Born to teach: Jenn Murphy, Morgan Elementary’s Teacher of the Year, is glad she shifted from being a lawyer to an educator

Published 12:00 am Thursday, April 18, 2024

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By Jim Buice

CLEMMONS — Growing up in Florida and then going to the University of South Florida in Tampa, Jenn Murphy always wanted to be a lawyer.

Or so she thought.

“It’s so bizarre,” said Murphy, a fifth-grade teacher at Morgan Elementary School in Clemmons. “I had a lot of family members that were educators, but I was so enthralled with criminal justice. My senior year of college we had a panel of lawyers where we could just ask them questions. And they were just so depressed about their job. It just made my think. That was my turning point. Like, why didn’t I pick education?”

It turned out to be the right call for lots of reasons for Murphy, who is now in her fourth year at Morgan (two years before having her son in 2016 and then returning six years later) and was honored during the 2023-24 academic year as the school’s Teacher of the Year.

Principal Lisa Davis knew the first time she saw Murphy in the classroom that she possessed special qualities.

“The minute I saw Ms. Murphy teach, I knew her students had won the jackpot,” Davis said. “She has the gift to relay learning in a fun and exciting way for young people. I believe that teaching is truly an art that can be crafted, if the teacher is willing to take chances and be a continuous learner. Ms. Murphy is just that.”

She had to learn quickly in her first position in Tampa as a K-5 varying exceptionalities assistant when on her second day the main teacher called in sick. 

“I had no idea what I was doing, and I had to figure it out fast, but I loved it,” said Murphy, adding she filled the spot when he was put on forced leave because he was out so much.

She then went through an alternative certification program and was hired for a part-time reading position where again she got elevated when the teacher broke her hip.

The move from Florida followed where she landed a position teaching first and second grade at Hall-Woodward Elementary School in Winston-Salem before coming to Morgan in 2014 where she taught second grade for two years.

“Then I had my son and took six years off,” Murphy said. “This is my personal kids’ home school. My daughter is at Clemmons Middle now in the sixth grade, and my son is here in second grade. Coming back into education, I said this was the only place I was going to apply, and if I didn’t get in, so be it. But they accepted me back. It is such a happy place to work. Everybody here is truly like a family.”

Murphy returned to Morgan as a third-grade teacher in the 2022-23 academic year before Davis asked her about moving to the fifth grade — including informing her about teaching a new curriculum with about double the students.

“It was a huge move,” Murphy said of this year. “She gave me the weekend to think about it. My third-grade class I had last year I just loved. But there was nothing over that weekend that told me don’t do this. I kept pondering back and forth, and I love a good challenge. Like my daughter had been in fifth grade last year, and I had to Google how to do the homework.

“But Ms. Davis is fabulous, and our team of people here really helped. So I called her and said, ‘You know what, I’m just going to do it.’ But I said, ‘Can I take my third graders when they come up to fifth grade? I’m loving fifth grade, and I really think this is my favorite grade.”

When asked to describe her teaching style, Murphy said first is being “very real with my students.”

Then she continued: “You really want to build a family relationship over those first six weeks. You don’t just want to get started on the curriculum right away because for a lot of students, this is their safe place. And you want them feeling comfortable coming to you. We make it clear that nobody is making fun of anybody, nobody is going to pick on each other. You are a family. And they’ve really built this really sweet sense of community with one another and helping each other out without my prompting. And it’s something I’m excited to come to work every day. 

“It’s a fun environment. I’m a very hands-on, visual teacher. I’m not somebody who is going to stand up at the door and lecture them every day. I don’t care if they sit in a beanbag chair or lay on their belly. We’ve got kids who are wiggly. I can’t sit in a desk all day. As long as you are up moving and doing what you’re supposed to do, I’m fine with that. You might walk in my room and see kids everywhere, and it’s organized chaos, but it works.”

When Murphy isn’t at school, you might see her running. She likes to run half marathons and exercise in general. In fact, three mornings a week at 5:10 a.m., she is a personal trainer with a group of ladies.

She and her family also are huge hockey fans and enjoy going to Carolina Thunderbirds’ games. Her dad worked for 30 years with the NHL’s Tampa Bay Lightning before retiring, and her son plays hockey.

Murphy said she and her husband and kids have definitely found a home in Clemmons, and that her parents and parents-in-law have both moved here. There seems to be no doubt Murphy has found her happy place and a profession that was obviously meant to be.

Davis said, “She was born to be a teacher. She builds relationships with her students — always the first order of business. She then gets to know them academically, by watching them learn, asking them questions and listening to them. Ms. Murphy knows where each student is on their learning continuum — not an easy task, and she moves them along that continuum so they are ready for their next school year. 

“Aside from being a wonderful teacher and role model, she is a team player and is always willing to do whatever it takes to make Morgan a great place to work and to learn. I’m so thankful to work alongside her. She helps to make Morgan the magical place it is.”