Nudge: v. to push against gently, especially in order to gain attention or give a signal. A gentle push
It was a gentle nudge that started my career in education many years ago. I still have a high-school graduation card from my 95-year-old grandmother encouraging me to follow my heart, not the “market,” when thinking about my course of study. She knew I wanted to teach. I entered St. Thomas as a freshman with a dual major in English and elementary education, and in 1986 began teaching fifth grade at St. Mary of the Lake in White Bear Lake.
My first teaching years were hard, but energizing. With the support of my husband, Mike, whom I met and married at St. Thomas, I fell in love with my chosen career.
After I taught there for four years, the principal at St. Mary’s, Marcia Reardon, gave me a nudge that changed the course of my life. Marcia brought me a flier announcing an information meeting about a joint venture between St. Thomas and the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis: the Murray Institute. I could earn a master of arts in curriculum and instruction tuition free while studying with other Catholic school teachers. Paying tuition was a concern because salaries in Catholic schools fell well behind those in the public sector. I tossed the flier on top of a pile on my desk covered with assignments, drawings, books and projects. I looked at the pile and thought, “There’s no way I have time to pursue another degree.”
About a week later, Marcia nudged again. She asked if I would attend the meeting and report back to my colleagues at school. This seemed doable to me.
Two weeks later I was sitting in a room with 200 other educators listening as Dr. Tom McCarver talked about bringing forth emerging leadership in Catholic schools with educators deeply formed in faith through a flexible and responsive course of study. The Murray Institute was to provide a leaven in the archdiocese whereby the participants committed themselves and their learning to the Catholic school system, reaching out to other educators and providing leadership.
I left the meeting energized, thinking about the wisdom of the cohort (group) model that would support those selected. I dreamed about being a better teacher to my fifth-grade students and growing as a professional. Most of all, I surprised myself by how much I hoped the committee would choose me from among the many seated in the overflowing room at the Catholic Education Center.
I entered the Murray Institute as part of Cohort 1 in 1990. The next three years were one big nudge. My professors, my colleagues in the program and the faculty in my school all encouraged me to expand my thinking, to delve deeper, to ask bigger questions. I was overwhelmed by support from my colleagues. We were changing as educators, as thinkers, as people. We experienced growing pains as we reconciled new learning with long-held practices.
In the spring of 1993 I gathered with my cohort in the quad at St. Thomas for the graduation ceremony. The great gift of the Murray Institute was working its magic among us. We were confident about how we could effect change in our schools and on the archdiocesan level. We were proud of our commitment to Catholic schools and took seriously our role in being quiet leaders for change. The Murray Institute empowered us to extend our teaching roles to be professional voices in our schools and parishes. Truly, my time in the Murray Institute provided not just “higher” education, but “deeper” education.
Before graduation, during a summer theology course, another gentle nudge from a professor planted a seed that eventually led me to my current position at St. Thomas. After an invigorating conversation about the moral development of children, Sister Katherine McLaughlin queried me. “Have you ever thought about doctoral work?”
Over the next few years that question popped in and out of my consciousness, and in 1997 I entered a doctoral program at the University of New Hampshire. Six years later, I had earned a Ph.D. in reading and writing instruction.
The current director of the Murray Institute, Dr. Margaret Reif, encouraged me along in my education as well. While writing my dissertation, I went to Margaret for help in clarifying my study. She challenged me to think about teaching at the university level. Several months later I was teaching at St. Thomas.
Currently I am on the faculty of the St. Thomas School of Education, working in teacher education and curriculum and instruction. It has been my great privilege to teach courses in the Murray Institute, and I am now adviser to Cohort 12, a remarkable group of educators. I see myself again and again in these students, and whenever possible, encourage them to dream bigger dreams for their futures. I want the wonderful gift of the Murray Institute to have the tremendous impact on others that it had on me.
It is said that we can each influence 250 people in our lifetime. I have been fortunate through the Murray Institute to be both influenced and influential. Those gentle nudges we can offer, often in the form of simple questions, have far reaching impact. There’s nothing like a well-placed nudge.
Dr. Amy Fournelle Smith is an assistant professor in the School of Education and is directing the newly state-approved K-12 Reading License and Master of Arts in Reading programs.