July/August 2020 Issue
June 14, 2020

Teacher of the Year sees through trying time to a brighter future

Author: Matt Smith
Source: NYSUT United
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Meet Rachel Murat and immediately you feel the intensity with which she approaches her job.

Her energy is boundless. Her style is direct. She’s all business. And you can tell from the look in her eyes — having spent nearly a quarter century in the classroom — Rachel Murat has just about seen it all.

Maine-Endwell Central Schools Superintendent Jason Van Fossen considers Murat the district’s “ambassador.” She’s led efforts to restore the Southern Tier community near Binghamton following two devastating hundred-year floods.

She’s helped families get back on their feet after being left homeless by fires. She’s become widely known for her work running a school-based food pantry, delivering meals to those in need.

Yes, there is little Rachel Murat hasn’t experienced in her 24-year career as a high school social studies teacher. Or, so she thought.

“What college or professionaldevelopment course could have ever prepared us for what we are dealing with?” the 2020 New York State Teacher of the Year asked rhetorically in contemplating how the COVID-19 pandemic forced the shutdown in mid-March of school buildings statewide for the remainder of the academic year.

Spend a few minutes with Murat and you feel something else: the tremendous love and passion she has for her students and the Maine- Endwell community.

“I was ugly crying,” she says about returning to school in May to pack up her classroom. “School is one of my favorite places. Seeing smiling faces, getting high fives and elbow bumps bring me joy. The shell that is our building and my classroom right now is not a place I know.”

The pandemic, Murat said, challenged teachers statewide in ways no one could have imagined, forcing educators “to build the plane as it flies.” Still, they rose to the occasion.

“When we left school on March 11, no one could have imagined that we had seen our students together as a group for the last time. My first concern was talking to each of my 100-plus kids. I wanted to reassure them, hear their voices, picture their smiles as we laughed together, and find out who needed help with basic life necessities.”

Part of Murat’s remote work during the shutdown involved conducting more than 30 daily, 10-minute Zoom, phone or Google Duo meetings. But technology isn’t all that guided Murat and her fellow educators in their work during the closure. So, too, did the principles of ensuring children’s sense of safety and other emotional needs are met first so they can learn.

“That’s my philosophy in everything I do,” says Murat, who in 2009 created with her students the Maine-Endwell Assisting Local Spartans food pantry, which feeds as many as 150 children and 100 families on a weekly basis.

The pantry’s mission during the shutdown has taken on an even greater sense of urgency, and Murat acknowledges, it also took an emotional toll.

“I can no longer read body language as a student walks down the hall to know instantly whether it is an amazing day, or that something is fundamentally wrong. I can’t shake the dread of knowing that for some of our kids, school is the one safe, structured, stable, clean and loving place they get to go every day. “If you’re not taking care of the social needs of your students, it doesn’t matter what the curriculum is,” she says. “One of the unintended benefits we came across (when we started the pantry and food deliveries) is we are able to see kids in their home environments and sometimes we are able to catch things we normally wouldn’t have been able to catch as a school district, and those have helped us better serve those families and students in their time of need.” Van Fossen calls Murat’s commitment to community “tireless.” “She’s a fantastic teacher. She does tremendous things in the classroom. But It’s how she impacts students (and families) outside her four walls, in the community, that sets her apart.”

NYSUT President Andy Pallotta said, “Rachel is a shining example of how we all should seek to impact our communities to build a better New York and world.”

Patricia Sergent, president of the Maine-Endwell Teachers Association, said Murat “embodies everything that an educator should be.

“We have a culture here of community involvement, and Rachel provides a great example of how we reach beyond the borders of the classroom to help students and those in need,” Sergent said. Besides the food pantry, Murat serves as coordinator of the district’s Mentoring Program, helping students navigate the transition from middle to high school.

And, she also created a Digital Citizenship program, teaching students how to positively represent themselves online — something she says is critically important today as colleges and employers scour the social media pages of prospective students and employees.

“She’s a beacon of innovation,” said Van Fossen. “She thinks outside the box. Education is more than just a test score, and you have to give people who are willing and have the energy the green light and the opportunity to grow. Rachel is a great example of someone who does not ever stop.”

Still, in reflecting on this year’s shutdown, Murat knows there’s no making up for lost time.

“There are fewer days that I cry now, and every time I think I’ve cried myself out, it hits me out of nowhere. I know that this, too, shall pass and that we are all in this together. But neither of those sentiments helps me grieve the lost time with my kids.”

Yet, there’s also something else she knows: The bond between teachers and students, as well as schools and communities, will grow stronger as a result of what they have gone through.

“There are life lessons beyond what the curriculum is,” she said. “As educators, our bonds with our students will be strengthened by our time separated from them because inperson instruction will be that much more meaningful. Parents, guardians and taxpayers will have a greater appreciation for what it is our public schools provide.

“And for students, being in a classroom will have new meaning. Relationships will still be the priority as they reconnect with friends and classmates. They will be cherishing the milestones as they participate in every school tradition, soaking up all the memories and making their own, as they define their school experiences.”

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