One Last Day

Fourteen years ago I closed the door to a classroom that I could call my own for the first time.  I was 21 years old, fresh out of college, and thought I had a clue as to what teaching would be like.  Looking at 24 little ones staring back at me, I was nervous and in retrospect, pretty clueless.  I remember that feeling like it was yesterday.My first year teaching was one of the most difficult years of my life, but a year that changed my course and provided me with incredible clarity. The day before the Easter holiday, I stood with my mentor Mark in the hallway between our classrooms as he talked about his excitement of traveling to visit his son in college later that day. Mark was someone I deeply respected; a teacher of 28 years and the exact type of teacher every child hoped to have. As a brand new teacher, I looked up to him and wanted to model my career after his.  Saying goodbye that afternoon in the pouring rain was the last time I’d ever see him.  Later that afternoon Mark and his wife were killed in a car accident on their way to Maryland.  Several days after standing in line with over 2,000 people for his funeral, and having shed countless tears over the loss of a good friend, I stood before the children in his class, making every attempt to give them hope, love, and support.  Simply put, he taught me about leaving a mark on the lives of children.  He taught me to seize every opportunity for tomorrow you may not have the chance.  Mark was a difference maker.  Thousands honored him before he was buried.  I wanted to find a way to make an impact; even if only a small fraction of the life service I had witnessed. About a month passed when I was upstairs at our high school during an in-service day and heard my name called over the loudspeaker.  Walking out of the room I was greeted by a few of our school administrators who were there to escort me to the office.  While on the way, they shared how one of my students had accidentally hung himself in his bedroom that morning.  Words cannot express the loss of a child.  Ever.  After trying to comfort the children of our class for the rest of the week, I stood at his casket, and made him a promise. When I glanced at the board next to this precious little guy, every sticky note, card, and message of encouragement that I had ever written to him, were now hanging next to him. Unbeknownst to me, he had saved every one.  It wasn’t until that moment that I truly learned the power of encouragement and positive thinking and what it really meant to love the kids we serve.  I had promised him that from that point forward I would never let an opportunity pass to show kids that I loved and cared about them…and to look for ways to do so every day. The following fall, September of 2001, as I was ready for a fresh start and a new school year, I stood in the hallway listening to a colleague describe what was happening in DC and New York City. I still remember where I was standing.  I knew two people that lost their lives that day and many that ran from the towers as they fell.  I will never forget the pause I took standing in front of those innocent children the next morning, reassuring their safety and sharing how much I cared about them.  That September day, like the months before, I learned that the lives of our children are incredibly precious and that the human side of education is invaluable, and worth far more than data on any state test.  As I struggled emotionally from the year’s tragic events, I learned how it was okay to ask for help and that going at it alone wasn’t going to be feasible.  I needed strong people around me to be at my best for kids. After a few years and many opportunities, I was blessed with the charge to help lead our middle school.  For those people that have never taught or worked at a middle school, there’s not much on Earth like it.  Middle school students are quirky. Fun. Some are simply hormones on wheels.  Working with a great staff, I quickly learned that it was imperative to have fun every day.  Middle school kids, like any other age group, need to have fun.  They need to laugh and smile… and we adults do too.  A few short years after, I found myself back at the elementary school where it all began eight years prior; this time with the opportunity to lead an incredible staff as Principal.  Leading my own building was an amazing challenge.  I witnessed the incredible talents of many classroom teachers, many of which were far better and effective than I ever was.  I learned that part of effective leadership is simply knowing when to get out of the way.  I had to let my teachers run.  My job was to support, encourage and remove roadblocks so that they could be at their best for our kids.  I also quickly developed the supervision barometer that if I wouldn’t put my own child in a teacher’s classroom, I as the principal had to do something about it.  Viewing every child as you would your own changes one’s perspective.  On days that didn’t seem to go my way, I’d head down to kindergarten to experience the innocence, joy and love of learning that we in education, sadly, seem to often school out of them by the time they graduate.   I learned that so many answers to life’s questions can be found in a kindergarten classroom.  Working with an incredibly dedicated PTO, I saw the vast need for community support and parental involvement.  Their voices matter. After three years at the best elementary school on the planet, I was given the opportunity to build a cyber and technology department that would put kids first and understand that everything else is secondary.  I learned the importance of high octane leadership, communication, getting the right people on the bus, and pushing the envelope when kids’ lives are on the line.  Working alongside amazingly talented people, I learned about challenging the status quo and doing whatever it takes to creatively meet the needs of our kids, even if it’s not popular. They deserve only the very best we have to offer. Today marks one last day. One last day to fulfill my promise to the little angel from my first year teaching; a promise of doing whatever it takes to make the people around me know that they matter, they’re valued, and whatever their role, they can change the course of time for kids.  As I reflect upon my tenure in Quakertown, I've learned one main lesson and it’s that relationships matter and are at the heart of serving others.  It’s not about a title, number of degrees, or the latest magazine article.  It’s about working as a team to do whatever it takes to ensure the success and well-being of every child that we serve and helping them understand that they matter. One last day.

BlogTom MurrayComment