Maker: Schoolhouse StyleSep 29, 2022 04:09PM ● By Sara Locke
Photography by Bill Sitzmann
In an early fall ritual, teachers enter their classroom to set the tone for the school year.
They decide on a theme, color palette, and decor to tie it all together, then spend hours prepping the space to create a welcoming environment for learning.
When longtime teacher Christy Murcek found herself needing to step away from the profession she loved, she made creating school-themed decor her means of getting back to class.
“Early in life, I knew I was being drawn into a helper profession,” Murcek said. “I love children, and becoming a teacher was a way I could help make learning more accessible and fun for them.”
She attended Emporia State University to major in education and got her first teaching job in Wichita, Kansas. After moving to Nebraska, she went on to teach in Omaha Public Schools for eight years, and Elkhorn Public for six. Along the way, she earned her master’s in education from the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
In 2014, Christy Murcek was a proud mom and successful educator with a life she couldn’t get enough of. Then, a medical diagnosis threatened to cut her adventure short. “It was sinus cancer. There was a lot of aggressive treatment to do. I had a couple of surgeries, and we thought all was well. But in 2016, the cancer returned.”
Murcek, just 50 at the time, wasn’t ready to give up the fight and underwent numerous operations to remove cancerous bone and tissue. Through the process, she lost half of her upper jaw, the orbital bone beneath her eye, and even part of her femur to a failed reconstruction attempt. She lost her ability to smell or open her mouth more than half an inch, and endured a year on a feeding tube. After 13 surgeries, she was finally cancer-free, but without the capacity for communicating with her students, which had made teaching such a joy for the educator. While she had lost years and a significant amount of her physical person to the battle, she hadn’t lost her desire to contribute to the education of Omaha’s children.
“I was always finding ways to keep a foot in the classroom. I loved working and I missed my students, so I started helping a friend with some of her paperwork for class,” Murcek said. “One day we were discussing how COVID was affecting the students, and she mentioned how mask-wearing was creating some obstacles. She was thinking out loud and said, ‘It would be so great to have some kind of lanyard for kids to keep their masks on, so they weren’t losing them or spreading germs leaving them on tables or dropping them on the floor,’ and I thought ‘I could make that.’ I put some [lanyards] together and put it on an Etsy shop and sold 100 of them in four days.”
Murcek was excited about her success and sought out other ways to contribute. “I’m not artistic, but I can stencil! I wanted to create some things teachers could use that would make the classroom feel warmer and homier.”
She set to work and soon her shop, SchoolhouseStyle - Etsy was filled with earth-toned, texture-rich pieces that send positive vibes and brighten a space without being distracting or overstimulating. Her items include rag-tie garlands, burlap banners, grapevine wreaths, and wooden signs—many accented with seasonal themes or customized with blackboard paint and crisp fonts detailing the teacher’s name or encouraging messages.
Murcek said sales of her rustic, school-themed items continue to grow, and not just to teachers for classrooms. Customers are also buying them for homeschool rooms, kids’ play areas, preschools, and dorms.
While a teacher or business owner should never admit to having favorites, Christy Murcek can’t deny that her first customer holds a special place in her heart: her oldest daughter, Kylie, a sixth-year teacher at Elkhorn Public Schools.
“I was still in college when my mom was diagnosed,” Kylie Murcek said, recalling the difficulty of following in her mother’s footsteps when she would have liked to be holding her hand. “I wasn’t home as much as I wanted to be, but this community [of Elkhorn] really showed up for her. She’s touched so many lives.”
After graduating from Northwest Missouri State University and becoming a teacher herself, Kylie knew just where to shop. “My mom makes beautiful wreaths and banners. Teachers come to the shop for their classroom, but so many are bringing pieces home because they’re just warm and welcoming. I have parents ask me about my classroom all the time, commenting about how calming everything is. My mom really understands how important this space is, and every touch speaks to her love of teaching.”
You can find Murcek's work online at SchoolhouseStyle - Etsy, and in an upcoming issue of Better Homes and Gardens magazine, which will feature her rustic pumpkin burlap banner.
This article originally appeared in the October 2022 issue of Omaha Home magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.