Dan Murphy found his passion more than 15 years after he began his career. He left his job as a state employee and began teaching English to non-native speakers at the Columbia Area Career Center in 2003.
Murphy, who speaks Spanish, has traveled across the world to places such as the Caribbean and Canada, and has backpacked all over Europe. Murphy says he likes talking with his students and that the cross-cultural experience means a lot for both Americans and non-Americans.
The people who take his class include international college students, people coming to the U.S. without knowing a word of English and more.
Daniela Leiva, one of Murphy’s students from Bogota, Colombia, says Murphy’s willingness to talk and his outgoing personality is something that makes him stand out. “He is a kind of different person, and that’s cool,” Leiva says.
Murphy talked with Vox about his journey to become an educator and how teaching has taught him about cultural differences.
What was your prior job?
I was in the Missouri Department of Mental Health from 1986 to 1999. I was the director of a therapeutic foster family program. Working with children, teenagers and their parents was stressful for me. I had to deal with negative behavior every day, sometimes violence. After being in the mental health job for 13 years, I entered MU as a master’s student in adult education. I went to Guatemala after obtaining my master’s degree. I had a six-month contract as an English-language teacher there. The six months, October 2002 to April 2003, was so fun and less stressful than the work at a mental hospital. After coming back to Columbia, I started this job as a volunteer, then I became full-time.
What’s the main goal of the class?
I try to meet the needs of every student. Everyone has different backgrounds, which means every student has different goals and different levels of learning strategy. Being sensitive to the difference is the key, and it is very difficult. Sharing feelings with students is one of the ways to make communication with my students efficient. When a new class starts, I tell my students,“I am nervous as much as you are.” I also want to make my class accessible to anyone who is in need. That’s why our class is free, and we do not require any documents.
Does your job ever surprise you?
I am surprised whenever my students talk about the cultural differences they have felt in their American lives. The students always remind me that I am too accustomed to American culture to think of why it is. For example, one of my Chinese students said she doesn’t know why all year-round American restaurants serve a glass of cold water to guests. In China, the servers serve a cup of hot Chinese tea in winter.
Why do you think different cultures should interact?
Having worked with people whose cultural roots are not in the U.S., I have realized that America is not a country just for Americans. In cross-cultural communication, there are many things that both sides can learn from each other about the differences. Furthermore, being able to communicate with someone who is different from you is a skill, a more valuable skill than you might think. Doing this job, I feel like I’m an ambassador to this country, to this state and this city. I really want everyone to feel comfortable and be welcomed.