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Teacher of the Year Buffy Murphy: Teach Kids, Not Robots


Buffy Murphy
Award: South Carolina Teacher of the Year for 2007
Teaches: Fifth grade
Specialty: Language arts
Teaching Since: 2000
Studying at Walden: Doctor of Education

What makes a perfect student? If you ask Buffy Murphy, a fifth grade language arts teacher at Irmo Elementary School in Irmo, South Carolina, you won’t get one answer to that question. In Murphy’s class, no two students are the same”each is perfect in his or her own way.

“That unconditional love you have for your own children,” says Murphy, “you have to have that for your students, too. They have to know that even if they mess up, you’ll still believe in them. When they sometimes slip up and call me ‘Mom,’ I feel like it’s the biggest compliment I can receive.”

Murphy originally planned to become a pediatric nurse, but during an internship at a hospital in her junior year of college, she saw how easy it was to become attached to kids and the chance of losing one to leukemia was too much for her to bear. While exploring different parts of the hospital, she found the classroom. “I saw these kids come to life,” she says. “They forgot about being sick and attached to tubes. That’s when I realized I really wanted to be a teacher.”

Murphy took the nurturing and caring attention she once thought she’d give to ailing children and transferred it to her students. “Every student knows that I see them as an individual,” she says.

Part of Walden’s appeal to Murphy was its focus on social change. In her work, she’s heard ample talk about the pros and cons of the No Child Left Behind act. In her view, it’s helped focus attention more evenly. “Before, our highs were very high and our lows were very low. It was easy for some kids to get lost,” says Murphy. However, the program still has its flaws. “The ideas are significant, but there are missing pieces. In the first No Child Left Behind, there were no educators at the table, and I think there should’ve been. Good teachers know that 100 percent of anything isn’t possible. You should see 100 percent growth, not necessarily 100 percent proficiency. They’re not robots. They’re kids.”

For Murphy, an individualized approach means catering curricula to fit the needs of each student. When Devin, a fifth grader and struggling reader, voiced concern about participating in a program where fifth graders aided first graders as “literacy buddies,” Murphy didn’t pressure him. I said, “Well, you like history, so why don’t you be our class historian for this and take notes on how others are doing.”

Murphy noticed that, over the weeks, her “historian’s” notes went from looking at all the first graders to focusing on just one student: Trey, a first grader who was having trouble concentrating. I asked [Devin] about it, and he said, “Well, Trey is all over the place!” which was funny, because this fifth grader was all over the place. He doesn’t use pictures to figure out what’s happening in a book.

By the project’s end, [Devin] said to me, “This whole time, I was supposed to be coaching, but I realized I wasn’t using the strategies that I was telling Trey to use” recalls Murphy. Working with his strengths, he made his own decision to be part of the project. He used the opportunity to observe his own weaknesses. I felt very lucky to watch it all come full circle.