Q&A with Elmwood School's New Principal, Mr. Matthew Lerner

Q&A with Elmwood School's New Principal, Mr. Matthew Lerner

Mr. Lerner at work in his office. He has been the new principal of Elmwood Elementary School since the beginning of July. (District 401 photo by Dave Porreca)

Elmwood Elementary's new principal, Mr. Mathew Lerner, comes to District 401 from Rockford Public Schools, where he spent the previous six years as the leader of two elementary schools.

He served as principal of R.K. Welsh Elementary from August 2015 to June 2018. Before that, he was principal of P.R. Walker Elementary from July 2012 to June 2015.

Mr. Lerner graduated from Monmouth College with a bachelor's degree in history and secondary education. Earned his master's in educational administration from National Louis University.

He began his teaching career as a substitute in his home state of Wisconsin before moving to Chicago to teach at Roberto Clemente Community Academy.

After spending one year as a substitute at Clemente, he began teaching social studies there full time. He remained at Clemente until June 2007, when he moved to North Boone High School in Poplar Grove, where he also taught social studies.

Mr. Lerner made the transition to administration in September 2011, when he began a one-year stint as assistant principal of Ellis Arts Academy in Rockford. 

To learn more about Mr. Lerner, including his start as a teacher in Chicago Public Schools, District 401 web/media specialist Dave Porreca interviewed him via email.

The Q&A was conducted in May, before Mr. Lerner officially began his new job as Elmwood principal. An edited version of their exchange appears below.

For more information about Mr. Lerner and an introduction to each of District 401's new administrators for 2018-19, please click here.

Matthew LernerQ: Where did you grow up?

A: I was born in Milwaukee and moved to Hartford, Wisconsin, when I was in 1st grade.

Q: What high school did you attend?

A: Hartford Union High School in Hartford, Wisconsin. Go, Orioles!

Q: As an undergraduate, you majored in history and secondary education. Did you go straight into teaching after college? If not, what did you do before becoming a teacher?

A: I was a substitute teacher in Wisconsin at various places. I moved to Chicago and was a substitute teacher for an entire year at Roberto Clemente Academy. I then received a full-time job as a teacher there. I did work at various places along the way outside of education. I was a security guard in Deerfield, Illinois. I also worked at a Halloween store for a bit as a seasonal worker.

Q: What motivated you to become an educator, and what continues to attract you to education as a profession?

A: My high school history teacher, Mr. Hoffman, was amazing. He made connections with teaching that made his class so fun to be a part of. I enjoyed learning from him, and he inspired me to pursue education. I love being a part of the educational experience because you get to change lives every day. This drive to see students and teachers succeed is what motivates me to be in this field.  

Q: As a teacher you started as a full-time substitute in CPS. What was that like? What were some of the challenges, and how did you meet them?

A: I was born and raised in a small town with little diversity, so when I arrived at Roberto Clemente I was a little shell shocked. The experience was amazing as I learned a lot about Puerto Rican and Mexican cultures. It was difficult to be a substitute as many of the teachers didn’t leave lesson plans for me, and so I learned many different curriculums. I had to be flexible and stern at the same time to allow for students to learn while I was in the room. 

Q: How did your experience during that first year influence and shape you as an educator when you moved on to being a full-time teacher at Roberto Clemente?

A: Since I was already a guest teacher and football coach at Clemente, the transition was easy. I already knew many of the kids and their families. I had worked with many of the teachers prior, and they allowed me the time to learn from them. It was a wonderful experience. 

Q: After several years in CPS, you moved to North Boone High School in Poplar Grove. Why the move, and how would you contrast your experience there with your time in CPS?

A: I was RIFed from CPS due to budget reasons. I started looking for a position where I could excel as an educator. I received the job offer from North Boone the same day I was told I could come back to CPS to teach. My family and I decided to make the move to North Boone. The community of North Boone was made up of farmers and working-class families. While the diversity was different, they were still high school kids who had the same feelings and will to learn as CPS students. 

Q: Looking back on your time in the classroom, what are some of your fondest memories? What are some of the things you’re proudest of as a teacher?

A: The relationships I built with my students is the fondest memory. I still communicate with many of them on their lives and their careers. My last year at North Boone I was chosen by the senior class to be their speaker at their graduation ceremony. This was an unbelievable honor and am still proud to this day. 

When I look back my proudest moment was creating my own class on diversity at North Boone. I worked with students on understanding their own selves and how their daily decisions can impact their lives. The curriculum was based around the idea of the Holocaust. The question that we answered was: How could normal everyday people change to the point where they wanted to kill an entire race of people? 

Q: When you were teaching, were you a sponsor or coach of any student activities or sports? If so, which activities or sports?

A: I coached football for 12 years, the first three at Roberto Clemente and the last nine at North Boone. I also coached track and field and JV baseball, and I served as a member of many committees at both schools.

Q: What led you to make the transition to administration?

A: Chris Troller was the principal at North Boone during this time, and I saw how much impact she had on the students and learning. I spoke with her, and she knew that I had the ability to be an effective administrator. I took her advice, and the rest is history. 

Q: Compared to teaching, what are some of the challenges and rewards of being an administrator?

