Susi Murphy, Teaching English at PHS With Passion, Purpose, and Piles of Papers
NEVER A BORING DAY AT PHS: Susi Murphy presides over her Princeton High School classroom, where testing and technology take a back seat to literature, learning, writing and life.
It’s the last class of the day on Friday afternoon at Princeton High School — winter break still more than two weeks away. This is not the time in the day, the week, or the school year when students are likely to be most energetically, attentively engaged in the learning process or most excited about the academic subject matter offered by their teachers.
Susan Murphy’s class is an exception. Her Contemporary Literature gathering of juniors and seniors is discussing The Keep, a complex psychological novel set in a medieval German castle.
The discussion is lively. All the students are involved, and clearly they are all readers, excited to express their thoughts and impressions and hear others’ ideas about the characters and events of the novel. (They have elected this class as a second English class, in addition to the required junior or senior class.)
“Danny, (the main character) what do you think about him?” Ms. Murphy asks.
“We all know kids like this,” a student answers.
“Why is he at the castle at 2 a.m.?” the teacher follows up. “Finish the following ‘This story is about…’
“It’s kind of a journey,” another student responds. The students write down their thoughts, as the discussion continues: “The narrator is tricky.” “The narration of the whole story is tricky.” “It’s repetitive.” “It’s not very well written.” “Is there a reason for that?” “There are weird details.” “He wears a velvet coat.” “I have a black velvet trench coat. I got it at a flea market.”
The teacher asks the students to read over the weekend, the bell rings, the class ends and the students take their time packing up and leaving the classroom. Teacher and students offer each other best wishes for the weekend.
The priorities in Mrs. Murphy’s class are the literature and the human relationships, in the classroom and in the literature.
“Everyone here likes to read,” Ms. Murphy explained. She teaches another class of Contemporary Literature and three sections of Junior American Literature, two Advanced Placement, one regular.
Mrs. Murphy, who has been teaching English at PHS since 1997, talked about her passion for her subject. “I love reading and I love writing. I can’t imagine not loving those things. That still is at the heart of my every day here. That’s the most important thing to me — not the AP tests.”
She described the atmosphere at PHS and the freedom on which she and the students thrive. “When I was hired they opened the door to the classroom. OK — do whatever you want to do. They opened the door to the book room and said pick whatever you want to teach — so much autonomy, room for experimentation, creativity.”
Ms. Murphy recalled the excitement of her first years at PHS. “I was surrounded by smart, creative people — such a range of characters; it was so much fun to be a young teacher at PHS.” And now, 18 years later, at age 47, “It’s still fun. My students are still fun. The literature is exciting. I could teach the Odyssey every year of my life and love it. Today I have three sections of The Scarlet Letter. This is awesome. It’s fun and then I get this perk of the Contemporary Lit class.
“I have a really cool 9/11 unit coming up. This is the first year I have kids in class who have no memory of 9/11. I’ll include a film, poetry, short stories, and connections with journalism and some photographs from that day.”
But even Ms. Murphy’s extraordinary energy, enthusiasm, and dedication to her students and her subject matter are challenged in the current education climate, she suggested. “I hope we can continue to have the kind of offerings we have in these English courses.” The national focus on testing has had an impact. “That’s my worry about going with the Common Core, where everything is regimented. You have to link everything to a core content standard.”
Ms. Murphy’worried about the effects of testing on her ability to teach what she loves best and feels is most important for her students. “I don’t want to talk too much about testing,” she said, “but the culture of testing that we’re in right now takes students out of the classroom for an inordinate amount of time — planning for testing, making sure they are ready for testing and the testing itself.”
As a teacher of two Advanced Placement Literature sections, Ms. Murphy explained, “The thing that is most important for that test is that students feel comfortable by being prepared directly for the kinds of experiences they are going to have on that test. The way to feel comfortable is to be familiar with the test.”
