Matthew Morris

Christian radio station KLTY named Lake Highlands High School AVID coordinator and teacher Matthew Morris their Teacher of the Month for October, an honor Morris brushed away as “humbling,” though he welcomed a way to spotlight the Advancement Via Individual Determination program and its “wonderful scholars.” The program, which recruits students from households without college backgrounds, “is so much bigger than me,” says Morris. Many of the students featured in our annual May cover story about graduating seniors who overcame adversity sang Morris’ praises with vigor.

Today, LHHS Principal announced that Morris is LHHS STAR Teacher of the Year.

After KLTY selected Morris, he agreed to answer a few of my questions.

How were you chosen by KLTY?

One of our AVID tutors, Lake Highlands Alumni Auburn Hood, nominated me for this honor. After I received notification that I was selected, she shared what she wrote:

“I have been on staff with Mr. Morris for 3 years now as a tutor for the AVID program. I’ve watched him selflessly become a guiding force in so many of these young students’ lives. Although his title does require him to advocate post-secondary education, he takes his position to the highest level of commitment to ensure the student’s success. He has a snack drawer for students who went without breakfast. He has provided suits for seniors before scholarship interviews. He makes a conscious effort to contact students post-graduation to continue to support their college success. He meets these students where they are and pulls the absolute best out of them. He pushes our minority students to become active in all parts of the school. His AVID students are some of the most well-rounded, holding spots in countless clubs and sports. He knows all ten classes on a personal level and takes time to learn the challenges of each student in the program. He began the first African-American History Showcase at LHHS and has continued to sponsor this event for the past 3 years. He is a living example of how to love selflessly.”

Auburn went through the AVID program at Lake Highlands and her story is one that inspires the masses. This honor means so much more that a young woman like her could see the smallest things I do and feel I deserved recognition. Although I am grateful, I feel that I’m just living with a purpose. I feel that so many students are overlooked, not listened to, not valued, and it is a greater call that I answer to in order to make my small part of the world a better place.

AVID is amazing. Why do you think AVID works?

AVID is the reason I became a teacher. It takes all the best practices of education alongside leadership and character development to inspire the lives of young scholars who are often overlooked. I fully believe in AVID – it works because in AVID we take care of each other. AVID looks at the full child and notes that there are needs and outside factors that weigh on a child’s academic success. The students often refer to AVID as a family. Underclassmen are seen as younger siblings and, at times, the AVID teachers take on a parental role. The support system, the accountability, the high academic expectations, the experiential learning, the exposure to various cultures and the service learning opportunities all make AVID a system that works school wide. Many people just see AVID as an elective course, but it is truly a school wide system that empowers students to collaborate and engage fully in their educational experience. AVID allows kids to “think forward” and recognize that their current situation does not equal their forever. AVID gives students the opportunity to unlock potential that is often stifled or belittled early on in their educational career.

Tell me about your background.

I’ve been at Lake Highlands since 2011, straight from Columbia University (a bill I’ll be paying for a long, long time, thus my passion for getting students scholarships and aid). I began my career in Special Education in hopes that I would find my place and purpose. This was not the case, but I knew LH was the right place. LH is a hidden jewel, and the diversity within the school community provides the perfect avenue to change some of the misconceptions commonly found in our world. I refer to Lake Highlands as “the best place to change the world.”

Do students ever return to thank you?

Honestly, I don’t need a thank you. It’s my prayer that students go forth to lead inspired lives, bringing about sustainable and effective change. Hopefully some of the broken pieces that they arrived with have been restored, and they are able to create new, positive outcomes. I haven’t been at this long enough to have the big “This is my life” moments with alumni, but the random, mid-semester visits, Sunday afternoon phone calls and text messages all give me a little peace knowing that things are better than what they could have been. The great “thank yous” happen when alumni who were in AVID well before I was in Lake Highlands ask to come back to speak with students currently in the elective class. This is how you know AVID works. These are the moments that words cannot define. The moment when a college sophomore and a high school sophomore connect on a level that transcends time but shows them that opportunities should not be wasted.

This May will bring about the finest moment in my career as an educator as the first of my students as AVID Coordinator will be finishing four years of college – that is success. I am looking forward to reunions in the spring as these scholars receive their college degrees.

I know that you often work with immigrant and/or underprivileged students. Are there ways that AVID is of particular benefit to these students? In what ways could AVID benefit every child?

Underprivileged? Not my favorite term, but that’s my personal take (social inequalities could be a totally different conversation). I do work with students whose privilege is often stripped from them – students that have been disenfranchised. Students whose cultures aren’t represented in our curriculum. Students who are not given the same opportunities as peers early on in their educational careers. Students who because they are different aren’t always understood or accepted in our educational system. AVID inspires these students. AVID engages ALL students. AVID benefits ALL students. AVID levels the playing field. AVID provides opportunities for any child that is not frightened by the challenges of reality but believes, with the right amount of support, they can change the world. AVID inspires leaders. AVID mends brokenness. AVID inspires creativity. AVID promotes community investment. AVID encourages collective work and responsibility. AVID prepares students for an ever-changing global society.

I am eternally grateful that our community has fully invested in the lives of these students. It truly takes a village, and I would not be able to assist these students without the support of the Lake Highlands community. Often times I am in awe at the outpour of goodness that these deserving students receive, and yet there is great work to be done. I hope that through this window of opportunity my students are seen and heard, and I fade into the background. They are the true heroes, their stories of struggle and triumph inspire me daily and encourage me to continue this great work. It truly is a blessing.

Mr. Morris’ answers, and Ms. Hood’s submission, have been edited for space and clarity.