First-Day Jitters Aren't Just for Students

New Pr. George's Teacher Already Learning Lessons

By Nelson Hernandez
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 26, 2008; Page A01

In those last few seconds before the beginning of the school year at 7:45 a.m., Paul Murdock's baby face was a mask of concentration. As he stood outside Room 23, a column of almost two dozen fifth-graders marched right at him. He was nervous. It was his first day of class at Langley Park-McCormick Elementary School.

In fact, it was his first day as a teacher as he joined a professional corps of tens of thousands in Washington area public schools. Murdock was out of time to change his mind. These were his kids. He had to take charge.

"Right here," he said, gesturing to where the lead student should stand. "Second full tile. Make a line. Eyes forward. Hands to your side, please."

The children obeyed quickly and quietly, lining up single file alongside the wall. In uniforms of white polo shirts and navy blue pants and skirts, they looked like little police recruits. They, too, seemed a bit nervous, perhaps in need of reassurance.

"Welcome to Mr. Murdock's class," the teacher said. He led them inside.

And so school began yesterday for Murdock's class.

It was a story repeated at 209 schools across Prince George's County and at hundreds more in Howard, Charles and Frederick counties and in part of Anne Arundel County. Schools in Montgomery County and the rest of Anne Arundel open today; in Calvert and St. Mary's counties, they opened Wednesday. In all, that's nearly half a million Maryland children. Another 50,000 or so started school in the District yesterday.

Prince George's educators want to continue a trend of raising test scores and work themselves off a state watch list for struggling school systems. Like others nationwide, they are trying to meet steadily rising academic requirements under the No Child Left Behind law, close achievement gaps between students of different races and economic groups, and deal with tighter budgets caused by the economic slowdown.

Murdock just wanted to get his classroom in order.

Last Tuesday, Room 23's desks and plastic chairs were stacked atop one another. Some children's books were piled on a table, and a few hundred thin volumes sat in milk crates. The salmon-colored cabinets were dusty; the walls, bare.

Murdock's imagination worked aloud as he assembled the scene: Where would the library go? The class slogan? The teacher's desk? How would he arrange chairs and control access to the built-in bathroom?

"I didn't realize that teaching involved so much interior decorating," he said.

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