Ms. Murphy has devised a plan to ensure that she does not sacrifice her emphasis on great literature amidst the requisite test preparations. “I focus on literature, literature, literature until April. Everything I do is also helping them for the test. They have to be able to read critically, to use those reading skills. The literature provides me a great way to widen their abilities. They have to be able to write clearly to present an argument, to get beyond superficial treatment of an issue. So again the literature is a great way to do that. “
In April, Ms. Murphy pointed out, they prepare directly for the AP test. “It’s an AP boot camp in class.” But she worried about the effects of the competitiveness and the time taken away from the teaching of literature. Because of the AP tests in May and the competition for students to take more and more AP tests, “they don’t come to class in May,” Ms. Murphy said.
“They’ll stay home to study for their AP tests, when I want to talk about literature”
As a teacher of many juniors and seniors each year, Ms. Murphy is thoroughly involved in the increasingly intense world of college admissions, this year writing recommendations for 38 students, many of whom want to go to the same few prestigious colleges. “It’s always been competitive,” she said, “but it’s become more so. The focus for many students is not on learning but on grades and test scores. The class becomes a means to an end and the end is the grade. I wish we could dial down the pressure.”
With most early college applications due on November 1, “October is a really bad month. It’s a little crazy,” she said. Ms. Murphy spends many hours outside of class helping students with their college applications. They’re all worried about their college essays,” she explained, “I said I’ll be up in the Ideas Center every day during lunch break. It’s first come first served. You can come with your essay but you must bring a donation of a can or a nonperishable item for the food drive. I think I’ve had 100 students. I’ve got three cases of food to deliver to the Crisis Ministry or Mt. Carmel Guild. I love reading college essays. I could read those all day.”
The other trend that worries Ms. Murphy is the increasing influence of technology. “There have been huge changes since I started teaching,” she said. “No one could imagine how things have changed. I like to be positive, but I think honestly students can’t imagine not having that technology, not having a phone, not having google to solve their problems. That’s taken a toll on attention spans. Students can multi-task more than I can but many may have trouble focusing on a task. It was exciting to cover so much literature in American Lit class. I was excited to read those texts with the students, but that’s been cut by almost half.”
Ms. Murphy, after graduating from Princeton Day School and Kenyon College, worked as a restaurant manager, a researcher at Princeton Survey Research, and a National Park Service ranger-interpreter at the Grand Canyon, before she decided that English teaching was her calling. At night, while she was working, she completed a two-year program to earn her masters degree and teacher certification at The College of New Jersey.
“I missed literature.” she said in describing her early work experiences. “I was among smart, interesting people, and I was bored. This is my solution to ‘how am I going to spend a life that is not boring.’ At PHS I’ve had frustrating days. I’ve had really tough days, but I’ve never been bored. I’ve never had a dull day at PHS.”
Ms. Murphy , whose husband died five years ago, lives in Lumberville, Pennsylvania. She has a 24-year-old step daughter, a 13-year-old son and twins, a girl and a boy, 11 years old.
Besides the obvious admiration of her students, Ms. Murphy has won the highest accolades from her administrators. John Anagbo, supervisor of English and Language Arts, described her as “a supremely accomplished teacher who employs a wide range of literature and language skills to foster students’ personal growth, community and self-discovery.”
“How do you find the hours in the day? Mrs. Murphy asked as she described the paper-grading load for an English teacher with 120 students who need constant writing practice and constant feedback on that writing. “I always carry a bag of papers to grade. I’ll be sitting on the sidelines grading papers at my kids’ soccer games and people will ask ‘aren’t you done?’ In June I’ll be done. And if I’m not grading papers, I feel as if I should be.”
But despite all the challenges, Ms. Murphy is overwhelmingly positive about education and the work she does. “We can continue to give the highest quality of education to our students when you have the kind of leadership that allows that to happen. You have to trust your teachers. You have to honestly value creativity and not just say you do. And teachers have to be masters in their content areas.”
Ms. Murphy’s intellectual and emotional connections with her students remain paramount for her. “That teacher-student relationship is magical. If you set up the right conditions, amazing things can happen. All you need is the literature and the right kind of community in the classroom. When you get the group that feels right with each other, that’s magical, and that has happened for me almost every year.”