A: The challenge is that you do not have your own class of students. You build a relationship with your students when you are with them every day as a teacher. The reward as an administrator is that I get to affect the overall culture and learning in the building. I enjoy working with teachers and parents to give students the best experience they can have in school. It is my goal each year that students leave with a smile and know that we as a school did the best for them!

Q: Your first job as a principal was at Walker Elementary in Rockford. I believe Rockford Public Schools closed Walker after you left. Had the planned closing been announced while you were still principal there? If so, what was it like leading a school that you knew was slated to be closed?

A: We found out the summer before it closed that we were going to close. The community was not happy, and many tried to keep it open. The district felt like the building wasn’t fit to be updated. I was the principal during the last year before it closed. I was there for three years, and we created a culture of caring and nurturing for our students. The students and staff were sad that it closed down, but the staff worked hard to ensure we closed the building on a high note! 

Q: What do you think your strengths are as an administrator?

A: I would list them as …

  • Building relationships with students, parents, staff and community members. 
  • Being passionate about learning and pushing students to their full potential.
  • Working with the teachers to make them the best educators they can be.
  • Loving my job and enjoying being around students and teachers every day. 

Q: What interested you in the Elmwood Elementary School principalship?

A: The small community feel with the big city surrounding. I also felt like Dr. Wade, Mr. Seibel, Mrs. Hagins and the rest of the Elmwood staff I met with sold me on the school district and the community. 

Q: Until now, all of your administrative positions have been in Rockford Public Schools, including serving as principal of Walker Elementary and then Welsh Elementary. How would you compare Rockford to Elmwood Park? In what ways would you say working in Rockford has prepared you for Elmwood Park?

A: In Rockford, I am one of 32 elementary principals. We live in Rockford, and we miss that community feeling you get in a smaller town. I am excited about the idea of living in the town where I work and being a part of the community.  

Working in Rockford has allowed me the opportunity to experience to grow as an administrator.  I was able to learn about new curriculums, understand how students learn, set goals for students and staff, and comprehend the influences on our young students. I have learned a great deal while in Rockford, and I am eager to bring my experience and knowledge to Elmwood. 

Q: Do you have a particular leadership philosophy that guides you as a principal? If so, what is it, and how did you develop it?

A: I follow the five practices of exemplary leadership model: Model the Way, Inspire a Shared Vision, Challenge the Process, Enable Others to Act, and last but certainly not least, Encourage the Heart.

Q: Looking back on your career as an administrator so far, what are some of the accomplishments that you’re most proud of?

A: I am most proud of the learning that has occurred in the classrooms, the teachers in the building and the relationships they have built with their students. All of my students are proud to say they went to Welsh or Walker. I also love when I walk through the grocery store and kids come up and say hi or give me a hug! It means that I’ve made an impact on their lives.

Q: What are you looking forward to about working at Elmwood?

A: The teachers and staff members who are ingrained in the Elmwood culture. I love to see that teachers live in Elmwood Park, or even went to school in Elmwood Park and now teach there. I have also been told I need to eat at Johnnies.

Q: Once you’re on the job at Elmwood, what will your priorities be as you get ready for the 2018-19 school year?

A: Getting to know the culture of the school and building relationships with the students, staff and parents. I need to earn the right to be called their principal and leader.

Q: You and your assistant principal, Stephanie Hagins, have already held a community event (on May 23) in which you met with parents and community members. How did that go, and what other introductory events (if any) do you have planned for early in the school year?

A: It was great to be able to meet parents and community members prior to the end of the school year. It is important they we are visible and open to the parents so we can gain their trust. Mrs. Hagins and I are still in the planning mode for next year, but we will have parents events lined up for the fall. A major event will be the first day of school as this will be when we roll out our vision and mission for Elmwood Park. We would like for all parents to attend this event.

Q: Who have been some of your major professional influences or mentors, and what lessons have you learned from them?

A: Chris Troller, former principal at North Boone, Vicki Jacobson, former supervisor at Rockford, and Mike Olson, college football coach at Monmouth College. I have learned from them that your passion for kids and learning will allow you to be a great person and administrator.

Q: What advice would you give to young people interested in going into the field of education?

A: Listen, listen and listen. The teachers and administrators who have been working in the field know and understand the profession. Be a sponge and soak it all up.

Q: What are some of your interests outside of work?

A: Spending time with my family — my wife, Misty, my daughter, McKinley (3½ years old), my son, Maddox (1½ years old), and my dog, Maya. I also enjoy watching sports or playing sports, relaxing outside and enjoying the sun. 

Some of Mr. Lerner's Favorites

Elmwood students and parents might enjoy some "fun facts" about their new principal!

Favorite TV show when you were in elementary school? 
“Saved By the Bell”

Favorite TV show as an adult? 

Favorite movie when you were in elementary school? 
“Midnight Madness.”

► Favorite movie as an adult?
“Shawshank Redemption.”

Favorite book when you were in elementary school? 
“Number the Stars.”

Favorite book as an adult? 
“The DaVinci Code.” I also like the Harry Potter books.

Favorite movie about teaching or education? 
“Stand and Deliver.”

Historical period you’re most interested in (as a former history major)? 
Word War II (Holocaust).

Favorite food? 

Favorite sports team? 
Packers, Cubs, Badgers, Blackhawks.

Favorite song or musical performer? 
Country is my music, and currently it’s Eric Church or Jason Aldean.

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