Matt Gerding joined Reaching Higher in the summer of 2022 as our new policy analyst. Matt comes to us from the Somersworth School District, where he taught middle school math and science. Not only does his experience in the classroom inform his work, he sees a lot of parallels between the two worlds.
Paint us a little picture of your life as a middle school teacher. What are the pieces that stick with you the most and color the way you look at the world and approach your work here?
For me, the reason I loved middle school so much was the age group and the kids that I got to work with. I feel like middle school is an interesting set of years. Most of them want to be treated as adults. They start thinking of themselves with that framework of like, ‘I’m grown up now.” But they’re also still young and want to have fun and act childish, if you will, which for me, allowed me to kind of feel comfortable tapping into the kids’ side and doing activities that were really fun, going outside of the box, or getting outside and getting our hands dirty, or anything, honestly, that would just get them to think that school is fun. That was kind of what I loved to do. People forget that teachers also want to enjoy their days too.
We would go and tap maple trees in February. We’d build rockets to teach kids about physics and stuff like that. So, in terms of how my own view of the world brought me from there to here, I think it’s just a matter of looking at things creatively and figuring out, I guess, how can the challenges that we face, whether they be academic or political or specific to policy, how do those challenges get best solved in unique and creative ways?
Last spring, as you know, Reaching Higher conducted a statewide survey attempting to get a better understanding of what motivates educators to stay in their positions and what causes them to leave. You were, of course, one of those educators who left the field. What motivated you to stay in the teaching field for eight years, and what ultimately led you to say good-bye to the classroom and join our team?
What made me stay? Like I said before, the kids. I just loved teaching. I loved that every day was different. I loved that every minute was different. You can have one bad minute and then a kid will give you a drawing or something that they’ve worked on and your whole day will be changed. I loved how it was constantly changing, constantly evolving. You’re constantly on your toes, but in the best way. I feel like I’m still an educator. I do the after-school program so I haven’t really fully left. I don’t think I’ll ever fully leave, I can’t imagine.
But part of my decision to actually leave being a teacher and leave the classroom day-to-day, it really had nothing to do with the school or the kids or anything like that. I had for a while been studying policy. I got my Masters at the Carsey School at UNH and kind of chipped away at that throughout my time as a teacher. When I was getting my masters degree I did a lot of research for my classes that involved using content from Reaching Higher. So when I saw that this position opened up, it seemed like a really natural fit.
Your work life looks quite different now than it did a year ago. If you were to go back to your middle school classroom and chat with them about what you do now, how would you describe your work?
I think I would describe myself as a researcher first. I feel like that is something that they are super familiar with because that’s a lot of what they do, especially in middle school. You’re learning how to be a good researcher in science classes or even in language arts classes, to write a good argument for a nonfiction essay or something. So I feel like I’d start there, something they’re familiar with, and explain that I do research on well-studied ways to strengthen public schools and make sure that they remain thriving throughout New Hampshire… I would probably explain to them that I propose ideas and solutions that both students and educators are experiencing in the classroom and that I work with people throughout the state who care a lot about public education and a lot about the success of our students in our public schools, and I learn from those people about what their own experiences are and what they feel is needed to make things better throughout the state.
A part of my job too is working with people, and communicating with people, connecting with them and hearing from them, and so I feel like that’s a very middle school skill – communicating and collaborating – so I might also try to tie that in if I was telling them about my job.
I know you have a particular interest in school funding, having worked with the Commission to Study School Funding in 2020. Why is this such an important topic to you?
School funding is important to me for so many reasons. I grew up in New Hampshire. My whole life I’ve lived here. I went through public schools for the entirety of my education, from kindergarten all the way to master’s degree. I’m also an educator. I’ve lived many, many years – pretty much my whole life until this point – in classrooms in the state of New Hampshire, and I just have seen firsthand how those inequities can have a direct impact on students, teachers, families, parents, administrators – everyone is affected. So, it really wasn’t until I did start teaching that I started to think, ‘okay what is the problem. What is the root of this? And so that’s what caused me to go back to school for my master’s degree to start to dig into this more. So I spent a lot of time on my master’s degree focusing on education funding. I took a class on how to write a municipal and school budget just to learn the guts of how schools are funded. Besides just being a teacher too, I have been a City Councilor for almost three or four years. I’m in my second term. So I’ve seen once again the guts behind how towns and cities and schools are funded, not only from the local taxpayers but by the state itself, and what’s shocked me most is that districts that need funding most, that have big gaps that need to be filled, either academic gaps or budgetary gaps, are often the ones most harmed by the policies at the state level. And that I think is a real disservice to the students that have so much potential to do so well and to the families that only want the best for their kids, and yet unfortunately happen to be just 10 meters behind the starting block because property values in their town happen to be that much lower. That just seems unfair.
Tell me about a project you’re working on now that you’re really excited about and what you hope to accomplish with it.
Yeah. Again, being an educator, former teacher, I still love to chat with other teachers and stay connected with people around the state who are educators. So I’m really excited about a project that will allow us to hear from teachers. We’re actually hosting, very soon actually, a series of focus groups, where we’ve invited educators to come meet with us and we’ve partnered with NH Listens, which is out of UNH, and we’re going to hold some listening sessions with these teachers.* Essentially what we’re hoping to hear from them is about their own experiences in the classroom. We’re hoping to see if they have any recommendations that we could then propose to the state, because right now, with all of the added stresses of just being a teacher in the 21st century, we felt like their voices weren’t being heard in the way they should be, especially in state-level conversations being had right now.
And what are you most hoping to hear about or learn about from these teachers?
I’d like to hear about things that pertain specifically to what the state is talking about right now. There’s a committee right now, specific to teacher retention and recruitment. And I think before the school year even started, there was a lot of news – local news, national news – about teacher shortages. And so, I’d be most interested to see if people bring that up and if they provide us specific recommendations about how to incentivize teachers to either stay in schools or come to schools in New Hampshire and work for our public schools. I’m sure there’s a ton of ideas floating around. I’m sure this is something that they’ve all heard about and talked about with their peers in the schools, and I bet you there’s some real nuggets that we can find if we let them just have space to talk about it with each other.
Listen to the full interview here.
*These listening sessions have been completed. Reaching Higher will release its findings from the survey that preceded these session shortly.