SPOTLIGHT: SUSAN MURPHY, FIRST LANIER HIGH SCHOOL PALS TEACHER & FOUNDER OF PFLUGERVILLE ISD PAL
“Spotlights” are a feature of the YouthLaunch blog where our friends share their stories. From Plan II/KIPP Partnership leaders, to PALS Alumni Corps members, to current and retired PALS teachers and advocates in AISD, these are our friends and collaborators who share our goal of empowering youth to incite positive change.
“Our best resource is our students."
Susan Murphy, aka "Coach Murph," is an incredibly kind and engaging woman with a can-do attitude. In 1982, she taught the first PALS class at Lanier High School in North Austin. Her knowledge of PALS is extensive, and her love of the program even more so. “Our best resource is our students,” she tells me. “They cost nothing.”
After over 20 years of teaching PALS, she knows more than a little on the subject. Coach Murphy witnessed PALee attendance improve, and each year she saw how “PALS promotes a supportive school environment, which creates a strong school.” She remembers her difficult first two years starting the Lanier program. “When I first began teaching PALS, I had no idea what I was doing,” she says. Back then there was no manual. She constantly questioned whether she was doing it right and doing enough. Selecting PALS was always a challenge, as it is for every teacher, but it was especially hard in Murphy's first year, because there were no PALS yet to help her. “It’s normal to be lost as a new PALS teacher,” she tells me. “They need a list of reliable resources.” As an encyclopedia of new teacher tips, Coach Murphy is happy to be on that list.
Susan Murphy was a very involved PALS teacher, going above and beyond for her kids, and most importantly, letting them take the lead. Her fond memories of Lanier PALS at the annual training at Mo-Ranch still fill her with pride. It was there that she was most in awe of them, because they would break the ice with other students, making friends with everyone. They rose to meet her high expectations, and many feeder schools sent requests for them. It was they who decided to have a contract to be drug and alcohol free, and they were the ones who wrote it.
For 14 years Coach Murphy taught at Lanier – Social Studies, track, cross country, AVID and PALS. She’s taught in Pflugerville for 16 years. She brought PALS to Pflugerville ISD, which boasts strong programs in two of its three high schools, and now directs the Leadership Experience program there.
Her advice is golden. “You have to want to be a role model,” she’d tell her PALS. “Play like I’m on your shoulder.”
“You have to want to be a role model,
Play like I’m on your shoulder.”
Lanier PALS and their PALees dealt with serious problems: racism, drug abuse and suicidal thoughts were just a few. Every trying experience, however, became an opportunity for Coach Murphy's PALS to reflect and grow. One day, a Lanier PAL learned that her young PALee was gambling. The class talked it over, and agreed that she had reacted well by showing interest and asking questions rather than displaying shock. “It’s important to be empathetic, ask questions and make a connection in any way you can,” Murphy advises.
From her perspective, the heavy issues PALS come in contact with as peer mentors need to be balanced with a little fun. In the early days, when she taught at Lanier, PALS throughout the district were rewarded for their hard work with traditions like a weekend training at Mo-Ranch and an end of year banquet. The students would dress up, and some were honored as Outstanding PALS. “They loved it,” Murphy tells me. Lanier PALS did fundraising for their program’s other needs, and primarily, for service projects. Their most memorable fundraiser, “Kiss the Pig,” happened once a year, when students would purchase votes in hopes that the teacher or administrator of their choice would be the one to kiss a genuine pig that was paraded down the halls.
“PALS promotes every single positive leadership attribute. It empowers our youth, and that’s how leaders are made."
The most rewarding aspect of PALS, for the students and Coach Murphy, was mentoring. The friendships the PALS and PALees were poignant. “The world would be such a great place if every kid had a mentor, someone to confide in,” Murphy tells me. These friendships impacted the older students as well, as did the bonds they formed with their fellow peer-mentors. Murphy remembers one former PAL whom she saw years after she'd graduated. This young woman talked about how much PALS meant to her and how it had helped her become confident and work well with other people. “PALS promotes every single positive leadership attribute,” says Murphy. “It empowers our youth, and that’s how leaders are made.”
PALS creates a ripple effect, spreading positivity through supportive relationships and teaching empathy. Susan Murphy embodies this phenomenon. She's a natural role model and a breast cancer survivor, and she believes in following one’s inner compass. “Sometimes you can’t wait for somebody to give you the O.K. You have to go for it and apologize later if they tell you you shouldn’t be doing it,” she says.
We so look forward to continued collaboration with Coach Murphy in advocacy of PALS.
Interview by Jasmine Castellanos, 12/18/2015