After 11 years at Edgerton Elementary, Merisa Murray will open new doors in her career as principal of Rankin Elementary when it opens in 2018.
“It’s not very often that you get to open a new school and be a new principal at a school. You get to build a staff, build a team, mission and vision, and to be a part of something like that I feel it’s a great opportunity and I feel honored that I get to be a part of that,” Murray, 41, said.
Although she grew up in a family of medical professionals, she set her sights on education, as did her brother Brent Benkelman, who is principal at Hedges Elementary. Murray had been to the scene of enough emergencies — as her parents also served with the Bigfork Quick Response Unit — to know medicine wasn’t for her.
“I have never liked blood, never have liked any of that,” Murray said.
While she wanted to become a teacher, school didn’t always come easily.
“I struggled in school as a younger child. I mean, not terribly, but struggled in math specifically,” Murray said.
One teacher who made an impact on her life was Hazel Jay.
“I had a middle school teacher I felt just took that extra time to get to know me ... and spend that extra time with me seeing how I learned and what I needed,” Murray said.
“I still credit her to this day as being the reason why I wanted to go into teaching, and more so help struggling learners,” she said.
What the Bigfork native enjoyed most about school was not so much attending class, rather the friendships and sense of community it provided.
“I saw that supportive community in the school down there when I was a child, and wanted to be part of that when I grew up,” Murray said.
Forging relationships with students, families and staff helps keep people connected to school, according to Murray.
“I think you also have to make kids and families feel secure in the environment,” Murray said. “You can build that trusting relationship to make bigger gains and steps forward.”
“I feel like that’s something I have here at Edgerton,” Murray said, adding that it’s what she will miss the most.
With 550 students enrolled and about 80 staff members at Edgerton, it’s quite an undertaking to make those personalized connections. She starts in the kindergarten classrooms where there are roughly 100 students.
“I try to learn every kindergarteners name because if they stay, I’ll know them all the way through,” Murray said.
Dividing her time working in the office, being out in the school and attending numerous meetings takes organization and planning. For Murray, who has a sign above her office door that reads “work with me people,” flexibility is key — and having a sense of humor — in managing that balance.
Murray said her time at Edgerton has given her many opportunities to develop as an administrator. She spent the first five years as assistant principal. In her first year as assistant principal, Murray was given a mix of duties that included PE teacher and behavior specialist. She was able to work with administrators throughout the district.
“I felt like I learned a little from everybody,” Murray said.
Prior to working at Edgerton she worked as a special education teacher in Evergreen School District.
“I loved that no day was ever the same,” she said, whether that meant curriculum, instruction or accommodations for the variety of abilities that children had.
Educating the whole child was integral to working in special education and something that became part of her philosophy as an educator.
“My philosophy has always been kids are first and you have to educate the whole child. You can’t just look at an academic need of a kiddo. You have to look at their social, emotional well-being as well as their academic needs. To do this, I think you have to engage with families and parents. You have to work as team with teacher and family,” Murray said.
She realized her leadership potential when she decided to get a master’s during her time at Evergreen.
“I had started my master’s in curriculum and six months into that my former principal and special ed director at Evergreen said ‘have you ever thought about school leadership or being a principal,’” Murray said, adding “I didn’t see myself as a leader, but I was very much an involved teacher and [was] part of teams and things at the school.”
In 2006, Murray completed her master’s in administration supervision.
Now, it’s that time again to take on a new career challenge.
“I think wherever you are, whatever job you’re in, you have to be open and flexible to change. I think that’s how we learn and grow. I’m a lifelong learner. I feel I’m at a point in my career where I wanted to continue to learn and grow and this is a great opportunity to do that,” Murray said.
In her life outside of school, Murray is an RV enthusiast. It was her mother who taught to her drive, hook and unhook a fifth-wheel.
“A few summers ago we did what I call the Montana tour,” Murray said, where she spent 10 days traveling around the state with her mother, mother-in-law and two children, Tanyon and Torren, who are elementary students at Edgerton.
She is also an avid scrapbooker and enjoys skiing and golfing with her children and husband, Pat, in addition to supporting her children’s activities such as wrestling and football.
Reporter Hilary Matheson may be reached at 758-4431 or firstname.lastname@example.org