock set them to work deconstructing his classroom. The Wonderful Word Wall that Murdock had spent hours putting up in August was taken down. So was the banner that said each student will grow at least two years in reading. Books and computers were tidied up. Assignments suspended from the ceiling were removed.

With little else to do Wednesday, Murdock opened up a game of "Are You Smarter Than a Fifth-Grader?" Players took the game quite seriously. Arguments and accusations of cheating broke out frequently, until Murdock brought order.

"Identify the conjunction in the following sentence: 'I really like to eat hamburgers and hot dogs,' " Murdock said.

"What's a conjunction?" Ashley whispered to her teammates, leaning in.

A boy keeping track of such things noticed that the other team was watching his team.

"Why you keep looking at us?" cried Miguel Turcios, 11. Murdock calmed them down.

"Just guess," Ashley said.

"Really," a girl answered.

"That's your answer? Incorrect," Murdock said. (The correct answer was "and.")

Afterward, Murdock escorted the students to lunch.

"Did I do my best? Did I do everything I could? All those questions keep popping up," Murdock said, back in the classroom. "Are they better for having me? I think in some regard they are."

He's Still Standing

The last day of school began like the previous one, with a bus arriving late and the students reciting the Pledge of Allegiance and the school motto.

Over the intercom, a voice told teachers that the school system's attendance software was acting up again: "Teachers, today do not worry about grades, attendance, anything like that. It's SchoolMax. We'll leave it at that. . . . Remember, today is the last day, but we need to remain focused in doing our lessons."

Homework was turned in, and old assignments were given back. One was a letter from the class to the rising fifth-graders who will enter in August.

"They are both very nice," Micah Xavier, 11, wrote of Murdock and the other fifth-grade teacher, Deirdre Blackmore. "And do not bring no drama because they will send you to the office if you do something bad."

Another, asked what he would do over the summer, expressed a desire to remake himself.

"The things I'll do this summer is change my self completely," Miguel wrote. "I'll not stay the same. When I go to the sixth, I'll be transformed to another person. I'll be quiet all the time not talk at all. Unless the teacher tells me to talk if I raise my hand."

The students helped Murdock finish clearing out his classroom. The teacher took down the long pieces of construction paper used to block light from the window that had no blinds. He stood precariously on a countertop.

"Mr. Murdock's gonna fall," a girl grimly predicted.

"I'm not going to fall," Murdock said.

And he didn't.

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