Our Forefathers’ Legacy – And Our Own

By Shaun Murphy

Shaun Murphy with students from his Teach For America classroom.

Army veteran tackles education challenge through AmeriCorps, Teach For America

On July 4th, we came together as a nation to remember the legacy of our forefathers, who gave of themselves to found a nation based in the ideals of freedom and equality for all. Delaware, where I served as an AmeriCorps-Teach For America 2009 corps member, was the first colony to become a state under such principles – laying the groundwork for visionary democratic beliefs to foster in our new country. This year, I was prompted to reflect on how I and other AmeriCorps members, grounded in service, have contributed to providing all of Delaware’s students with the opportunities promised to them by our country.

I vividly remember the first time I came to Wilmington in July 2009. The welcome sign off Interstate 95 read “A Place to Be Somebody.” For a standard city-limit marker, this sign sure threw me for a loop. What kind of “somebody” was I going to be?

I wanted to be somebody who opened doors of opportunity for others and made the whole stronger. This is something I learned during my eight years of service in the U.S. Army, where every action I took was to help build a better life for our citizens.

I came to Wilmington as a sixth-grade special education teacher through Teach For America. This wasn’t the military, but my charge to do right by its people remained the same.  The mission was just as complex too.  Here in Delaware, our National Assessment of Educational Progress scores rank below U.S. averages in math and science for the years measured—fourth and eighth grades.  Our low-income, African American and Hispanic students are scoring proficient 18-26 percent less often than their affluent white peers. For kids in in Delaware schools who are learning English the gap is even starker—fully double at 30-50 percent fewer proficient scores.

Shaun Murphy in his U.S. Army uniformI wanted to be somebody who opened doors of opportunity for others and made the whole stronger. This is something I learned during my eight years of service in the U.S. Army, where every action I took was to help build a better life for our citizens.

Creating a Different Reality

And so, within the walls of Prestige Academy on Thatcher Street, I set about creating a different reality for my scholars. My classroom operated with military-like precision. My scholars conducted themselves with honor and treated each other with respect. As their investment in themselves increased, so did their educational accomplishments.

Deandre entered Prestige reading on second-grade level, and left reading on an 11th-grade level. Brian, who was so shy as a sixth grader he wouldn’t answer questions in class, was singing in front of the entire school as an eighth grader. Fasil earned a scholarship to a competitive high school.

I am just one of many. There are countless veterans – across Delaware and across the country – drawing upon their unique skillset to serve as educators. Military training has made them excellent strategic thinkers with the ability to adapt to changing environments, and easily build relationships in cross-cultural settings. Perhaps most importantly, the desire to serve remains. Working in high-needs communities to help spread educational opportunity is a natural fit for military veterans.

In the Army, I lived by the Non-Commissioned Officer’s Creed: “No one is more professional than I. I am a Noncommissioned Officer, a leader of Soldiers.” In my classroom, students recited their own Scholars Creed, which day after day recommitted them to excellence. Today, every student at Prestige knows the Scholars Creed. I like to think that a little bit of the Staff Sergeant in me stayed with them.

But what I am most proud of are the veterans following my footsteps into Delaware classrooms. Prior to joining Teach For America as a 2013 Delaware corps member, Lt. Commander Nicholas Hudson was a 21-year veteran in the U.S. Navy. During that time frame, he was a Navy pilot who had enlisted as a nuclear machinist mate. Today, Nicholas uses his experiential knowledge to teach math and AP Physics at Red Clay’s Thomas McKean High School. Nicholas loves weaving his decades of personal experience into his lesson plans, finding that the relevance of his work makes math and science inspiring for his students.

Every one of us – whether an AmeriCorps member, a member of the military, or a member of the community – can help build a different educational reality for Delaware’s children. For those of us who believe in the American dream, let’s do our part to make sure that dream is available to all. 

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