Updated: Mar 21
Daddy started teaching agriculture the year I entered middle school. I fell head over heels in love with the FFA while he plunged headlong into his first year of teaching. Like the threads of that blue and gold corduroy jacket we both love so much, his career as an ag teacher and my love for the FFA were woven together in ways that I am only now unraveling in my adult years.
My FFA Advisor and Father
Daddy ended up teaching at one middle school in the county and I was assigned to the other. This suited me just fine as I already had him as a father and like most typical teenagers wasn’t anxious to have him as my teacher as well. I’ve heard the stories, though. Stories from his students – later my classmates in high school – as they reported back the things my dad had said and done in his classroom. I’ve heard stories from him as we recounted our days around the dinner table at night. And I’ve been a participant in quite a few stories myself: times spent observing in his classroom, countless hours visiting livestock projects with him, going to livestock shows and attending FFA contests and conventions with him. All the stories ultimately point to this truth – that while his methods were often unconventional, his approach unlikely, and his mannerisms unique, the love he had for his students and his profession was true.
I Can’t Believe They Pay Me To Do This. In his early years of teaching, Daddy marveled at the fact that someone would pay him to talk in an air-conditioned classroom all day and then also give him Christmas vacation and summers “off.” On school holidays, he would walk around gloating, “I can’t believe they pay me to do this.” After leaving the world of farming where he often worked 12-18 hours a day, 7 days a week, teaching seemed like a dream to him in those early years. When fellow teachers would complain about the workload or dread being back at school after a break, he was quick to let them know that the fact that he got paid to do a job like this was a dream come true.
After all, teaching was an unlikely career for a man who was a doubtful candidate to graduate college and then spent the first 17 years of his adulthood farming. He was an unconventional teacher even until the end as it is no secret that lesson plans were a rare occurrence in his classroom – and not simply because he couldn’t find them in the overflowing pile of papers on his desk. He may not have had typical lesson plans, but he did manage to put in 12 hour days every school day, as well as on the majority of his weekends.
Extended Family. Once he became an ag teacher, Dad always had a group of seemingly random students tagging along with him at all the shows. Daddy thought every student should have a livestock project and he did whatever it took to make sure that anyone who wanted a project had one. Oftentimes these students came from families who couldn’t be at the shows. No big deal to him. He just threw them in the FFA truck with us and along we all rode.
It wasn’t uncommon at all to have a girls’ room and a boys’ room at our hotel in Perry, Georgia. If the Murray kids were lucky, we’d get to stay in one of these rooms and not have to stay in the room with Mom and Dad. No matter which room we spent the night in, we knew where we were expected to be when the clock struck 6:00 each morning. He had this thing about being in the rocking chair at Cracker Barrel when the hostess came to unlock the front door. We don’t know why. No one ever did. The FFA truck pulled out of the hotel parking lot just shy of 6:00 AM and all children with “Mr. Murray” were expected to be in it.
The group of “Murray kids” when the livestock show team was probably at it’s largest.
How to Tie a Tie. When not in the barn but in the classroom, my father taught every kid in his class how to tie a tie. Boys and girls. He thought it was important that any male who had taken his class would never be embarrassed to show up to an event underdressed because he didn’t know how to tie a tie. And he taught the girls too because who knew when one day they may need to help a guy in their life look their best. While it seems so basic and simple, what my dad knew is that many students in his class didn’t have fathers to show them these things. He knew that one day as an athlete, job interviewee, or FFA member they would be somewhere a tie was required. So he taught them. All. For 20 years. This is by far the most common story I hear when people recount what they will always remember from his class
The Red Flags of Life Speech. This became one of his more famous speeches in his later years of teaching. Brought on by males in his class who didn’t know how to act like men, he warned his female students that these guys’ behaviors were one of the “red flags of life.” What followed was a red flag of life monolog where he painted many scenarios that a student should see and know was a red flag. A boy who talks rudely to his mother. Red flag. A student who doesn’t know how to bring a pencil to class. Red flag. A girl who likes to sleep in all day on Saturday. Red flag. While he often made a joke out of it, the point was as serious as the day is long. There are things in life that should be red flags to you. Look for them and don’t ignore them. In a world where kids often aren’t taught these things at home, he may have been the first person in their life to point out common red flags that a child should be aware of.
