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Winding path to teaching leads Garfield teacher to Yale award

Craig Clough | September 24, 2014

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Kevin Murchie

Garfield Senior High School teacher Kevin Murchie

As a boy, Kevin Murchie saw the award-winning film “Stand and Deliver,” the true story of Jaime Escalante, the Garfield Senior High math teacher who inspired his Latino students to overcome gang violence and poverty in east Los Angeles.

A Caucasian boy growing up in the upper class community of La Cañada Flintridge, Murchie said there was no way he ever thought he would one day become a teacher, and certainly “no way did I ever think I would be teaching at that school someday.”

But some life changing events led Murchie to realize in his mid-20s that he wanted to teach, and after 11 years at Garfield, his dedication recently earned him some national recognition when he became one of only 53 teachers to receive the prestigious 2014 Yale Educator Award.

A former Garfield student, Janet Juarez, a freshman at Yale who credited Murchie with inspiring her as a student, nominated him. Since receiving the award, and since LA School Report posted a story about it last week, Murchie said he has been inundated with messages from former students.

“I don’t think I ever really understood the power of social networking until that article came out,” Murchie told LA School Report during a phone interview. “In a two-day period I heard from more students over my career than I ever had. I mean, I didn’t even realize they remembered who I was. But I got emails, texts, all kinds of things. It was quite amazing.”

Murchie taught Juarez in Advanced Placement English and was also the faculty advisor for the student-run paper, The Scuttlebutt, which Juarez served as editor in her senior year.

“Besides increasing our societal awareness, Mr. Murchie helped many students, myself included, appreciate writing,” Juarez said in a press release. (Efforts to reach her for this story were unsuccessful.)

Murchie came to teaching through a circuitous route. After attending La Cañada High School, he went to the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, first majoring in hotel management, then business.

“I didn’t set out to be a teacher. I spent most of my college trying to get out of reading books,” he said.

Then, during his last semester of his senior year, he took a course on the history of rock and roll.

“One day this teacher played this interview with Bob Dylan, and this reporter from Time magazine was trying to label him a folk singer, and Bob Dylan didn’t want any of that. He said, ‘I’m a trapeze artist.’ And my head exploded,” Murchie recalled.

“I kind of realized in that moment I had never done anything original in my whole life. I had never had my own thought. I’d just been doing what everybody else told me to do. It literally changed my life. I went home, I broke up with my girlfriend, I went to the library and checked out [Jack] Kerouac’s ‘On the Road,’ [Alan] Ginsberg’s ‘Howl’ and bought Bob Dylan’s ‘Nashville Skyline’ and tried to figure out who I was.”

After graduating, Murchie said he spent several years unable to land a job he liked in the business world. He moved to San Francisco and kept searching for a path that would be meaningful to him.

“One day in the shower, I guess I had the epiphany that lately all I had been doing is reading books, so what if you got paid to read and talk about books? I drove over to UC Berkley and I walked into the lit office and I walked up to the secretary, and I will never forget it, because I just blurted out, ‘I think I want to be a teacher,’” Murchie said.

While he didn’t end up at UC Berkley, he did end up at San Francisco State, where he eventually got into the graduate English program. Eleven years ago, hoping to get into a doctorate program but needing a job, he landed an interview at Garfield to teach high school English. Before the interview, he studied the school’s test scores and demographics, feeling well-prepared when it began.

“And I remember the principal at the time said, ‘Well, is that all you know about Garfield?’ I said, ‘Yeah,’ and I was a little surprised because I had just spat out all these facts. And she said, ‘Well, what about ‘Stand and Deliver’? I just looked at her like, that was here?” Murchie said.

Murchie explained he believes the key to inspiring students is to be very prepared and bring a lot of energy into the room. He says he rises every day at 3 a.m., arrives on campus at 6:15 a.m. and often spends several hours before school preparing his lessons.

“Coming from La Cañada, it’s vastly different than Garfield,” Muchie said. “The kids need something else. Yeah, they need teachers, but there is also a certain amount of cultural literacy that’s in there that you have to explain to them. There is a certain amount of parenting that they need. There are a lot of days, more days than I would like to admit, when you have students crying to you about problems that they’ve got. I’m sure a lot of teachers get that.”

While Murchie said he was grateful for the award, he said he doesn’t necessarily feel worthy of the attention.

“It’s hard, because I feel like there are a lot of good teachers at Garfield,” Murchie said. “We all probably have students like Janet. I was fortune that one of mine took to time to do what she did, but that could have been anybody.”

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