Resume: He’s taught English for 14 years at Corvallis High School.
From the nomination: “Matt King has a singular understanding of student mental health and social emotional learning. Not only is he an educator who has deep connection with his students in the classroom (or Zoom room), he is tireless in his advocacy for connection with students who have experienced trauma or struggle.”
Hobbies: “I read, I write and I hike. I watch my son ride dirt bikes. We spend a lot of time at dirt-bike tracks.”
Last book read: “We the Animals,” by Justin Torres.
By MIKE McINALLY
Matthew King was a decade into a successful teaching career at Corvallis High School when an adopted son began to show him that he was doing it wrong.
Not entirely, of course. But as King explored how school systems dealt with children like his son – children who had experienced trauma growing up – he began to look at the issue through the eyes of a parent, rather than a teacher, and came to a startling conclusion: “I came more and more to the realization that to the extent that schools are quote-unquote ‘conventional,’ we’re still doing most things wrong when it comes to children who have these types of adverse childhood experiences.”
It was a realization that helped persuade him to overhaul his own teaching practices. And, as he continued to research and talk with others about children and trauma, the conversation pushed the Corvallis School District into a deeper discussion of how it could do a better job of working with those students.
It also helped King win a 2021 Golden Apple Award from the Corvallis Public Schools Foundation.
A bit of fortuitous timing helped: King’s exploration of these subjects, beginning when he adopted his then 11-year-old son about four years ago, came at about the same time as the idea of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) entered the public spotlight. That helped trigger a national examination of how school districts could adopt better practices.
For King, the process began with “a significant amount of reading and research.”
That led to discussions with other parents. Eventually, it led to professional-development sessions in the district and community-outreach efforts for the public.
The pandemic put a pause on some of those efforts, King said: “As it has with everything, the pandemic has disrupted a lot of trauma work. But it’s also created a greater need, obviously.”
But he sees signs of hope: The Corvallis School District’s Care and Connect program, which launched last summer and paired district staff members (including King) with families that had been identified as vulnerable during the first months of the pandemic, “has been a really bright spot and a great step forward for the district,” King said. “I’m very happy it’s continuing.”
And the Corvallis Public Schools Foundation has stepped forward to fund a summer class King will teach for students that focuses on trauma-informed literature.
“It’s kind of a marriage between Care and Connect work,” he said, “and then actually building a class that is not only designed to be more trauma-informed but might also be kind of a laboratory in which we can try some practices that I hope I’ll be able to incorporate more broadly into my general classroom practice. Then maybe, I hope, it will catch on and spread through the district as well.”
King understands that it will take big changes for school districts to embrace best practices in how to deal with students who have suffered trauma. “To really be trauma-informed requires really profound systemic changes that are really hard to make,” he said.
But change also happens one classroom at a time, which is why he’s excited about that summer class.
And it’s also why he’s worked hard to change his own teaching practices over the last few years. He talks about “relationships of reciprocity,” relationships in a school in which students feel they’re seen and heard for who they understand themselves to be.
So now King organizes his classroom around this principle: “How can I guarantee every student who walks in there has as many of those types of relationships and… interactions, with me and with each other, as possible?”
Sometimes that requires interior work as well. King recalled an encounter with an Advanced Placement student who told him that he had “a ‘resting judgmental face,’ the type of phrase that maybe only an AP lit student could come up with.”
But the observation hit home: “I realized I am often feeling very warmly and empathetically toward my students, but it’s not always registering on my face.”
Nonverbal communication is important, of course, but it’s doubly so with students who have endured trauma and tend to be very cued into facial expressions, body language and other signals to determine if an environment is safe. “So I have actually worked pretty hard on having a kinder voice, using a kind voice tone, physical positioning of my body.”
It’s all been part of a process that has shaped King’s teaching practice – a process that kicked into a higher gear when he adopted his son.
“I think even before I became a parent, I would have identified myself as a teacher who tries to be sympathetic, tries to be empathetic and tries to work with families,” he said. “But I think this really helped me see not only the school system but my own teaching practice in an entirely new way.”