Introductory Speeches. At the beginning of each semester, Dad would have each student stand up and introduce themselves. Nothing unusual: who their parents were, where their parents worked, where they lived, what they liked to do for fun. He said you could learn a lot from a kid this way. He also often had students talk on Monday about how they spent the weekend. Again, patterns and themes began to emerge. Did they spend the weekend taking care of their younger brothers and sisters because their parents were working? Were they working on the farm because the family required it? Were they sitting around playing video games all weekend? Were their parents around and involved? You could tell a lot from what a child said they did over the weekend and Daddy wanted to know. He would often say the same thing about making SAE visits. The things you learn on an SAE visit can change the way you view students in your classroom. He knew that and made it a point to visit students’ homes.
Classroom Management. “Mr. Murray” had a way of keeping control in his classroom. There was a line you most definitely didn’t want to cross. And when he would occasionally mention over dinner that a student had crossed it that day, I would shake my head in wonder. Knowing firsthand what it felt like to be the recipient of the “look of death” that he could communicate over the rim of his glasses, I couldn’t imagine why any child could be that crazy. Guidance often gave him some of the worst students because, in his classroom, they were no longer the worst students. Every student was picked on, joked with, and included in the class. Whether it was a migrant child who was ashamed because their parents worked in the fields, or a child who lived in the projects and wanted nothing to do with agriculture, or a child who grew up in the subdivision and thought perhaps they were too good for ag or a good old boy from the country who thought he knew all there was to know about farming – they were all included.
Washing a calf with students in the early days of his teaching.
They were all also endlessly teased. That was his way of showing he loved them and giving them the attention they didn’t get elsewhere. He especially tried to make a fuss over those who weren’t getting fussed over at home. The Hispanic and African-American kids whose names he absolutely couldn’t pronounce – which isn’t saying much since he often couldn’t pronounce some of the more commonplace names either – were given nicknames. Actually, most everyone had a nickname or an inside joke or something that he teased them about. He had a way of making people feel loved. And the less likely they were to be loved elsewhere, the more likely he was to love them. That was his gift: loving the underdog and bringing out the best in them.
The Offering Plate. The starting point for this tradition is hard to trace back, but one year in an effort to get 100% FFA membership, he decided to pass around what he referred to as “the offering plate.” In each class, he would put the first dollar in and then start passing. Students who had something to put it in, did so. Those who didn’t, refrained. When it was time to turn in membership dues a couple weeks later, each class had 100% membership. In a school where 70% of students receive free and reduced lunches, this was no small feat. He would talk at night about how excited the kids got about it. How some kids would put in a $20. How they would pass the plate multiple times in each class because the rule was that if anyone announced they had money to contribute, the plate had to pass again with Daddy being the one to put in the first dollar. He used it as an opportunity to teach them that this was what it meant to be in a community, to be a part of the same team, to work together for the common good.
He won’t hold any records for the most CDE’s won. He never had overwhelming success at a livestock show despite the thousands of hours spent at them. He didn’t have the largest FFA chapter. His classroom was not necessarily academically rigorous. There were many things that he wasn’t. But one thing he was. He was love to his students. He cared about them and tried to show it to them. He cared about the least of these. About all of these.
Underneath all of the lesson plans, the CDE’s, the SAE’s and the FFA membership, isn’t that what it’s all about – showing students that they are loved, valued and capable. Seeing what they can’t see about themselves and bringing it out. Helping them to be people of character and contributing citizens of society – whether they are in the field of agriculture or not. He is certainly an ag teacher to emulate and an ag teacher who will be missed in this community and throughout the state of Georgia.