Shaun L. Murphy left the Army in 2006 after eight years. In the military, he said, he had been all over the country. He served with distinction as a human resources specialist in South Korea. He attained the rank of staff sergeant and was a brigade's top noncommissioned officer for personnel. But it just didn't seem like enough.
"I wanted to do so much more — I just didn't know what that more was," says Murphy, 32, now a special education teacher at the all-boys Prestige Academy Charter School in Wilmington, Del.
He eventually found himself working as a contractor in Iraq, juggling a lucrative administrative job with online college courses. There he applied to Teach for America at the suggestion of a friend.
"I expressed how much I missed soldiering and my love for the troops, and my friend said, ‘I think Teach for America would be a good move for you,' " Murphy said. "I pulled it up on the website, the values aligned, and it was interesting."
Now a member of Teach for America's recruitment team, Murphy spoke about the importance of a college degree, how the military prepared him to become a teacher and how he's making a difference in children's lives. Some excerpts from that conversation:
Teach for America's intensive five-week training program, the Summer Institute, is supposed to be challenging. What was it like for you?
I got the call two days after my 30th birthday that Teach for America was going to pick me up. That went well, and I got accepted to the Delaware corps. I came on board, and for me, Institute was a breeze. They have people who get shaken up by what I call teacher boot camp, but I got in there and a lot of my leadership was leaning on me to ensure my counterparts made it through. I was just this energetic guy. I'm like, ‘[In the military] we do this at six in the morning.' It came naturally.
Did other participants have military backgrounds?
Maybe one other, but I was an outlier as far as age and military background. [Most other participants] were recent college grads, young women.
Did you start out in Delaware?
In Institute, I taught in Philadelphia for that summer. I transitioned to Delaware. I happened to be one of the trailblazers, one of the first corps members in Delaware. We hit the ground running. One of the things I did, and it came naturally to me, was to build a rapport with the community partners. Because Delaware's so small, I took advantage of being able to reach out to the governor or the mayor and really promote the Teach for America presence.
What about inside the classroom? How would you say your military experience helped you the most?
I'd say it's that presence we have. A noncommissioned officer walks into the room, and everybody jumps. "At ease." It's kind of like that. I run my classroom like back in the military. Just being able to command the respect starts it all. "Oh, you're military? Aw, man." That investment alone allows you to pitch whatever lesson you have. And [the students] love the story.
When you can tell them about your accomplishments, you get respect?
It might be unique to me because my background is like theirs: low socioeconomic background, single parent, no dad. So my story is just like theirs. "I've been through what you have, and I've made it this far. I've been successful in the military, and now I'm doing this. I'm working in my community for you." ... . I go to kids' games, to give them a support system. We understand that. You know if you go to a troop's game, they're like, "Wow."
What would you say to troops considering a civilian career in teaching?
Don't expect that because you served that there are jobs waiting for you. You've got to do work. That was a misconception I may have had. You need some sort of degree — at least an associate's. If you want to get into a teaching program, you have to have a bachelor's degree. Get in school as fast as you can, and jump into an online program, and maximize it. If you can take two classes in one half semester and then two classes in the second half, you can knock out four in a four-month period. Find the accelerated track and get your degree.
Right now, there are different avenues to get into teaching. The Race to the Top Fund is opening doors. You have the Teaching Fellows, Teach for America, and I'd say make yourself knowledgeable and apply to all of them. Teach for America is the most noticeable and has the largest exposure. If I get a job at Google, Google will defer me two years to work for Teach for America and come back. [You] need to know these types of things — what you're worth and what kind of organization you're getting into.
Why is teaching so important to you?
I'll be frank: For black males, they need a presence in the classroom. I would definitely pitch that to my black male veterans. You want to do something, let's get into teaching. The reality is males have been removed from homes. They're in prison or on the run, wherever they're at. So these young men and women don't have a positive male image to look at. That's one of the things that keep me in the classroom, being the person I never had growing up.
Educationwise, we're not where we need to be as a supernation. We need a lot of people who are committed to getting our country back on top and a competitor against other nations. We're education architects, and every day we're reconstructing America in the classroom. We'll see our returns in 10 to 15 years and say, "Wow, this is the way the country went, and we had a hand in it." That's how important it is.
Teaching is known as a low-paying profession, but it sounds as though the payoff is the service you render.
I say, "Man, I left a $100,000 job in Iraq to come do this. Understand, this is not for the money." When I grew up, I heard teachers say, "I get paid whether you learn or not." Absolutely not. My boys come to me three or four years behind with a quote-unquote learning disability. Well, I start with, "Let's get that all out of the way. I don't want to hear about no medications. This is where you're at." We move years and months, and that's our motto in my class. I have one guy who jumped eight years.
For me, it's not a job. It's a lifestyle. It's a way of life. It's not a job because it doesn't end. My boys text me all weekend, and I hit them back: "I'm at the game." And they love it.