COLUMBIA — Kris Matthews didn't know until college that she wanted to be an educator. But when the realization came, it took.
So far, she's been a teacher and an assistant principal. Starting in June, Matthews will be principal of Grant Elementary School.
"I think she's ready to step right in and be part of our faculty and be the leader for Grant School in the future," said current principal Beverly Borduin, who is retiring after 18 years at the elementary school at Broadway and Garth Avenue.
“I feel so extremely lucky and fortunate that the Grant position came along and I was picked to lead that school,” said Matthews, an assistant principal at Lewis Elementary School.
She helped principal Dan Boatman launch Lewis in January 2010. Before that, she held the same job at Field Elementary, which closed in December 2009. Most of the staff and students from Field made the move to Lewis, although the student population has significantly changed since.
When Matthews started at Lewis, the school was new and the staff was learning to work together in new ways. They had to create new traditions, looking at everything with fresh eyes and carefully thinking through every decision, she said.
Grant, on the other hand, is celebrating its centennial this year.
“There’s going to be a learning curve for me to learn all the rich traditions,” Matthews said, adding she looks forward to the challenge.
Matthews said she’s open to any new ideas teachers have for Grant, but she’s going to get in and learn more about the school before making any changes.
“There’s so many awesome things going on there,” she said. “I’ll just walk in their shoes for a while.”
Matthews is already getting to know Grant. She is visiting the school once a month — meeting teachers, students and parents as she spends time in classrooms, at meals and greeting buses. She had planned to attend the school’s Snow Ball on Feb. 25, but the event was canceled after the school closed due to weather conditions. Her datebook includes a student art exposition in April.
Borduin has been working with Matthews on her visits to the school, introducing her and answering her questions.
“I want her to get all the information she needs, and we want to support her here at Grant School,” Borduin said.
As the two got to know each other, Matthews said, they discovered they have a lot of the same philosophies. That includes similar ideas about children, learning and teaching, Borduin said.
“I think she’s going to be a really good fit for Grant School,” Borduin said.
Matthews said she and Borduin share the same guiding principle — doing what is best for students — and she hopes to continue Borduin’s tradition of trying to be in classrooms for 60 percent of the day.
At Lewis, Matthews likes to be present around the school, getting out in the hallways, and she enjoys talking to children in a relaxed setting while helping out during lunch times. She also spends time with students who need alternatives to spending recess on the playground. They help her with projects around the school, such as hanging posters or creating books.
Matthews said she also thinks a principal needs to be an instructional leader in the classrooms and to keep up with the faculty and be part of the team.
Matthews has worked as both a teacher and an administrator, and she said the roles are different in a lot of ways.
A teacher has the autonomy of his or her own classroom, Matthews said. “Your classroom is your kingdom.”
As an administrator, one's “window gets wider,” she said. A principal has to take a wider perspective and help create a caring, collaborative community that works together for what is best for students.
“Unity is a strong belief of mine,” Matthews said. “When a school is united toward a common goal, you can create magic.”
Peter Stiepleman, assistant superintendent for elementary education, said a large pool of applicants from inside and outside Columbia Public Schools was interviewed.
Teachers were looking for someone who would respect them as educators but also be in classrooms and challenge them to be better, Stiepleman said; parents were looking for someone who would be omnipresent and organized.
“Kris really exemplified all of those characteristics," he said, "and we’re really excited to have her there.”
Stiepleman also pointed to Matthews’ experience with Instructional Practices Inventory, or IPI, as valuable to all schools. The system gauges how engaged students are in learning and is used in determining the health of a school as a whole. Stiepleman said Matthews spent a day working with Columbia administrators, showing them what to look for with IPI protocols.
Matthews grew up in St. Joseph. She earned her bachelor’s degree in elementary education from Culver-Stockton College in 1990 and her master’s degree in elementary administration from Northwest Missouri State University in 1998. She taught in the Savannah, Mo., school district before moving to teach in St. Joseph.
Her husband, also named Chris, worked for years as a flight engineer on C-130 cargo planes with the Air National Guard. After serving several tours of duty in Operation Desert Storm, Bosnia and Iraq, he retired from the National Guard. They have two children, Brooke, an eighth-grader at Jefferson Junior High School, and Zach, a seventh-grader at Gentry Middle School.
The family moved to Columbia so Kris could work on her Ph.D. and Chris could work on his bachelor's degree. During those years, Kris Matthews got to be a room parent in her children’s classes, which she had never been able to do before because she was planning parties for her own classroom.
After she graduated, Matthews became assistant principal at Gentry Middle School, an opportunity that suited her family. “We always planned to raise our kids in Columbia,” she said, for reasons including the “fantastic” public schools and the cultural diversity of the area.
Brooke was in sixth grade at Gentry while Matthews was assistant principal there. On one occasion, she made her daughter “freak out” by calling her down to the office to remind her to return an overdue library book — an incident she says Brooke has still not forgiven her for, Matthews said, laughing.
In college, Matthews did not know what she wanted to do; she loved music, art and writing, but could not decide on an area to study. She thought about going into secondary education but she could not pick a focus, so she went into elementary education.
Being a teacher brought her joy. Matthews said she especially liked teaching math, science and social studies, and she said she tried to bring in students’ strengths, tying reading and writing into math and science or working arts or music into projects. She misses the lesson planning and the opportunities to dive into educational topics.
Years later, the students stand out in her memory more than the projects do, Matthews said. Some students she taught as fourth- or fifth-graders in St. Joseph now attend MU, and some call her when they need a parental figure in Columbia. She enjoys seeing them grown and thriving at the university.
“Many of them have come a long way from when I taught them in fourth or fifth grades,” she said.
That’s one of the things Matthews loves about education: It's much more than the subject matter.
“It’s about the relationship that you build with kids," she said, "and the art of teaching is essential.”