A Conversation With... Donna Murphy

Donna Murphy

Donna Murphy has served as the NHS adviser of the Raymond G. Pluemer chapter of the National Honor Society for more than seven years. In addition to her duties as the chapter’s NHS adviser, Murphy has served as the school counseling chairperson for Eastern Technical High School since 1998. She has been recognized as the Maryland Counselor of the Year (2015), the Baltimore County Counselor of the Year (2014 and 2016), and has presented several academic papers at national conferences. Murphy is the 2019 NHS Rynearson Adviser of the Year.

Advise: When you took over National Honor Society, there were 60 students in your chapter; you now have more than 200. Please share how you made that transformation.

Murphy: I really believe in being inclusive rather than exclusive. I went to a system where the students are checked by their peers, so I have two big groups that work with me: my executive board—my president and vice presidents, secretary, historian—and then we have a group called my advisory board. They’re the ones who make sure that the people who are signing up for their events show up for their events—that we’re getting a good smattering of everybody. Even when we do a big philanthropic activity, the Giving Tree, and we ask students to bring donations, it can be a variety of things that they can donate. We don’t want to affect our students who can’t afford things, so there’s a lot of different things that they can do. The students actually monitor each other, which is nice. I’m in a very high-performing school, so lots of students make [a high] grade point average, lots of students have great service to the community. That first year, I inducted roughly 94 students because they qualified, and I didn’t have five teachers writing recommendations during the application period, I only requested two teachers to write them. I made [the process] more manageable for myself.

Advise: What are some of the projects or events that your National Honor Society is involved in?

Murphy: On the first day of school, my NHS students are matched with a ninth grader that they then follow throughout the year. My NHS students go to their classes with them [the first day]; we have a big presentation in the cafeteria for the ninth graders where the principal talks and the NHS members cheer them on. We have three or four times [during the year] where they specifically have to find their ninth grader. It’s really a learning experience for the upperclassmen as well as it is for the ninth graders. We also run a schoolwide tutoring program and National Honor Society members have to sign up [to provide tutoring]; we do it twice a week. We have a nice referral system, too. Teachers either let me know or they’ll send an email to my tutoring coordinator, one of my executive officers, that they want someone who has taken the course before to give [their student] some insight.

Advise: How do you encourage student voice within those groups and within your chapter?

Murphy: My administrative team, especially my principal and myself, have open-door policies, and our students feel really comfortable coming to us and talking to us. Last year we had a tragedy, our school resource officer committed suicide in our building, and two of our student leaders—my Honor Society president and student government president—asked what they could do as student leaders to help heal. All of us had a lot of healing to do. Their voices were phenomenal in getting things off the ground. We did a whole month—we called it Positivity Month. And it was [the NHS president] and the student government president who really rolled that out to the students, got the other student leaders from groups like [Future Business Leaders of America] and Girl Up and our other honor societies involved. It was just really, really nice and very needed at that time. My principal also has a principal’s council that meets, and she asks for the student leaders from the organizations to be on her student board. They meet once a month in her conference room. Sometimes she gets them lunch, and they just talk about issues from the students’ perspective.

Advise: What would you say are some of the tough issues that students are facing today?

Murphy: I think the pressure that they feel to always, always be “on” all the time is huge. It’s a great drive, but it can also work negatively. I think the pressure of having so much thrown at them all the time with social media and the constant influx of information, they can get overwhelmed. It’s no more “apply to two colleges and you’re good.” You apply to 10 colleges. I think that’s a lot of pressure on kids in general across the board.

Advise: Is there anything that you or your executive committees or boards have done to help ease that [pressure] with your chapter members?

Murphy: We hold monthly meetings where we have addressed some of the concerns that students feel. In our monthly meeting prior to December, when we rolled out Positivity Month, we addressed the emotion that we were feeling about the loss that we had experienced. In February, we were talking about the pressures they were facing with SATs and AP exams. My board meets with me during the year 10 or 15 times, and we like to meet either early morning or at lunchtime. We do a lot of planning, making sure that we’re touching base with the ninth graders. Those kinds of things are ongoing for us.

Advise: What would you say has been one of your most impactful experiences as an honor society adviser?

Murphy: I love working with the kids, so watching them take off as leaders is amazing. Last year there was pretty bad flooding in North Carolina from a hurricane. The kids just came to me and said they’ve got to do something. So, we went out to the community and started collecting donations and linked with another gentleman who was taking a truck down to that area. We filled the truck within two days with paper supplies and diapers and water. It was amazing to watch them. People talk about the selfishness of teenagers, of a lack of their forward thinking, but the kids are just amazing with what they come up with and what they do.

Advise: What would be the best piece of advice you would offer a new adviser?

Murphy: Allow the kids the liberty to be your leaders. I always tell them that I have the veto power, but I really have never had to say “absolutely not” to an idea that they’ve had. I think if you’re really going to see kids in their best light, you’ve got to let them take off and let them have the ideas and then support them. It’s the coolest thing to watch them get excited about doing these kinds of things. When we do the ninth-grade orientation, they are in my office making sure they have the right ninth grader with the right 12th grader, or the right ninth grader with the right 11th grader. They’re the ones who make sure we have the schedules printed. You have to let them be your leaders.

Advise: What words of wisdom or advice would you give to an experienced and seasoned adviser?

Murphy: Don’t get tired. I’m a seasoned adviser, and [students] energize me. See the kids each year as a new group that you are going to really be able to influence, and they are going to influence you. I say all the time I learn more from them than they learn from me. For real. They give me a lot of lessons.

Advise: What words of wisdom, advice, knowledge, would you pass on to advisers about the selection process?

Murphy: I give [the candidates] a very strict deadline to follow, and I’m not flexible about the deadline. I look at grades, and I send that list of students who actually fill out the application to our general faculty and I ask for feedback. In addition to their two letters of recommendation that students have to acquire from teachers that they choose, I then ask for our general faculty to give me feedback. And I ask them to give me feedback personally. Students are completely aware—I’m absolutely transparent in our [selection] process—and I think it works out really well.

Advise: How do you personally recharge or reenergize yourself for the upcoming school year as an adviser?

Murphy: I really become energized when I hold the election and my old board and my new board come together. They interact so nicely together and come up with some great ideas and share their ideas from last year. I think that that energy comes with that new group.