First-year high school principal builds strong foundation with NIU preparation

Matthew Bennett
Matthew Bennett

During the six years Matthew Bennett and his wife, Erin, spent teaching school in Nevada, he realized his professional future might lie outside the classroom.

“We just had a lot of turnover in the administrative ranks,” Bennett says. “I thought, ‘There’s got to be a better way to do this.’ I was hoping that, at some point in my career, I could bring some stability to the position.”

His chance came in Rockford, where he enrolled in the NIU Department of Leadership, Educational Psychology and Foundation’s M.S.Ed. in Educational Administration program at night while teaching social studies, history and American government at East High School during the day.

After completing his master’s degree in August of 2016, he became East’s assistant principal. This fall, he began his next chapter as principal of Winnebago High School.

“It’s been a great start and a really good transition,” Bennett says. “A lot of very good people work here, and I’m enjoying the opportunity to build relationships with the staff members and to see instruction in a different way.”

Bennett appreciated the NIU program’s delivery – the cohorts, the classes taught conveniently in Rockford, the option to complete his mandatory internship at East, the online components – as well as the faculty.

Jim and Becky Surber, he says, were “always available and super-flexible with anything I needed or if I had any questions at all.”

NIU Rockford
NIU Rockford

“The professors and instructors were people who were pretty heavily involved in the field, and some of them were still working in the field, so that was a nice touch,” Bennett says. “We could listen to the day-to-day of these people to get a glimpse of what they were doing in the administrative world. It was not just taking everything out of a book.”

Camaraderie with his classmates from different schools and districts, and who brought undergraduate preparation from different colleges and universities, provided diverse insight.

“Our cohort was smaller, which was nice. It felt like you were a part of something,” he says. “It allowed me to network and to build relationships with other educators. I still do keep in contact with the other people who were in the program with me.”

Meanwhile, the coursework already has proven relevant.

Following his professors’ recommendation that principals must cultivate a positive and constructive culture with their staff and students, Bennett’s doing so in Winnebago. He’s also giving some credit to NIU for his strong launch in the small town just west of Rockford.

Winnebago High School“Having specific classes geared toward Special Education Law has been extremely helpful. School Law in general was a big help,” he says. “If you don’t have some sort of foundation in that area, you can find yourself in some serious trouble.”

As his Winnebago High School career progresses through its first year and long beyond, Bennett says the benefits of his NIU preparation will transfer to the students under his guidance.

“Our short-term goals as principals are always to maintain graduation rates – to keep those high,” he says, “and that our students have a solid experience in high school to make them college- and career-ready and to provide opportunities to return to this area and remain in this area long-term to keep the foundation strong.”

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