Jamal Murphy, a West Side native who attends Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, hopes one day to inspire his students the way his 5th-grade teacher inspired him.
“In the 3rd and 4th grades, I fought and I never really cared about school,” Murphy, 21, said during an interview earlier this summer. “In 5th grade, a teacher got me involved in extracurricular activities and off the street.”
That teacher, Murphy said, changed the trajectory of his life. And now that his path is set, it’s a matter of making the road a bit smoother. Enter Golden Apple Scholars of Illinois, a scholarship program designed to provide intense training to aspiring teachers throughout their college career and particularly within high-needs learning environments.
Scholars typically spend three summers with the program while in college and receive numerous benefits, such as tuition support, stipends, mentoring from Golden Apple teachers and job placement assistance. In exchange for all of that, scholars agree to teach at least five years in a school in Illinois where at least 33 percent of students come from low-income households.
“The program is very intense,” said Mary Farmer, the director of Golden Apple’s Summer Institute at Dominican University, one of the program’s partner sites where scholars take courses.
“You have classes that you might not necessarily receive in your preparation at university,” she said. “We base (instruction) on what we consider are areas of improvement in first- and second-year teachers.”
“When they first come into the program, when they’re seniors in high school and going into their freshman year in college, they’re working with teachers in summer schools and getting that experience of being in the classroom,” said Damon Ehrett, a 25-year-old teacher from downstate Illinois and himself a former Golden Apple scholar.
“By the third year, they’re completely in charge of leading a classroom and creating lesson plans and curriculum,” he said. “They get to do this as incoming college juniors, when most education students haven’t even started student teaching yet. So, they get a huge advantage.”
Murphy, whose family lives in West Garfield Park, finished out his third summer as a Golden Apple scholar at a community center, located in suburban Maywood, that services a population of young people similar to those he grew up with on the West Side.
Scholars and program administrators touted the program’s ability to foster diversity among the budding teachers and students with whom they’re paired.
Ehrett said he spent his first summer as a scholar at two elementary schools on the West Side. He said the program exposed him to the kind of cultural and economic diversity that’s relatively absent in central Illinois.
“Being in those different communities was eye-opening,” Ehrett said. “I don’t think I’d have gotten that experience without a program like this.”
For Murphy, who said he realized he wanted to be a teacher by chance while in high school, the experience has given him a way to connect with students who are, in some ways, mirror images of the kid he was before his 5th-grade teacher seized him and steered him to his potential.
“One day, when I was in high school, the teacher was going around the room asking everyone what they wanted to do in college,” Murphy recalled. “I kept hearing things like engineer, accountant and all these things. I had two options — motivational speaker and teacher. I told myself, ‘I don’t want to be the typical Steve Harvey dude.’ And that’s when I said teacher.”
Murphy said after announcing his ambitions, the teacher, who was a mentor of his, encouraged him to apply for the Golden Apple Scholar program. Initially, Murphy said, he was turned off by the rigorous application process and the amount of essay writing it required. After some nudging by his peers, though, he eventually applied.
Now, he said, his career aspirations have come into even clearer focus. He wants to become a school district superintendent one day. When asked to envision himself superintendent of Chicago Public Schools and to name some policies or ideas he’d want implemented, Murphy perked up, obviously charmed by the possibility.
“I think one thing (any administrator needs) is to have an understanding (with students),” he said. “You can read or talk about it, but I grew up in it. I was one of those kids. I’d know if they’re not eating or if something is going on at the house. Just being there for the students and showing that, ‘Okay, I’m accountable for you guys’ (is important). It’s not just me against you all. It’s us as a community.”