Matt Vereecke: Facilitating Close Connections
By: Lauren Kloser
Matt Vereecke, the Superintendent of Catholic Schools in Dallas, knew that when he moved from schoolteacher to superintendent, he would be giving up the daily personal interactions with his students.
“I learned so much from the conversations I had with my students, and even though I wouldn’t have those daily exchanges with them, the best part of my job as superintendent is being able to facilitate and create opportunities for personal interactions for others,” Matt says. “I can make sure that so many teachers, students, administration and staff members get to feel that same joyous and engaging connection that I did.”
Matt’s time as a member of ACE 11, especially his second year when he was in charge of the discipline system at St. Catherine School in Tulsa, solidified his desire to find ways to create personal relationships in Catholic schools. As a second-year teacher without much experience, Matt wanted a discipline system that created a new and different way of defining the interaction between students and teachers. There would always be rules; teachers expected students to be on time, be present, and have materials ready for class, and they had traditional consequences. Students had to do things such as schedule after-school time to focus on learning skills, or they had to clean out their lockers–punishments that fit the behaviors of the students. But Matt came to realize that the “soft skills,” or the executive functions like critical thinking and self-regulation, were best formed through personal connections that developed these abilities for the students. Each nurturing relationship helped the students understand their responsibilities to themselves, their classmates, and their school. With a better awareness of how their behavior impacted their own learning and the learning of others, students worked with their teachers to behave in ways that allowed learning to occur.
When Matt became principal of St. Pius X in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 2007, he was the youngest member on staff. Here, again, his reliance on personal connections served him well: he focused on the mission of the school and learned on the job by listening to others who knew more than he did. This taste leading the school, first as principal and later as president at St. Pius, made Matt realize that personal relationships needed to work on a wider scale. It wasn’t just that a single teacher needed to make connections with the students in their class; instead, the entire school needed a system that created genuine, nurturing relationships to guide the students through every year of their learning. This desire to help students and schools on a larger level led Matt to the superintendent’s role he has today.
“As superintendent, I am on the front lines of every major question the Church is facing,” Matt says. “We are dealing with kids, so we are dealing with questions of sexuality, gender, theology, and every type of question you can imagine. I love the opportunity to be in the room when decisions are made so that I can be the voice for the kids who wouldn’t otherwise be heard.”
Matt works collaboratively with the bishop’s office to make decisions about schools and sees the Catholic schools as a unique outlet for the bishop. Schools allow life to be seen differently–not as questions about religious doctrine, but a more complicated vision of how religious life interacts with our daily problems.
“It is easy to say, ‘Commit this sin and here are the consequences,’” Matt says. “But we have to be thinking, ‘What are the consequences in terms of our ministry? In terms of our connections to real people and real students?’ That is the dynamic and shifting conversation we have to address.”
For Matt, one of the biggest questions facing Catholic schools in Dallas is immigration. Dallas is a city of immigrants and a focal point for many of the legal battles surrounding immigration. As he listened to people in Dallas, Matt realized that people lacked personal connections to others. Matt decided that Catholic schools needed to engage in immigration issues by learning what families and students needed.
“The answer isn’t simple,” Matt says. “But we have to take proactive steps to help families stay together while keeping a global perspective in mind.”
Matt understands that, like any issue in Catholic schools, the solution comes when people come together to hear each other, collaborate, and build the foundation for a stronger and more nurturing community.
Matt Vereecke served as an AmeriCorps member at St. Catherine School in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Interested in becoming a school leader? Visit ace.nd.edu/leadership and request more information on the Mary Ann Remick Leadership Program.