New Jersey Teacher of the Year Reflects on the Challenge and Promise of Teaching

(Left to right) Back: Seniors Maura Nestor, Miwa Haraguchi, Ashley Holleran, Leah Haines, Eilis McGovern, teacher Maryann Woods-Murphy, Sarah Stettin, Tom Grueter, Scott Waxenbaum, Fred Tracy; front: Dan Abraham, Tom Wolff, Connor Pilkington

(Left to right) Back: Seniors Maura Nestor, Miwa Haraguchi, Ashley Holleran, Leah Haines, Eilis McGovern, teacher Maryann Woods-Murphy, Sarah Stettin, Tom Grueter, Scott Waxenbaum, Fred Tracy; front: Dan Abraham, Tom Wolff, Connor Pilkington

The poster behind each speaker’s chair reads, “If you want to make a difference in the life of a child, TEACH.”

The atmosphere buzzes at 200 Washington Avenue in Newark, as we wait for Secretary Arne Duncan, Mayor Cory Booker, and Congressman Donald Payne to arrive to our teacher town hall.

In the meantime, teachers in the front rows introduce themselves.

“I train pre-service teachers.”

“I’m a Spanish teacher.”

“I’m a principal of a charter school.”

We stop abruptly, however, and spin around to face front as the U.S. Secretary of Education takes his seat with fellow leaders. We are all thinking about how educational decisions affect the students and teachers we know.

When Secretary Duncan speaks, he offers a challenge to Newark: in five years, Newark should become an educational model for the nation. Lots of smiles and nods around the room.

“I welcome the debate, the dialog,” says Duncan, as he looks directly into the crowd.

Teaching must be elevated to a level of national respect to attract and retain the hardest working, most committed teachers, he says. With creativity, energy and hard work, we’ll stop “perpetuating poverty” and we’ll work with the necessary “sense of urgency.”

He reports that post-Katrina New Orleans is now improving faster or as fast as any school district in the country. “Can Newark come together to get better faster?” Secretary Duncan looks around the room. His style is personal and open, but it is clear that he means business.

Arne tells a story about President Obama’s meeting with the President of South Korea. When President Obama asked him to describe the biggest challenge he faces in education in his country, the leader of South Korea exclaimed, “My parents are too demanding!”

That gets a chuckle around the room, but it also makes us think. We reflect on what being that demanding means. We know that when parents and teachers work together in an atmosphere of the highest expectations, it’s better for kids. We just needed to be reminded.

The April 20 Teacher Town Hall meeting was a call to action. The Department of Education can inspire a sense of urgency, provide funds to create innovative programs, set the tone. But, it’s up to us—the educators, parents and students around the country—to get up every day to do this work.

“It’s not about got ya,” said the Secretary, “it’s about continued development.”

Being a teacher has never held greater challenge and promise.

Maryann Woods-Murphy

Maryann Woods-Murphy is the 2010 New Jersey State Teacher of the Year. She teaches Spanish at Northern Highlands Regional High School in Allendale, NJ.