Connections: Linking Talented Educators
Connections: Linking Talented Educators

Spotlight: Courtney Matulka (NE '15)

March 21, 2016

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When students tell Courtney Matulka (NE '15) they're considering becoming an educator, she reminds them of the big-picture reward: "You have the rare opportunity to make a true difference in an individual's life." She received her Milken Educator Award at Beadle Middle School in Omaha on October 21, 2015. 

Milken Family Foundation: How did you end up in education?

Courtney Matulka: As a small child, I found myself drawn to children. The innocence of a child and their ability to see the world in a different way has captivated me. In first through third grade, my primary center teacher Mrs. Frank would let me have the extra worksheets that were not used in class. At home, I taught a classroom of dolls and stuffed animals with these papers. I even pretended to grade the papers. My bedroom window became my chalk board and I would use overhead markers to teach "my class" spelling words and mathematics. My mom took envelopes from work so I could have a day of the week calendar where I could review what day today is, what was yesterday and will be tomorrow, along with the weather outlook – much like my teachers did at school.

All my dreams of becoming a teacher revolved around elementary-aged children. It was not until high school that I had an "aha" moment for secondary education. I volunteered at my church teaching religious education classes. I fell in love with the middle school age group. This age level of students allowed for deeper conversations, more in-depth lessons, and, with individual personalities of students coming to the forefront, they were hilarious to teach. I knew then that I would be going to college for secondary education.  

MFF: What was your first job?

Courtney: My first job was babysitting neighborhood kids. I learned to be firm in my expectations for their behavior, follow through, and most importantly, to be compassionate and nurturing. Before a babysitting job, I would brainstorm how we would spend our time. I asked myself, "What captivating activities can I do with the kids I am watching to ensure they are having fun and engaged?" I knew that if the kids bought into what I had planned for us, the time would fly by and managing their behavior in their parents' absence would be a breeze. Many of these principles have followed me into the classroom.

MFF: Who was your own most memorable teacher?

Courtney: One of my most memorable teachers was Mr. Matthew Hayes at Millard West High School in Omaha. He taught my AP American History class and World Religions class. His dynamic teaching captivated the class. He hooked us into each lesson by finding a funny way to foreshadow the day's lesson with little one-liners and drawings. When teaching, he would change his stature, voice and facial expressions. The passion he felt for history was contagious. In his class, history was not memorizing dates or people, it was uncovering our nation's past through lecture, group discussions, reenactments, passionate debates, video, song and reading "presents." My fondest memories from high school are sitting in his class, enjoying the educational journey he brought us on. He stretched us and forced us to think at a higher level. When I entered college, no homework load, essay test, or research paper seemed too large to tackle. He had given me the tools I needed to succeed.

MFF: Tell us about your first class.

Courtney: When reflecting on my first year teaching, I have the fondest memories. I walked into an amazing building climate where I found myself surrounded by individuals who cared deeply about students. I joined a Science PLC (Professional Learning Community) that wanted to try new and innovative ways to educate students. We were required to meet once a week; however, we had so much fun developing new materials, we often met daily. As a new teacher, I felt valued by my administrators, team, and science department. People believed in my capabilities, which made me believe in myself. Looking back, I realize there are many things I did not yet fully comprehend about the field of education and educational best practices. However, I try not to dwell on the "should-have-could have" moments, because my learning curve was high that year and I had a great experience learning from those around me.

MFF: You just had your first child. Any predictions yet on how being a parent is going to affect your teaching?

Courtney: My students have always been my number one priority. They are one of the first things I think about when I wake in the morning and one of the last things I think about before bed. Work is not something I can "turn off" because teaching is a part of me. Students' academic success, motivation to learn, and grit are facets of education that I take very seriously.

After having my son, I remember checking my work email in my hospital bed trying to stay current on my building and students. As I have transitioned back to work, I have refined my time management techniques. Prior to having a baby, I could stay at work until 6:30pm and then take whatever task that was left unfinished home with me. Those glory days are behind me. I am now working to strike a balance between my children at school and my baby at home. My love for my students has not changed in the slightest since having a baby of my own. If anything, now that I am a parent, I feel even more invested in my students' capabilities to become globally competitive students that feel empowered to innovate and solve the problems of today.

MFF: A student tells you he/she is thinking about a career in education. What do you say?

Courtney: I would tell them to look at the world around them. Do you want to enact change for the future of our nation? Education is the way to do this. By teaching students, we have the ability to shape future contributing members of society. Education is one thing that cannot be taken away from an individual. Our schools allow us to teach students not only course curriculum, but also life skills to become successful adults.

As a teacher, you have the rare opportunity to make a true difference in an individual's life. You may be the only person telling a student they are loved and cared about. You may be the only person in their day telling them about their amazing potential. Too many of our nation's youth are coming to school with the weight of poverty, broken homes, low self-esteem, anxiety, and depression. As a teacher, you have the opportunity to be a champion for these students. Being an educator is the most fulfilling way to spend your day because as you try to better the lives of others, you better your own.

MFF: What's your favorite time of the school day?

Courtney: From 7:45 am to 11:55 am because I am teaching. I spend my day not being a "teacher" but a writer and an actress. The start of class is like pulling up the curtain to a magnificent play. I have a window of time to captivate my audience. From there, I set the stage for the action that is to come in the day's lesson. Now my students get the opportunity to join me on center stage and we discover the content together through small group work, labs, and discussions. We get lost in the possibilities of science, leaving our worries at the door of class. I have a poster with this very saying hanging above my door. As a teacher, my students must see my passion for science and my desire to ignite their fire to learn. I must shed my worries about a mounting to-do list and focus on the most important role I play – teacher. An actress is only as good as her script. I get a thrill from planning and writing a day's lesson. Deciding how to open a lesson, engage and motivate students to learn through hands-on, project based learning is much like authoring a script. I have the opportunity to make numerous "rewrites" during the day, refining the practice. Even at the day's end, I still have a hard time saying, "Okay — that is the final draft for how I will teach this concept."

MFF: If someone gave you a million dollars for your school, what would you do with it?

Courtney: I would completely rework how content is taught in my school. I would employ a team of master teachers and education experts to see how we can effectively teach content outside of the silos of a math, English or science classroom. Students need to stop visualizing education in separate compartments. All subject matter taught in school supports the other. Education needs to stop compartmentalizing core curriculum. I would develop curriculum that integrates all subject matter into a daily experience for students. At this school, students would be acquiring knowledge through authentic research of curricular concepts with teachers who are co-teaching. Students would take the information they have gained through research and teacher-directed instruction to solve the problems plaguing the world today. These students would be employing 21st-century skills as they collaborated with peers, thinking critically about how to create an innovative idea to solve a problem.

MFF: When you retire (someday), what do you want your former students and colleagues to say about you?

Courtney: That I invested everything I had into my career. That I never became complacent with my instruction, because I was constantly looking for ways to refine best practices in education. I hope they say that I was an open-minded colleague who welcomed change and new ideas. At my retirement, I hope my former students mention the excitement they felt in my classroom. I want them to know the love I feel for each and every one of them. I hope these students mention how we have stayed in contact long after they left the walls of my eighth-grade science classroom. How my class was more than just a place where they learned science curriculum, but a place where they grew as an independent thinker – questioning the world around themselves and asking, "How can I leave my mark on the world?"

MFF: If you hadn't chosen a career in education, what would you be doing right now?

Courtney: I would be traveling the world, like a nomad. But teaching is in me, so I would probably be teaching in some way at each place I stopped during my journey.

MFF: Finish this sentence: "I know I'm succeeding as an educator when..."

Courtney: ...when the energy in my classroom is palpable. 

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