Teaching Comes Full Circle

We spoke to three Berkeley alumni who pursued a career in education. Each, at a unique point in their career, offered insight into the profession, what inspired them to become teachers, and the changes affecting teaching today.

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We all have that favorite teacher from school that sticks in our memory. If you are fortunate enough to be a Berkeley alumnus/a, you probably have a long list of teachers, coaches, and administrators who you credit in some way for making you the person you are today. They were the teachers who guided you, mentored you, and taught in a way that made learning click.

Walter “Lee” Murfee III ’95, Ph.D., an Associate Professor of Biomedical Engineering at the University of Florida, credits his Berkeley experience as a key influence on his decision to pursue teaching in higher education. “Without a doubt! My father was a teacher. Two of my sisters graduated from Berkeley. I grew up at Berkeley. While it has dramatically evolved, my memories are unchanged. I can still see where we would eat bagels in the mornings, my classrooms, and my friends in the hall. I can also still see “Coach Z,” Dr. Morris, Mrs. Dufeny, Mrs. DeWeese, “Mr. Mac,” Mr. Redman, Mrs. Grimaldi, Peg Pisano, Mr. Suarez, Mr. Cook, Coach Dagastino, Coach Caprara, Mr. Merluzzi, and all my other wonderful teachers. Berkeley gave me a foundation of confidence that has influenced who I am today.”

Behind every great doctor, lawyer, engineer, and CEO, there is a great teacher. Some Berkeley teachers had such a profound impact on their students that they too entered the teaching profession, equipped to educate the next generation of students. Teaching is indeed one of the most honorable professions.

“I became a teacher because teachers shaped my life,” said Vance Wilson ’68, former headmaster at St. Albans School in Washington, D.C. “For those Berkeley alumni my age, we came to a small school — the first faculty numbered 11. Those teachers came from other parts of the country, were educated in the liberal arts tradition, and inspired us to learn and see learning as a serious pursuit, almost as much for its own sake as for what education could do for us.”

Teaching can be a selfless profession and teachers often put the needs of others ahead of their own. They put in countless hours creating and customizing their lesson plans, grading tests and papers, coaching on nights and on weekends, and tutoring students. Despite those challenges, teaching is a true calling.

“I have wanted to be a teacher ever since I can remember,” said Sydney Hughes ’11, who now teaches Middle Division English at Berkeley. “In fact, I have a very specific memory of being in 4th grade in Mrs. Stiegler’s class where I said to myself, ‘This is what I want to do. I want to be a teacher like Mrs. Stiegler when I grow up.’ She made everything about school seem like fun, even my least favorite subjects!”

For some, the desire to teach is a family tradition. Murfee explained that his family’s rich lineage of teachers made it almost impossible to not consider it as a profession. “My mother was a kindergarten teacher and my father taught in the Upper Division at Berkeley for over 20 years. He also taught at West Point and followed a long line of educators. His great-grandfather was a professor at the University of Virginia and his father’s family founded the Marion Military Institute in Alabama.”

The classroom environment has changed drastically in the past decade. Gone are the days of blackboards and chalk and perfectly aligned rows of chairs facing the teacher. Printed books are quickly becoming a thing of the past, having been replaced by dynamic learning applications, digitized classrooms, and online learning methodologies. Clearly, technology has been a game changer in the classroom.

She explained that students at Berkeley are encouraged every day to ask questions to guide their own learning, as well as engage in productive academic conversations to deepen their understanding of the content presented.

This prompts the question as to whether teaching, and teachers for that matter, have changed as well?

Murfee explained it best by saying, “From my experiences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of Virginia, the University of California – San Diego, Tulane University, and the University of Florida, I have noticed a few things: the access to information has exploded, students seem to be more eager than ever, yet the fundamental student-teacher relationship has remained the same. Sure, technological advancement in recent years has affected how we communicate, but the ability for teachers to connect with students is still dependent on their ability to build trust and make students feel that they genuinely want to help.”

Hughes added, “Students have changed over the years, primarily due to technology. We as teachers have had to change along with them. Their lives (students) are very fast-paced, so our classrooms need to mirror that. Teachers are constantly finding new ways to capture their attention and keep them engaged. Today’s student must have the ability to create and think independently in order to keep up with and adapt to the ever changing world around them.” She added that the most successful way to do this is to maintain that strong teacher-student relationship which has stood the test of time (and technology).

Hughes explained that as a former Berkeley student-turned-teacher, she can empathize with her students and she understands the expectations to which they are being held. “I was also immersed in an environment with incredible teachers, so I am able to emulate what they did in my own practice. I hold myself to the highest possible standards, as I have learned from the best!”

The characteristics of what defines a great teacher is unique to all of the alumni educators with whom we spoke. However, what unites them, and all great teachers, is the ability to connect with students and see them flourish. That’s what Berkeley teachers have done for generations of alumni. “The opportunity to help others reinforces my passion for being in academia. I feel extremely fortunate,” Murfee concluded.

Wilson added how he often felt motivated and inspired by the work he did during his tenure as an educator and administrator, and he credits much of that to his Berkeley education – specifically those Berkeley visionaries who made it all possible. “I could name many specific teachers, all of whom were hired and led by Edgar McCleary, the founding school head,” he said. “I am inspired by the courage Mr. Baker and Dr. Aye had as the founding trustees and the faith they showed in Mr. McCleary and the dream of creating an Episcopal private school in Tampa. It’s an inspiring story to see what Berkeley has become.”
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Founded in 1960, Berkeley is an independent Episcopal day school for boys and girls in Pre-Kindergarten to Grade 12. Combining academic excellence with a spirit of social responsibility, Berkeley develops well-rounded individuals seeking to make a positive difference in the world.