Part 1 of 4
Matt Stem is passionate about his faith, his family, and his work. He’s a talented musician and composer who has written, performed, and recorded some really interesting pieces (including the theme music to my concept for a podcast). But the trait I admire most about Matt is his relentless pursuit of excellence. You’ll be able to hear Matt at the upcoming “Meeting (extra)Ordinary Leaders Conference,” to be held October 29,2019 at the Ware Center in Lancaster. Learn more here: https://extraordinaryleaders.org/meeting-extraordinary-leaders/
Geoff: I’m here with Matt Stem on September 3, 2019, for an interview for (Extra)Ordinary Leaders. Thanks a lot for spending a little time with me this morning.
Matt: My pleasure.
Geoff: Before we get started, I want to ask you, what’s the best word that would describe you? One word that would describe you. I know that’s an unexpected question, but it’s something I do for each of my interviews.
Matt: I would say “passionate.”
Geoff: Good. Thanks. Tell me a little about Matt and his personal history.
Matt: I was born and raised in Piscataway, New Jersey, which is about 35 miles southwest of New York City. I lived there until I was 18 and came out to school at Millersville University back in 1989. I’ve been here ever since which has been just about 30 years here in Lancaster County.
Geoff: What brought you to Millersville?
Matt: I actually had been accepted to Rutgers University, which is in Piscataway, and had a full ride. But Millersville University’s teaching program got you into schools as early as your freshman year. I wanted to have those experiences in schools and also have the more personalized attention you get in a smaller program.
Geoff: Tell me a little bit about your family.
Matt: I have a wife and two young adult children: a 19-year-old daughter and a 22-year-old son. I also have my mother and father; and I have a sister, niece, and nephew; and extended family. Everyone is healthy and well, so I am blessed.
Geoff: Are they still in New Jersey?
Matt: My parents retired to Lancaster County about 16 years ago. My sister and brother-in-law and niece and nephew moved out to Lancaster County about 14 years ago. So we’re all back together.
Geoff: How would you describe your childhood? What were some of your early influences growing up?
Matt: Growing up, I think the earliest influences I had were family. One of the interesting things growing up in my experiences were that my family, particularly my extended family, let me be a part of adult conversations, which I think was a little unusual, especially at that time. You know, kids weren’t supposed to be involved in the grown-up talk. Particularly my grandmother and my aunt used to spend hours talking to me about politics, news, life issues, things like that. I’m talking about when I was five or six years old and we were discussing world affairs. It was kind of an unusual thing that they thought I was an “old soul,” if you will.
Geoff: I know you’re a musician. What role did music play in your life?
Matt: Music’s been a significant part of my life for as long as I can remember. When I was four years old, I got a recorder for Christmas from a family member and began playing tunes from the radio for my parents. I started playing instruments when I was about eight years old and that’s been a central part of my life growing up. I played professionally for a short time while I was in college and still continue to dabble playing at church and also as a hobby.
Geoff: You told me a story once about Grover Washington, Jr.
Matt: I was a principal at Fulton Elementary School [in Lancaster]. I had the privilege of playing saxophone with the violinist who was Grover Washington, Jr.’s violinist. One of the greatest compliments I ever received was when I played saxophone with him. He smiled broadly and said that it reminded him of playing with Grover Washington just because I had the same sort of sound and musical phrasing when I played. We stayed in touch—his name was John Blake, Jr.—we stayed in touch up until he passed away a few years ago.
Geoff: Do you have any other hobbies?
Matt: Music by far is my most important hobby. But I also enjoy riding motorcycle with my son and wife, and I enjoy thrift shopping together with my daughter and finding little treasures out in the wild. That’s our thing.
Geoff: How long have you been involved in public education?
Matt: I’ve been involved in public education for just over 26 years.
Geoff: How did your career begin?
Matt: I started as an elementary school teacher in the School District of Lancaster back in 1993 teaching sixth grade when it was self-contained in elementary schools; at that time I had 27 kids in the smallest classroom in the building and became aware that teaching was definitely my calling. There was never a doubt from the first time I started teaching that I was doing what I was meant to do.
Geoff: Why did you get into that line of work? Why did you become a teacher?
Matt: Going back to the question before: I actually almost went to Berkeley College of Music as a jazz major. I was close to heading down that path but realized that I had always enjoyed working with young people. As I was growing up, I used to coach kids in the neighborhood, teaching them to play sports and things. I used to teach music lessons and just always enjoyed working with children.
I made the switch and decided to pursue education. My freshman year in college when I was at Millersville, after those first few experiences in school, I realized that I absolutely enjoyed seeing the spark in kids’ eyes when they were learning.
