Mr. Clark, a teaching assistant from the classroom next door, stops in with a birthday gift Mr. Murphy's student. When the school year began, the boy had recently immigrated to the country and did not speak English.He had been diagnosed with autism in his home country but had not received services and did not have an IEP (Individualized Education Program), a written document developed for each public school child who is eligible for special education. Less than nine months later, the student speaks English to his teachers and classmates without hesitation.
"It's really amazing," Mr. Murphy said. "He's absorbed so much in just this short amount of time."
Back in the classroom, Mr. Murphy takes a few minutes to check overnight folders for permission slips for upcoming field trips. Soon, seven students have arrived. They choose their incentive, which include, fruit snacks and iPad time, for the the day.
April is National Autism Awareness Month. Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and autism are both general terms for a group of complex disorders of brain development. These disorders are characterized, in varying degrees, by difficulties in social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communication and repetitive behaviors. In Richland Two, the number of students with autism receiving services has grown steadily. The district currently serves just under 500 such students in a variety of settings. The district has grown from seven classes for students with autism in 2000 to 23 this year. In just the past five years, the number of students served has increased by 132.
Mr. Murphy's classroom is self-contained for students in grades kindergarten through second with autism. Throughout the day, some of Mr. Murphy's students will leave occupational and speech therapy or join general education classes for related arts classes with as well as for . They settle in a row of chairs near the front of the room to choose lunch and watch the school's morning news show.
The class has been working on learning to tell time. On the SMARTBoard, Mr. Murphy draws hands on the clock and asks students to tell him the time. Then it's their turn.
"How would this clock look if it was 3 o'clock?" he asks a student. "Make sure your little hand is smaller than the big hand."
Next, it's on to counting money. Students follow along, counting by five as he points to nickels on the board. Then, it's time for a brain break. A second grader requests "A-moose-ta-cha," her favorite GoNoodle song, and the class breaks into a happy dance singing along.
The students spend the next chunk of time rotating through several centers including: fine motor, computer, reading and independent work. At one table, students examine small plastic animals and discuss their habitats. They play a memory game at a large table. At another, they work on counting. At each station, they work one-on-one with Mr. Murphy or teaching assistants Ms. Dana and Ms. Joy. The group of adults is rounded out by graduate student teacher Ms. Emily and substitute teacher Mr. Trevor. Throughout the day, the team works together seamlessly to keep students engaged and on task. Next, the class takes a trip to the computer lab. After they've practiced typing their vocabulary words, students are free to play an educational game.
After lunch, students practice their handwriting until recess. Back in the building and after a snack, it's time for some spelling work. One of the students is having trouble staying focused. Mr. Murphy is as patient as he is firm. "Hey," he says to the student. "Come back to me. You need to write this word."
Mr. Murphy loves his job, and it's evident in the care and attention he shows his students and staff. It's funny because he never planned on being a teacher at all. He enrolled at the University of South Carolina as a business major. After quickly discovering he had no passion for it, he changed his major to psychology. His mother found him a job working as an instructional assistant for children with autism, a job he kept for almost three years and the rest, is history. He student-taught at Forest Lake Elementary before teaching for six months at Rice Creek Elementary. Since 2009, Mr. Murphy has called Polo Road Elementary home. He met his wife Courtney when they both worked as teaching assistants at Bookman Road Elementary School. She currently teaches a preschool inclusion class at Bookman Road. They have two children.
As the day winds down, students have some free time to play educational games, read to themselves or enjoy the incentive item they've been working towards. Mr. Murphy takes a few moments to answer emails and prepare for an upcoming IEP meeting. After school dismisses, he waits with a kindergarten student until her bus arrives, and he's done for the day.
"The best part, I would say, is getting to directly impact not only my students lives but the lives of their parents as well," he said.
Below is Mr. Murphy's day in photos. Visit our A Day in the Life album on Flickr to see more!
Be sure to follow @RichlandTwo on Twitter and Instagram. On May 12, 2016 we'll follow Pontiac Elementary School Montessori teacher Tim Swick!