Connections: Linking Talented Educators
Connections: Linking Talented Educators

Spotlight: Jason Murray (NV '22)

March 1, 2023

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Jason Murray (NV ’22) holds a holistic view of student success: “We want our kids to become great learners but, more than that, we want them to become better people who inspire others.” He joined Nevada’s Milken Educator Network on February 7, 2023, at Florence Drake Elementary School in Sparks.

Milken Family Foundation: What do you like about working with elementary students?

Jason Murray (NV ’22): Elementary school kids are resilient. They bounce back from disappointment and failure better than any adults. It is inspiring!

One of the fundamental principles of our classroom is perseverance. Learning is difficult, and you must have the tools to overcome hardships. I believe elementary school kids have this in abundance. There is a huge presence of optimism and spirit in our school every single day. That’s what keeps good teachers coming back when they are burnt out, underpaid and underappreciated.

MFF: How did you end up in education?

Jason: When I enrolled at the University of Nevada, Reno, I was a journalism major, and I was 100 percent focused on becoming a journalist. That lasted five semesters. I was at a crossroads, and I did not know what to do next. So I tried to find a way of life that would bring me joy.

I went back to my days in high school and the National Honor Society when I volunteered my time tutoring at my old elementary school, C.C. Meneley in Gardnerville. I loved working with children, especially in the primary grades. I enrolled in my first elementary education class at UNR and the rest, as they say, is history. I immediately knew this was my path — teaching brought me so much happiness.

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MFF: How was your first year of teaching?

Jason: What is the saying? Ignorance is bliss. My first year was a wild ride. I was 24 years old, and so naïve about the rigors and demands of being a teacher. I had a very difficult class filled with students who needed specific interventions — interventions I was ill-equipped to provide.

But in came my guiding light, Sandy Madura. Sandy was the literacy coordinator at Drake. She literally put a desk in my room and helped me become a teacher. We would plan together, grade together, create assessments together, and she showed me the research behind all quality instruction. Many of those initial practices that Sandy exposed me to I still use in my classroom today. Simply put, without Sandy, my path as an educator would have taken a wildly different route. I was blessed to have Sandy then as a mentor, and we are still fantastic friends to this day.

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MFF: Tell us about the “Walk to Learn” program you helped build, where students work with teachers throughout the school on specific content. How has this supported successful student outcomes at Drake?

Jason: The idea behind Walk to Learn was smaller groups and more direct and impactful instruction. Meeting students where their needs are was the goal. Young students need repeated exposure of content and Walk to Learn fulfilled this mandate. It also gave kids the confidence needed to make substantial growth. I feel like this intervention was the necessary boost that many students needed to truly believe in themselves as learners. [Jason talks about Walk to Learn in more detail in the video below.]

MFF: You’re also a coach. How do athletics and academics work together?

Jason: I have done a lot of things in my 19 years at Drake Elementary, but starting the soccer and cheer programs has been my most impactful. Many of our students do not have the opportunity to play organized sports. Athletics is an avenue for children to work on their cooperative skills and develop a work ethic that will translate far beyond the field. Being a part of something greater than themselves, a team, cannot be quantified as it has so many long-lasting and positive outcomes.

Our standards are very high when it comes to being part of the Drake soccer and cheer teams. You must maintain great academic and behavioral marks if you want to be eligible. Those things come first. The chance to play doesn’t happen unless you satisfy the first two components. We have seen struggling students become super scholars after joining our team. That shows the power of belonging to something bigger than yourself. And that is how I feel about working at Drake — I always feel like I am a part of something much grander than myself.

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MFF: Who are your role models?

Jason: So many educators have made indelible marks on me. On the admin side, my first principal, Jason Childs, believed in me. Nichole Truax empowered me. And my current principal, Jason Shipman, values me. The staff at Florence Drake, where I have worked for 19 years, is a collection of the finest educators. We have worked tirelessly together to create a school that is worthy of the National Blue Ribbon status we currently occupy.

But specifically, there are two who have had the most influence on my career. Wendy Ritter, special education resource teacher at Drake Elementary, is an incredible source of positivity, tenacity and flexibility. She singlehandedly teaches all K-5 resource students in our school. Her skill and expertise are awe-inspiring as she continually makes huge differences with our students who have the most needs.

For five years I’ve worked alongside my teaching partner, Heather Carpinella, and she is one of the best educators in America. She has elevated my instruction and taken my empathy with students to another level. I do not believe I would be a Milken Educator had she not become my third grade colleague. Heather and I work together to better one another and our students. She brings out the best in me and is a constant source of innovation, problem-solving and compassion. Not a day goes by that I am not thankful Heather is my teaching partner!

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MFF: What were you feeling at your Milken Educator Award notification?

Jason: Complete shock. We just thought it was an assembly to celebrate our success becoming a National Blue Ribbon School, one of two Nevada schools in 2022 to receive this status.

But when Mr. [Lowell] Milken started his speech, you could tell this was something completely different. A teacher was going to be honored. And we have a school full of educators at Drake who are completely worthy of the Milken Award. When my name was announced, I just dropped my head in disbelief.

Then I looked at Heather and she had a huge smile on her face. She kind of pushed me toward the front because I was sitting in shock. As I was walking toward Mr. Milken, all I could think about was my wife, Robin, who is also an amazing educator, and my daughter, Amelia, who was turning six months old that exact day. This Award is going to alter my family forever.

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MFF: How did students respond to your Milken Award?

Jason: The kids I have this year I also had last year, as I am teaching a third and fourth grade combo class. We are very close as we have spent the last two years together. My kids were beyond excited for me. And I kept telling them we share the Award since their success in the classroom is what got me any recognition. I do believe it has had a lasting impact on my current class. They wear the Award like a badge of triumph.

One funny moment was when my kids came back from lunch and saw me for the first time since the assembly. One of my students, Kairo, said, “Mr. Murray, you are having a good day, aren’t you?” And I said, “Yeah, it has been a good day, Kairo!”

What I didn’t expect was the number of former students who reached out to me after my Milken Award. My special day was also very important to them. They are so proud of me. And I am so proud to have been their teacher and made an impact on their life. Honestly, that has been my favorite part of this Milken experience. I have heard from so many past students who are doing amazing things in their own lives. I share this with all of my students!

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MFF: Any plans for the $25,000?

Jason: I bought a car in my second year of teaching, so I am in desperate need of a new vehicle. So that is first on the docket. Ultimately, we want to go on a vacation with our family and put aside the rest of the money for Amelia. Raising a young one on a teacher’s salary is tight. This money will definitely help us live our best lives.

MFF: How do you define “success” for yourself, and for your students?

Jason: Success for me always starts with my students. They come first! I want them to feel optimistic after leaving our classroom every single day. I want my students to set high expectations and strive for something meaningful. That is the only way to grow and improve. We want our kids to become great learners but, more than that, we want them to become better people who inspire others.

Success for myself, on a professional level, has changed as I have grown older and become a father. I want to balance my family time and my teaching time. Having the energy to do both is a challenge, but I know I will because I am surrounded by a wonderful family and tremendous colleagues at Drake.

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MFF: What do you hope students remember from their time with you?

Jason: I want my students to know that learning is fun! If my kids think back on their experience in Mr. Murray’s class and have a smile on their face and fond memories of learning, then I have done my job. We know life is not exactly a level playing field, but the route to more equality starts with a strong education. Commitment to education leads to so many great and wonderful things in life.

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