"Ms. Murphy openly discusses racial equity and ways that students can fight for equality within their communities. In this way, she is creating future leaders who will make advancements in social justice around the world."
Teaching wasn’t Brianna Murphy’s first calling. Her initial career as an accountant at one of the top firms in New York City left her unfulfilled. Serendipity led her to teaching and to her mission: changing lives. “I was a volunteer in my daughter’s school. It was just once a week, but at the end of those days, I felt the happiest.”
To pursue her newfound passion for teaching, Murphy moved to Boston and went back to school at Northeastern University to earn her Master’s degree in teaching when her daughter was seven years old. She took classes full-time, at night, on top of her accounting job and parenting: “I couldn’t afford to quit my day job.”
She did her student teaching in a public school in Boston, where she had attended Pine Manor College as an undergraduate, and was then hired at an independent school.
After a few years in Boston, Murphy and her daughter moved to Los Angeles, where she began teaching at Brentwood School, which is located in one of the most affluent neighborhoods in Los Angeles.
“In my heart I wanted to teach in public school because of the socioeconomic diversity, but I talked to a mentor who told me I served a purpose [at Brentwood]. ‘Kids of all races need to see you in that position.’ It helped me, although I still get little tugs in my heart, but I hear my mentor say: ‘All students need to see Black teachers, and when you do have that time with Black students, it’s going to be really meaningful to them.’”
And indeed it was incredibly meaningful to have Murphy as a teacher for 10-year-old Arianna Shaprow and her mother, Jacqueline, who nominated Murphy for the Honored National Teaching Award.
“Ms. Murphy believes in me. She cares about me. She inspires me to work my hardest in class each day,” says Arianna, who is bi-racial and identifies as Black.
Arianna’s mother, Jacqueline Shaprow, echoes her daughter’s praise: “Arianna was very inspired to see a Black mother, just like me. My daughter wants to be a writer and will work on assignments that go beyond the lessons in the class because she’s so inspired by her teacher.”
"On the last day of school, [Ms. Murphy] told me I can do whatever I want to do in the world. She said I will become an author one day, and everyone will read my books."
School during pandemic times has been difficult for everyone. For the Shaprows, there was the additional challenge of being new to the area and to the Brentwood community.
“We started this school year in a one-bedroom apartment which served as Arianna’s classroom, my office, and our bedroom. A few months prior, we had packed up all our belongings and drove from Nevada to California. We had no in-state relatives, so Brentwood served as our home and family.”
In her nomination of Murphy for the Honored award, Jacqueline wrote:
“As a single black mother, I’ve navigated everything alone since my daughter Arianna was a one-month-old newborn baby….Being a descendent of slaves in Holly Springs, Mississippi, my grandma carried a lot of pain from racial injustice and social inequality while serving as a maid on the cleaning staff at the Allerton hotel in Chicago, and my mom similarly carried those pains and trauma (which she unfortunately passed to me). My mother couldn’t help but remind me of discrimination on a daily basis; we lived it.”
Brentwood’s progressive 4th grade curriculum incorporates social justice to help students interpret past and current events, including the national racial awakening sparked by George Floyd.
“I think [Arianna’s] mom was just blown away by the curriculum, but it’s what we teach in fourth grade. I think it was a double whammy for her. Her child had a Black teacher, and we teach social justice through everything, science, social studies, so I think that really resonated with her,” says Murphy.
As Jacqueline says, “Arianna was so happy to see a woman of color who speaks about the importance of social justice on a daily basis, and integrates lessons about critical legal cases which have impacted our social landscape, and incorporates teachings of equality throughout each day, along with a strong foundation for writing, spelling, vocabulary, mathematics, and social studies.”
The focus on social justice is eye-opening for many students. In fact, there’s a saying at Brentwood: “From K to third, kids are happy, then in fourth grade they get a slice of real life.”
“[Ms. Murphy’s] social justice lesson plans teach students about important legal battles that created integration in schools and more opportunities for insular minorities within education,” says Jacqueline. “Ms. Murphy openly discusses racial equity and ways that students can fight for equality within their communities. In this way, she is creating future leaders who will make advancements in social justice around the world.”
Murphy also teaches her students California history. “For me, it’s just about teaching history. The white man came to California and killed natives and took their land; that’s just the truth. I wasn’t born knowing all the injustices. I had to do research, and I learned about them and wanted to share them with my students accurately.”
Brianna Murphy grew up in the Soundview section of the Bronx with her single mom and brother and attended public schools. Mr. Houseman, her 5th grade teacher, witnessed Brianna’s intelligence and diligence and encouraged her to apply to A Better Chance (ABC), a program that helps Black, Latino and other students of color go to elite day and boarding schools.
“Mr. Houseman really helped my mom see it was a good thing. I was in the ‘hood, and then a path was laid out in front of me. I don’t know if I’d be on this path [without Mr. Houseman]. I really appreciate him for that.”
Through the ABC program, Brianna went from the Bronx to Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, an experience she found wonderful. She wasn’t uncomfortable with the economic or racial differences.
“Honestly, I’d never been around white people, but it was just us, we lived together. I find when adults aren’t around, mostly the kids do just fine. The only challenge there was the academics.”
That she never felt peer pressure to be different or dress more like the predominantly preppy kids speaks to Murphy’s sense of self. “I held on to my own style. I thought topsiders were hideous and preferred what was coveted in the Bronx: Nike Air Jordans,” she laughs.
"I love my job most when I can get to the ones who don’t like school or don’t feel successful in the environment. I give more to those kids because they have less."
Murphy still has a firm sense of who she is because of the sense of pride her mother instilled in her. “We only had Black dolls. Mom was on a mission,” she says, amused.
In her teaching career, Murphy is continuing the mission to instill that confidence in all her students.
“Ms. Murphy believes in me. She always makes time for me; she helps me with math after school. She always answers and I have a lot of questions,” Arianna says.
Murphy credits her own math teacher from 6th grade, Mr. Block, with inspiring her teaching methods. “Math isn’t my strongest subject, but it’s my favorite to teach because I struggled with it. It helps me relate to the kids who need a little more encouragement. I have a class of high learners who can do mental math. I tell the class that I can’t do it in my head, I must write it down, but that doesn’t mean I’m not a good mathematician. It humbles the advanced students and brings up the ones who need a little more encouragement.”
Murphy continues, “I love my job most when I can get to the ones who don’t like school or don’t feel successful in the environment. I give more to those kids because they have less.”
Jacqueline describes how Ms. Murphy gives every ounce of energy she has to her students, even during the pandemic. For instance, she says Murphy asked her students what sweet treat they would like to be sent to their homes, because she wanted to reward them for all of their hard work in class. “These acts of kindness endear students to her. The high level of respect she requires inspires them to work harder,” says Jacqueline.
All throughout the year, Murphy sent her students care packages, tailored to the student’s needs and interests. She sent Arianna the book Brown Girl Dreaming by award-winning novelist Jaqueline Woodson, which Arianna read immediately.
“I send care packages to all the kids. I’m doing what I do. I don’t mean to play it down, but I don’t think of it as anything special. I think Arianna and her mom have experienced it that way,” says Murphy. She even made a list of places for Arianna to go during a school break that would be Covid-safe: “I recommended parks that weren’t generally highly populated. I also gave her links to things to do.”
For Arianna, her teacher’s passion and enthusiasm have meant everything.
“On the last day of school, [Ms. Murphy] told me I can do whatever I want to do in the world. She said I will become an author one day, and everyone will read my books,” Arianna says.
Photography by Christina Edwards
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