By any other name, this teacher gets it
Vicki Murphy goes by a lot of names. Boss Lady. Staff Mom. Murph. The Murphinator. And even the royal Queen of Multi-tasking.
But one thing is clear about Murphy: She’s beloved throughout the school and well beyond. Just walk into the Grundy Center High School main office and ask for her by name. The secretaries immediately break out into broad smiles.
Murphy, who is a special education teacher at the high school, extends her support and love well beyond her immediate students. Students from all walks of life drop by her classroom.
“Hey, Murph,” says one teenager as he drops into her classroom just to say hi.
“Well hi there!’ Murphy says. “Did you get your American history done? If you don’t finish that, I will be crabby.”
He mumbles, in teen-speak. Murphy doesn’t miss a beat.
“OK, get that done,” she said. “It’s very important, honey.”
Her favorite student? Yes and no. Because all students are her favorite students.
“Relationships are key,” Murphy said. “If you don’t have relationships with the students, you have nothing.”
Students who feel safe and comfortable with their teachers are more likely to succeed in the classroom. It’s no exception in Murphy’s classroom, in which the 300-some students who have passed through her door over the last 25 years have exceeded expectations. Every single time.
“Having good relationships with students doesn’t mean you’re a pushover,” Murphy said. “Sometimes you have to really lean in on them. But they know me, they know I care about them.”
The students agree wholeheartedly.
“We can ask her pretty much everything,” said Patrick Brown III, a junior at the high school. “She is super honest, she’s not afraid of hurting your feelings if that’s something that needs to be done.”
“I just drop by because she’s always welcoming,” said Senior Cole Lehr. “You can ask a question and she will give the best advice. If I’m having a bad day with a teacher, I will come in and say ‘what can i do?’”
Senior Ella Barragy is looking forward to graduating and heading for North Iowa Area Community College. But a few years ago, it wasn’t something she could envision for herself. “I wasn’t very good in math and, well, school in general,” she said. “But Murph made the difference. It’s just a really fun environment to be in her classroom. She makes it fun.”
Relationships extend far beyond the student body.
“Teachers go to her if they are having a bad day or if they need to work out a problem,” said Principal Michael Vokes. “Murph has a heart of gold. She’s the mother hen at work. She’s always tending to the needs of everyone. She wants people to be OK. When you walk into her room, it doesn’t matter who you are, kids come and go out of the room. She’s real, honest and endearing. She’s a glue, keeping everyone trucking.”
Vokes said those attributes extend to her work in the classroom.
“She works on developing relationships with everyone,” he said. “She does it naturally and effortlessly. The end result is that the kids let their guards down and trust her. That’s when the real learning begins. She can get to the heart of it. It’s fun to watch.”
Murphy recalls when she first arrived at the school those 25 years ago, the football coach approached her asking that she – a special education teacher – work with one of his star football players, who wasn’t in special education. The problem? The kid wasn’t getting passing grades, an absolute requirement to play on the field.
“I didn’t think anything of it,” she said. “I worked with the student and got his grades up.”
A seemingly simple but kind gesture morphed (Murphed???) into today’s Murphy: Available and open to all.
“There are a lot of issues kids have to deal with, from homelessness to bad grades,” she said. “I took them in and loved every one of them. One student was sent to a youth shelter for several months. So every Saturday, I went to visit him. He needed someone in his corner.
“All kids need supports. It’s not just special education.”
And Murphy ensures all students get supports, whether it’s work on grades, food or even clothing.
Hunger is an unseen demon in any community, and Murphy saw opportunity.
“One time I saw a book library – the kind people put up in their yards – and I thought, ‘why don’t we fill it with food.?’”
The little pantry is located just outside the front entrance to the high school, and is filled with all sorts of boxed food. And it’s used – a lot.
“The kids get school food on weekdays, but may be hungry over the weekend,” she said. “We started buying groceries and stacking it up so that kids could come by.”
The pantry concept soon evolved into fresh meals. The Kiwanis heard of Murphy’s work and donated a freezer.
Soon, the community was involved, donating food and pre-made individually sized meals. And Murphy’s kids are involved in making meals, too.
“All of my students learn cooking and laundry,” Murphy said. “No one leaves my class not knowing how to do those two things. They have to cook at least once a trimester. They pick a recipe they want to cook. The food for their recipes is provided. At Christmas, everyone has to make holiday cookies.
“We do school work in here, too,” she adds, with students bursting into laughter.
Jean Sternhagen, Murphy’s in-class paraeducator, has worked alongside the teacher for 17 years.
“I had applied for a secretary job, and they said ‘you know we have a para job open,” Sternhagen said. “It’s something that I have never regretted.”
Sternhagen said she was impressed with Murphy’s ability to get things done.
“I call her the Queen of Multi-tasking,” she said. “She can be working with one student, answer another student’s question and give instruction to yet another one – all at the same time.
“She’s emotionally attached to the students. If they are upset, she will drop everything and help them work things out.”
Murphy knows that meeting students’ needs removes obstacles that prevent them from learning.
“Everyone can learn and everyone deserves to learn,” she said. “There never has been anyone who I didn’t try to help. It’s the relationship – it is figuring out what a kid needs and going from there.
“If they are given the relationship and the right tools, they will succeed.”
Well said, Murph.