Photo: Eileen Escarda
Floridian of the Year 2019
Broward County's Teacher of the Year Kristine Murphy shares her journey becoming a Florida middle school teacher
Unhappy practicing law, Kristin Murphy heard about a teaching job. ‘It was a very scary but exciting time.’
Kristin Murphy worries how the day’s Escape Room challenge she created will turn out for her 7th-grade law classes at Nova Middle School. Murphy’s first love was the stage, and every performer knows a show can bomb.
Instead of a test covering what the classes learned in the first five weeks of school, Murphy locks some metal boxes with several combination locks. Students working in teams will apply their knowledge of the courts to a series of clue sheets. Each correct sheet yields a lock combination. If they unlock all, they can share the candy bars and treats inside.
Murphy, 44, is energetic, in command of the subject, engaged and engaging. Last year, she was Teacher of the Year in Broward, the state’s second-largest school district and the nation’s sixth.
Murphy came late to teaching. A Florida native and graduate of Broward’s Plantation High, she longed for the stage. She earned an associate’s in music and video from the now-defunct Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale and managed a band. She earned a second associate’s in musical theater from Broward College and a bachelor’s in sociology from Florida Atlantic University. Hoping to tie her interests together as an entertainment lawyer, she earned a law degree in 2005 from Nova Southeastern University, which left her $90,000 in debt. “I don’t know that I’ll ever get out of it,” she says.
Murphy, who still has her law license, found her work in civil and probate litigation unsatisfying. Volunteering at a children’s theater was fulfilling. She heard Nova had an opening for a middle school law teacher and got the job. “Completely clueless on what was required of me. So it was a very scary but exciting time,” she says.
Nova is a Title 1 school, meaning a large percentage of its students are from low-income households. But it’s not a neighborhood school. Admission is by lottery. Parents choose to have their kids there, and buses come from all over Broward. Because law is an elective and students need a teacher’s recommendation, she gets higher achievers.
That’s not true of her civics classes, which are mandatory. On parent night, the parents of 70% of her law students came. For civics, parents of just 16% showed up. Some parents don’t get back to her even after three phone messages or e-mails. She knows they may be working multiple jobs but adds, “At some point there’s a five-minute window in your day that you should be able to respond to me because your child is worth it.” She has a total of 191 students for her two civics classes and four law classes.
The 27 students working the Escape Room challenge in the period just before lunch this day reflect Broward’s population. A large majority are minorities. One just arrived from the Bahamas after Hurricane Dorian destroyed his family’s home. The students police their own noise level, and today there’s no misbehavior or foul language. The students keep their tempers, even as the challenge frustrates several groups. Murphy doesn’t like to lecture. “My classes are 90 minutes long, and they’re 12,” she says.
To teach law, she has to create her own curriculum. Law also gives her freedom that a math teacher focused on Florida standards wouldn’t have. The B.W.O.D. (Bar Word of the Day) posted on the board is “maliciously.” The classroom she shares with the eighth-grade law teacher has tables for students on one side, while the other houses a mock courtroom — the wall shows the logo of donor 1-800-411-PAIN — with jury box, judge’s dais and tables for the parties.
Students hold mock trials. “If it’s just a battery case, someone hits someone else, they’re bored, but if it’s a murder case, they’re very excited, which is disturbing but true,” Murphy says. Law teaches analytical thinking and reasoning, debate, presentation skills and public speaking, she says. “This class is so much more than just law.”
Murphy tells of a boy who took the class to become a better speaker and suffered an epic fail the first time out. By year-end, however, the student had progressed enough to become the judge, speaking and making decisions in front of a crowd. “To me, that was such a major win, and that’s an example of what I wasn’t getting in real law,” she says. “I used to say that going to law school was my biggest regret, but that’s before I became a teacher. If I hadn’t gone to law school, I couldn’t be teaching this class.”
Downsides include the burden of requirements beyond classroom teaching. She attributes them to separate district departments each coming up with a plan to improve something and not communicating with each other. “It just becomes cumulative. We’re constantly being asked to do something or attend something.”
She would like higher pay. She is the district Teacher of the Year but never has been rated “highly effective,” which would earn bonus money. She adds, “you have to value your happiness, and I’m happy.”
For the Escape Room challenge, she forked out the $50 for the goodies in the boxes herself. The $600 for the locks and lock boxes she raised on Donorschoose. org, a crowdfunding source for teachers. With the clock running toward the 2 p.m. lunch period, a couple of groups aren’t far along. “Just didn’t study. Part of me is going to feel bad if they don’t get the candy,” she says, “but there’s a lesson.”
Eventually — thanks to hints and then some — every team gets the boxes open.
Thinking of the activity after the students depart, she second-guesses herself. Was it too chaotic, she wonders. “I am always trying to improve,” Murphy says.
Read more in Florida Trend's December issue.
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