Next in our Baltimore’s Principals series: meet Matthew Ebert, principal of The Crossroads School. Not familiar with The Crossroads School? It’s a public charter school for students in grades 6-8 operated by The Living Classrooms Foundation.
Matthew is sharing what brought him to Baltimore, inspired him to be a principal (and take a detour from his rock star career path), and why he’s asking his teachers to put on the “full court press.”
The Crossroads School
You moved to Baltimore after ten years of being in Boston. What where you looking for?
Family. Better weather. Freedom to make a positive impact. My wife’s family is in Maryland and I wanted to find a school that would allow me to have the same autonomy and impact I was having in Boston with people who were focused and driven that I could learn from. I found that at Crossroads.
What inspired you to be a principal?
My mom is a teacher and my older sister was a teacher. At seventeen I was fairly convinced that I was going to be a rock star but that turned out to not be as financially sound as I had imagined. I was in school and debating on how I was going to make a positive impact in the world. I decided to become a teacher. I taught for 6-7 years after getting a graduate degree in education. I was frustrated by the idea that there were so many school with pockets of good teaching as opposed to whole schools of good teaching. I was given the opportunity in Boston to lead a small school and do some amazing things. We turned around this small school to outperform schools in other settings. It was from there where I felt I could make I could make a big dent in a small part of the world. The collaboration with Crossroads allows me to make that impact. It allows me to create a space where people can do the art of teaching, be in a space to productively talk about students and teaching, provide opportunities and not micromanage.
Aside from your principal duties, what other hats have you worn to help run your school?
Our school is small with 160 students. That means that at some point or another I have had to do one of the many jobs that it takes to run a school: custodian, traffic director, lunch monitor, secretary, teacher coach, family liaison, etc.
What is the sweetest part of your job?
There are a group of kids that we have that were very unhappy were they were coming from. These are the kind of kids that you can put them in any school, anywhere in the world, and they would work their tail off. These are the kids that have that innate sense or intrinsic sense of motivation that can make them special. They were at these places where they were just unhappy. They have gotten to come to us, have really positive experiences, and talk about the difference and the difference that a positive space could make within their families.
That doesn’t make Crossroads or me special. What that means is that if you give kids a positive space, a space to learn, to think in a great manner, and to work and be thoughtful, and have people to talk to, it can change the game for them. These kids were going to work had anyway but now they have a space where they can work hard be safe, feel loved, and feel happy when they come to school. You don’t get a lot of big wins every day as a principal or as a teacher. There are a lot of small victories. Those few kids that have transferred to us from different places who were not in the best spots and are now happy are the sweetest part of my job.
What is the stinkiest job you have done as a principal?
We are in the old Lombard Middle School building while we wait for construction of our new building with Living Classrooms. Last winter we started to smell a foul, dirty odor that we couldn’t pin point and which got stronger over time. This old school building is quite large but we only use a small part of it, so we went searching and found that a pipe burst leaving 3-4 feet of standing water in the lower levels. The odor was dirty water with character. We worked with Baltimore City to get it out safely.
Are there any unique skills you have that your staff or students may not know about?
I am a musician. I play the guitar. Any guitar. Any with strings.
Are there any strategies that you used as a teacher that you have kept as a principal?
In my classroom, most things were done in small group or individualized with a lot of freedom. I like to think smart people, using good judgment, working within an innovative mission are able to make better decisions. In my experience, students and teachers under this system always come up with better ideas and solutions than what I could of come up with by myself. The focus is on freedom and flexibility instead of forcing people to be the same. It worked in the classroom and as a principal. Kids and adults like to feel success and to feel the freedom to choose and make their own decisions.
Is there a children’s book you would like your student’s to discover?
For a children’s book, I like Zen Shorts (Caldecott Honor Book). I have never seen such deep ideas done so well in such a simple fashion. If I was going to pick a young adult novel I would pick my favorite book in the entire world- the final Harry Potter. I think there are few things we can’t learn in the world from Harry Potter and J. K. Rowling.
What would you say to students to encourage them to read the great books behind good movies?
I think what you do is not encourage them to read the books but read those books with them. I can think of few things that were better for me as a child than to read with my mom or dad. The second thing is that once you start reading the world you can create in your head is unrivaled. Also, standing on top of desks and tables a la Dead Poets Society always gets attention and excitement for reading.
What song and message would you use to get your teachers revved up for the rest of the year?
Our theme this year is “Full Court Press” inspired by Malcolm Gladwell’s book David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants. The idea is do everything and anything in your power to focus and press on to meet your goals regardless of disadvantages. We focus on closing the gaps to achievement to help them access opportunities. I don’t have a specific song but it would have to be something by Bruce Springsteen.
What were your favorite school supplies growing up?
The composition notebooks. I was a doodler. I got in trouble for that all the time. My favorite school supplies now is something we don’t have as a school- computers.
How do you get your school in the spirit of the season to give?
The last two Sundays staff and families have made breakfast at the Ronald McDonald house and to provide company. We have had three generations of families participate. We also have a group going to the John Hopkins Children’s Hospital to help. These are small things but create deep conversations about perspective, gratitude, and that we are here to help each other.
If you had to play for the Orioles or the Ravens which would you pick?
Are the Yankees and option? I would probably have to pick the Orioles because of my physical stature and my wife will be less likely to collect life insurance as quickly.
The Crossroads School is a public charter school for grades 6-8 located at 802 S. Caroline Street, Baltimore, MD 21231.