‘We have to learn from each other’: Guilford County’s new chief of schools talks challenges as students begin returning

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GUILFORD COUNTY, N.C. — It’s been a year filled with challenges and changes for teachers, students and school district leaders as well.

One of the newest leaders with Guilford County Schools is learning the job during this tumultuous time.

Marshall Matson stepped into the role as chief of schools in mid-January. Before taking on the job, Matson worked as a school support officer since 2018.

In that role, he supervised nine high schools and four early and middle colleges. Before that, he served as principal at Mendenhall Middle School and Peeler Open Elementary School for ten years.

The chief of schools works on the superintendent’s cabinet. The position is meant to oversee all of the principals in the district while working with the school support officers.

FOX8’s Lindsay Tuman spoke to Matson about what it’s been like taking on the job during the pandemic.

“I think the biggest challenge for us, the obvious answer would be all of the protocols: masking social distancing, supplies and materials, concerns about positive tests. Those would be the obvious answer. But really principals handle those things well,” he said, “I think the real challenge for us is in the middle of that crush, to not forget, to stop as a leader, the leader of the building, the leading of a learning area, of chief of schools, and not stop and look up and remember our mission is to impact the lives of kids.”

Matson says during these challenges, district and school leaders and the teachers need to focus on learning themselves.

“I don’t think we need to be professors right now. I think we need to be students. We have to learn about what’s happening, we have to learn from each other and we have to be keenly aware of changing circumstances in the buildings with our staffs or with our teams to make sure we see opportunities in all of this where it would be easy just to see all of the problems,” Matson said.

He says the pandemic has been an accelerator, particularly highlighting long-term issues in the school district like the widespread lack of reliable access to high-speed internet in the school district.

“The lack of technology investment in our schools, whether that’s technology for student learning or buildings that have sufficient HVAC systems or windows that properly open and close or all of those things, that came out in the facilities study. All of those things have been highlighted and accelerated more,” he said.

He says this time of remote learning has shown how important it is to have students in the classrooms.

“Learning with a teacher is powerful, and it’s important in reading and math. It’s important in band. It’s important in chorus. It’s important in dance. It’s important in Latin. It’s all of those pieces come together to make a well-rounded education, and we’ve got a lot of work to do,” he explained.

But Matson says virtual learning also provided an important lesson for educators they can learn from moving forward.

He says students can access more resources virtually that might have previously been underutilized, and it provides flexibility for students.  

“We talked about before that the pandemic accelerates. And the lesson that one size doesn’t fit all, and we have to tailor to meet the needs of students should be one of the lessons that comes out of this,” he said.

The new chief of schools says it’s also important to keep in mind what was already working and the successes the district has been seeing before the pandemic and how those will continue to help in the future.

“If we stay grounded in those skills that we’ve been developing with our principals on monitoring and instruction, providing coaching and feedback to teachers, analyzing data that we have access to, making plans to improve, it might be in a new learning situation, but the processes work,” Matson explained, “We also can’t forget what we already know and what we are already very good at. So if we can go back to those things as we encounter problems that are very, very new to us, I think we will get through it.”

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