'You got to bring it to life': Fairfield history teacher wins educator award

History teacher Margaret Murphy poses in front of Fairfield Warde High School, in Fairfield, Conn. Oct. 7, 2020. Murphy has received the University of Chicago Outstanding Educator Award.

History teacher Margaret Murphy poses in front of Fairfield Warde High School, in Fairfield, Conn. Oct. 7, 2020. Murphy has received the University of Chicago Outstanding Educator Award.

Ned Gerard / Hearst Connecticut Media

FAIRFIELD — Margaret Murphy said one of the best parts of teaching history is sparking interest in her students and showing them how the past can apply to the present.

She frequently assigns students in her American studies course to take on the roles of various historical figures, often with opposing viewpoints from their own, to try and get them to better understand how people who think differently draw their conclusions.

“I try to base the course on values that are held by people and why they hold those values and how those values should shift in their priority,” she said. “Those are things we can connect from colonial America to the middle America time to the 19th Century and 20th Century — and even to now in our current election. I’m always having them think about what values a person, a historical figure or a civilization holds and how that is connected to today.”

Murphy, 49, is a history and psychology teacher at Fairfield Warde High School. She was recently awarded the University of Chicago Outstanding Educator Award after being nominated by a former student who goes there.

The award is presented to an educator who played a significant role in the students’ education, made a positive impact in their lives and whose influence has brought them to where they are today.

Murphy said building a sense of community in the classroom is instrumental to making students feel comfortable with being challenged and expressing themselves.

“Then, they are more willing to take risks in their classrooms,” she said. “It’s important to me to have an environment where kids, regardless of what their position is, that they can express it, so long as they back it up with some sort of evidence and some analysis.”

Murphy said she was raised in Fairfield and attended the public schools there. She worked at Ridgefield High School for 10 years and started at Warde High in 2008.

“I wanted to have my daughter in the same district that I was in,” she said.

Murphy said, she originally planned to go to law school because of her passion for studying history. While working at a law firm in New York City, she decided the field was not for her.

“I did not find it that meaningful and rewarding, because I was dealing with a lot of papers and researching things that weren’t of interest to me,” Murphy said. “My mother was a teacher, and she always encouraged me to go into it.”

Murphy switched gears and got her master’s degree in education from the University of Colorado Boulder.

She said so many people find history boring until later on in life, so it is important to teach it well.

“I think one of the reasons why they find it boring when they are kid is because who really cares about any time period that we are studying, unless they can see some continuity or some change that connects to today,” Murphy said. “If they don’t see those connections, then, to them, the study of history is meaningless.”

Finding those connections is hard and can take time, Murphy said, but there are connections she can show the students between themselves and their predecessors.

“You got to bring it to life,” she said. “Otherwise, it’s boring.”

Murphy said she is lucky to have students who are so appreciative of their teachers, adding one special part of teaching is having upperclassmen she has not seen since their freshmen year pop in to visit her.

“Those sort of small actions are so meaningful, because they don’t have to stop by,” Murphy said, noting the student who nominated her for the award did not have to do that either. She said seeing that she has impacted a student in any small or big way is something she enjoys — even if it is years later.

“There’s really good kids here at Warde,” she said. “I’m so very blessed to be in such a great school with great teachers and kids who appreciate them and a great administration. This award... it’s not really about me, it’s about the school.”