STERLING – Matt Birdsley’s peers are quick to point out that he’s among the most student-centered educators they’ve met.
That couldn’t have been more glaring after school Wednesday. The Challand Middle School principal was the reluctant center of attention during a Warrior Walk to celebrate him being named Middle School Principal of the Year in the Illinois Principal Association’s Northwest Region.
Surrounded by students and led by eighth-grade percussionist Carter Schlegel, Birdsley marched through the entire school, handing out high-fives galore.
Before the march began, he smiled, but you could sense just how uncomfortable he was in the spotlight. He's not one for attention.
And Dean of Students Mark Morris knows it.
“It’s an honor, but it’s also kind of razzing, too,” Morris said just before making the announcement.
Just before the parade stepped off, Birdsley hollered back into the office:
“Let’s make sure we post the dean of students job!”
Don’t shoot the messenger, Mr. Birdsley. It was the Courtesy Committee, an activities group helmed by librarian technician Kim Bohms and counselor Amy Hoffman, that came up with the idea.
That’s not to say Morris, who was a counselor at the school for 8 years before being promoted, didn’t have about as much fun as the kids Wednesday afternoon.
Nor does he think a tribute isn’t warranted.
“As a former counselor, this is so powerful – to have a principal who’s after what’s best for the students,” Morris said. “It’s his approach. The coolest thing Matt does when he makes decisions is ask who it’s benefiting. He always wants decisions to benefit the student first.”
Warrior Walks are usually reserved for students who achieve great feats – like winning a Special Olympics medal, for instance. Morris is pretty sure one had never been done for staff.
Sixth-graders Caitlyn Davidson and Brandeis Shore gushed about their principal as they waited for him to traverse the second floor.
“He has a lot of fun stuff he plans for us, and that he does with us,” Brandeis said.
Caitlyn said his ability to laugh at himself and get involved makes him more approachable.
“He’s more outgoing than other principals,” Caitlin said. “Most principals are strict. He’s more fun.”
The Challand family will cross its collective fingers this fall, when the statewide award winner is named. IPA’s Northwest Region includes schools from Whiteside, Lee, Carroll, Ogle, Jo Daviess and Stephenson counties.
Birdsley, who’s in his third year at the helm, was in the same role 3 years at Washington Elementary School, after serving 3 years as assistant principal at Challand.
Since his return, many initiatives have been implemented – the 1-to-1 technology initiative and a student mentoring program to name two of the big ones. Through the latter, seventh-graders apply to be mentors as eighth-graders, and if their application and reference (a teacher who signs off on the app) hold up, they take an incoming sixth-grader under their wing and help with what can be a brutal transition.
“Kids are going from having the same teacher all day to seven or eight,” he said. “I think the program saves the sixth-graders who are coming in, terrified – to come in Day 1 having a familiar face of someone who’s there to support them.”
Heading off that challenging transition is one of many reasons he loves life at Challand – especially in retrospect.
“In the moments, this job is challenging,” he said. “But what helps, and I hear it from my teachers, is they see the student in 2 or 3 years. Maybe they’re a student who wouldn’t do anything in class, was sleeping or disrespecting. Now, they come back, and they’re doing great things. That’s what makes the hard days pay off.”
It takes a village of leaders, he said.
“Our district leadership team is very supportive of one another,” he said. “We help each other out, enjoy being around each other and have a lot of fun being around each other. Then we can bring it back here, to a phenomenal staff. I can’t say too much about them. They truly have the kids’ best interests at heart.”
Name: Matt Birdsley
Family: Wife, Jessica; children, Braden, 10, Madison, 7, and Brynlee, 4
Education: Fulton High School graduate; bachelor’s degree in elementary education from Northern Illinois University; master’s in educational leadership from Aurora University
Experience: Student taught at DeKalb Middle School, where he got his first full-time job; assistant principal at Challand Middle School 3 years; principal at Washington Elementary School 3 years; principal at Challand, 2014-present