Gretchen Murray jokes that she was an explosives expert before deciding to become a teacher. Murray grew up in a family of educators but fell into a marketing career at a commercial explosives company a job that fed her wallet, but not her soul.
Seeing her dissatisfaction, Murray’s aunt invited her to drop by her classroom one afternoon. It was love at first sight. Happily for the many students at Peruvian Park Elementary she’s influenced Murray quit her job, enrolled in a master’s of education program, and never looked back.
Her inspiring spirit, dedication to students, and fine-tuned instructional skills are among the reasons that Murray was announced on Tuesday, April 26, 2016 as the Canyons District Teacher of the Year. She was honored during an evening community celebration and recognitions event hosted by the Canyons Board of Education at the Canyons Administration Building-East. As the Teacher of the Year, she received prizes, gifts and a $1,000 check from the Canyons District Foundation. She also will represent the District in the Utah Teacher of the Year contest.
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Murray was chosen from a field of 48 Teachers of the Year who had been nominated from every Canyons school, including the academy at the Utah State Prison, and for the first time, Canyons Virtual High and Canyons’ new alternative high school, Diamond Ridge. Also recognized on Tuesday were the school nominees, semifinalists and two finalists for district Teacher of the Year: Quintana Glover from Draper Elementary and Linda Tognoni from Park Lane Elementary.
Every one of these teachers uses data and evidenced-based teaching strategies to help struggling learners achieve and help advanced learners to stretch even further, remarked Superintendent Dr. Jim Briscoe. But they also are gifted at “the art of teaching.” Each has a special knack for connecting emotionally with students and, in the process, lifting their hearts and minds.
The first day of school in Murray’s classroom starts in a very specific place: the floor. That is where the Peruvian Park Elementary teacher sits in a circle with her students and allows each child to talk about a time when someone hurt their feelings.
For every harsh word uttered, students pound a nail into blocks of wood. Then, as the circle is repeated with positive words and the nails are removed, Murray points out that a hole still remains. “We don’t make holes in our class,” she tells her students.
In Murray’s class, integrity, responsibility and commitment are the norm. Her students consistently make significant progress, as 86 percent of the class scored in the 90th percentile of the M-COMP evaluation this winter, compared to 27 percent in the fall.
Earlier this year, Murray was diagnosed with breast cancer for which she is receiving chemotherapy. But taking a break from teaching wasn’t on the agenda for this devoted educator who says her two young children and her students are what keep her going. Each day, even on the tough ones, she starts her SALTA class with a stirring injunction to make the most of every moment, as her students learn to solve multi-faceted problems, think critically and learn self-mastery.
“One of the eight keys of excellence in my classroom is ‘This is it.'” And what that means is that this moment is the only moment we can control in our life,” she says. “We can’t change the past and we can’t control the future. We can be in the present. This is it. This is the only one we get. So let’s have some fun with it, even when it is hard.”