#234 – Personal and Authentic Learning, with Thomas C. Murray

Unpacking Education November 8, 2023 45 min

In this episode, we are joined by Thomas C. Murray, a former teacher and administrator and current Director of Innovation for Future Ready Schools. Thomas helps us unpack his book, Personal and Authentic: Designing Learning Experiences That Impact a Lifetime. In a conversation firmly grounded in the importance of relationships, Thomas elaborates on a series of quotes from the book and explains their relevance to personal and authentic learning.

Update: Thank you to everyone who participated in Thomas C. Murray’s book giveaway drawing! The lucky winners of these signed copies are Mario Chavez, Alice Wright, and Stephanie Brimacomb! Thanks for listening! We appreciate you!

Read a transcript of this episode.

Paul Beckermann
PreK–12 Digital Learning Specialist
Rena Clark
STEM Facilitator and Digital Learning Specialist
Dr. Winston Benjamin
Social Studies and English Language Arts Facilitator

When we become more concerned about what we teach than who we teach, we have lost the purpose of the work.

Thomas C. Murray, from his book, Personal and Authentic: Designing Learning Experiences That Impact a Lifetime


The following resources are available from AVID and on AVID Open Access to explore related topics in more depth:

Relationships First

Our guest for today, Thomas C. Murray, says, “Every day [that] we teach in a classroom is an opportunity to create an environment where people want to be, to build the relationships with our kids, to get to know them a little bit better, so we can teach them better.”

Building this environment is about creating a safe space. This often begins by learning the stories of the students in our classrooms. It’s about getting to know them each as individuals so that we can connect personally to them, and also so that we can create learning experiences that will make them want to come running back to our classrooms the next day. As Tom’s mentor said to him during his very first year of teaching, “This work is about loving and caring about kids. Everything else is secondary to that. It’s the notion of kids before content.” The following are a few highlights from this episode:

  • About Our Guest: Thomas C. Murray has served at the elementary and secondary levels as both a teacher and a principal, and then at the district level. Currently, Tom is the Director of Innovation for Future Ready Schools, a project of All4Ed, located in Washington, DC. He has testified before the United States Congress and works alongside the US Senate, the White House, the US Department of Education and state departments of education, and school districts throughout the country to implement student-centered learning. Tom serves as a regular conference keynote speaker and has received many accolades for his work. He has published multiple best-selling books, including Personal and Authentic: Designing Learning Experiences That Impact a Lifetime.
  • Purpose of the Book: Tom says he wrote this book to amplify the voices of great educators and “leave educators with a voice of hope, but also with practical strategies to make learning more personal and authentic, to get rid of the one-size-fits-all model, and to recognize the unique interests, and passions, and strengths” of students.
  • Relationships: “Without relationships, what do we really have?” asks Tom during our conversation. This leads us into a series of conversations that reinforce the importance of relationships in our classrooms and schools. While standards are important, Tom reminds us, “None of that can ever supersede a child.”
  • Culture: Culture is closely tied to the quality of relationships in a building or classroom. Tom asks a key question, “How do we create cultures where people want to be in our classroom?”
  • Every Interaction Matters: “Every interaction is really a culture-builder or a culture-killer, so it’s about making each moment count,” says Tom. As educators, we get to shape those interactions.
  • An Opportunity: “Let’s face it, teaching in a classroom each day is an incredible challenge—amazingly exhausting—and it’s easy to go home sometimes bummed out,” says Tom. “It’s easy to go home at times feeling like the impact isn’t there, but just remember that the opportunity to provide the impact each and every day is something that is really there . . . and sometimes it’s not the things that show up in a lesson plan. And so, relationships really are the foundation of the work, and we just can’t lose sight of that.”
  • The Importance of Trust: “Most teachers work so incredibly hard to build the trust of students so that they can also lovingly push them a little bit at the same time. Admins do the same thing. When they have that trust with their teachers, they can continue to push them forward as well, but here’s the flipside: Without the trust, it’s almost impossible to have that happen in a sustainable way.”
  • Modeling: “Modeling begins [by] looking inward and saying, ‘Am I doing, am I practicing what I preach?’” says Tom. “Modeling expectations builds trust.” He adds, “We model the expectations that we ask from others because trust really is the foundation of relationships . . . and relationships are really the foundation of culture.”
  • Hidden Stories: Tom reminds us, “Everybody’s fighting a battle that you don’t know.” He also encourages us to ask, “What can we do to get to know the stories of our students?”
  • High Expectations: Even though students face challenges, we shouldn’t lower expectations, but it’s a balance. Tom says, “We keep the expectations high, but we also provide more love in the process, to help get them to where they need to be.”
  • Culture: “A key to building culture is to have empathy for the hidden stories inside of other people.”
  • Student Agency: Tom says, “I want them [both my children and students] to be amazing global citizens that can own their mistakes, that can learn and unlearn when needed and learn again, [and] be kind individuals that love people.” The key question, he adds, is: “How do we get them to own it?” Part of the answer to this question is to make learning relevant to the students and to provide them with an authentic audience for their work.
  • A Positive Lens: “For me, it’s about choosing our lens,” says Tom. We can choose a positive or negative lens, and that choice makes a significant difference. “If we walk in every day with a lens of looking for greatness, we’re going to see it all over the place. So let’s recognize people as individuals.”
  • Give Yourself Grace: Tom shares, “As good as you are, as experienced as you are, as talented as you are, you’re going to mess it up. You’re human. In those moments, give yourself some grace and recognize that failure really is an opportunity for a fresh start.”
  • The Achievery: Tom is excited about the work that Future Ready Schools has done to roll out The Achievery, a collection of movie clips aligned to learning targets and lessons.

Guiding Questions

If you are listening to the podcast with your instructional team or would like to explore this topic more deeply, here are guiding questions to prompt your reflection:

  • Why are relationships the foundation for much of our work in K–12 education?
  • How can we establish trusting relationships?
  • How do we develop a positive classroom culture?
  • What role does trust play in our schools and classrooms?
  • Why are our personal stories so important?
  • How can we keep high expectations despite student struggles?
  • How can we promote student agency?
  • What is your biggest takeaway from this episode?

Extend Your Learning