Geoff: Who were your mentors, and what did they do for you?
Matt: I’ve had several mentors over the years. I had a principal that taught me the value of building high performing teams. I had a pastor who taught me the value of relentlessly pursuing vision. I had a superintendent who taught me the value of celebrating successes to get folks to replicate the behaviors that they were succeeding in. I’ve had lots of mentors over the years, and I try and watch other leaders and glean their strengths.
Geoff: How did you end up at the School District of Lancaster?
Matt: I had done student teaching at Washington Elementary School when I was at Millersville. They actually had an Urban Education Program at that time. So through that program I got a lot of experiences in SDoL.
I also used to volunteer at the YMCA in town and do after-school activities at Ross Elementary School. I also worked for the Lancaster Recreation Commission. So all throughout college I had a lot of experiences in the city. That first summer out of college, I was able to get a teaching job for a position that opened up that August.
Geoff: Was there something about urban education that attracted you?
Matt: Always. I grew up in an area that was culturally diverse and I had a passion for working with students that maybe were less advantaged in certain ways. I was really drawn toward urban education and working with students, particularly students in poverty, and building relationships with their families and building a sense of community to really try and shape culture and create a culture of high expectations and hope. I think in some ways we were able to do that.
Geoff: Let’s talk about your time at the District. What would you say were your greatest successes as a teacher? As a principal? As a senior administrator?
Matt: At the teacher level . . .now that I’ve been in education 26 years, I’ve been able to watch the paths that some of my students have taken. I think, for example, of one young lady from the first year I was teaching. She had experienced many traumatic events in her life from a young age. I was able to be a key influence in her life and give her not only academic support but also my wife and I sort of took her under wing and she’s now a mom and a respiratory therapist and still stays in touch with us after all these years.
I still see other students who are now in their 30’s and will express their thanks for the lessons that they learned while we were together way back when they were in sixth grade. So those are the most gratifying—those individual stories of success. Kids that went on to lead fulfilling lives.
Geoff: How about as a principal? I know you were principal at Robert Fulton Elementary and you had some success there.
Matt: Yes, I was principal at Fulton for about seven and a half years. One of the things we’re most proud of is: at one time Robert Fulton was the lowest achieving school academically in the whole county of Lancaster. We recruited and developed and built a team of folks that were totally committed to students. We made a decision that we were going to make Fulton School a place where we would all want to send our own children. Fulton School at that time was (and still is) a high poverty school—about 95+% of students would be considered economically disadvantaged and they were very highly mobile. In fact, Fulton School had the highest mobility in the City, with half of our students moving out and a new half coming in every year.
We made a decision as a staff and as a team—we actually called ourselves the Fulton Family and branded ourselves as a family—that we were going to make it a place that we would send our own kids.
Fast forward to my last two years as the principal and my kids were school age. The greatest thing I can say is that every year my wife wanted me to try and find a way to get our own two children into Fulton School. We lived in another neighboring school district. If my wife and I wanted our own kids to be there, I think we made it the type of place that everyone would want to send their children.
Geoff: Then you went on to become …?
Matt: Assistant Superintendent. That followed, and some of the greatest successes we had there at the district level: Number one was academic achievement that we saw across all schools. Lancaster had certainly begun making a name for itself even at a state level when you look at mid-size urban districts that were starting to turn a corner. But in addition to the academic successes, we, on our team, were able to significantly decrease expulsions in the District, significantly decrease out-of-school suspensions, increase attendance, so there were a lot of quantifiable indicators that the school climate was really improving. Kids wanted to be at school, kids were more engaged and less disruptive, and that matters. You can’t decouple that from the academic successes. I learned there and it was affirmed that academic learning happens in the context of classrooms where children feel safe and valued and cared for. You have to attend to those things.
Geoff: What led you to leave?
Matt: What led me to leave was, I’d been in the School District of Lancaster for 19 years. After 19 years you realize that diversifying your experiences to expand your skillsets is important. Hindsight being 20/20, it becomes really clear now.
I believe there are certain things that happen in life that you don’t always know why those doors open. Then later on it becomes more evident. Leaving a district of 12,000 students and 21 buildings and then going to be an Assistant Superintendent at a district with three buildings and 1900 students, you develop a new skillset. You learn about different opportunities and challenges. As your skills develop, you take that with you.
Going to the state level where half of the schools in Pennsylvania have less than two thousand students, it was really important to learn what the context is like in a smaller school district, and it certainly helps me to lead well now.
Next post, we’ll learn about Matt’s becoming Deputy Secretary of Education and some of what he’s learned about some of the challenges facing public education.
© Geoff Davis 9/28/19