There were days these past three years that Abdur Gant needed assistance getting to school. The junior at Edgecombe Early College High School, without hesitation, knew exactly where to find help. He picked up his cell phone, texted his principal — Matthew Bristow-Smith — and waited for the response.
“And he got me,” Gant said matter-of-factly, as if it weren’t such a rare event. “That’s just who he is. He has that personality where he makes you feel comfortable reaching out to him. He’s great when it comes to looking out for the students and making sure that we’re good. He does so many things for us.”
On Friday, Bristow-Smith was named Wells Fargo North Carolina Principal of the Year at an awards luncheon held for him and seven other regional finalists at The Umstead Hotel.
Addressing the regional finalists and guests, Bristow-Smith didn’t talk about his accomplishments, such as presiding over four years of “A” performance grades and exceeding growth.
He didn’t talk about how much his students adore him. Though they sure seem to, if you listen to Gant or another student who anonymously wrote to the decision committee in support of her principal.
“I remember all the times you talked to me and how happy [sic] it made me feel like a person for once,” the student wrote in a letter of support. “It’s all the little things that you did to help me that I can’t forget.”
Bristow-Smith didn’t talk about the qualities he possesses that have helped him achieve at such a high level as an educator – though surely there would have been plenty of material to pull from there.
“He is the real deal,” said Bristow-Smith’s wife, April, who was English Department Chair when her husband taught English at Tarboro High School. “And I know it doesn’t sound the same coming from his wife, but I was also his colleague for 16 years. I taught beside him and I was on the school improvement team with him. He’s the most genuine person I’ve ever known. He’s sincere and professional.”
But that’s not what the afternoon’s winner focused on in the moment’s after receiving his award. Instead, Bristow-Smith reflected on his journey.
“25 years ago today, I graduated from college. I met my wife, April,” he said, pausing to hold back tears, “ … and this all began. And it has been amazing.”
He reflected on the reason he wanted to become a teacher in the first place. His mother, whom he saw planning and working for her school family every night and on the weekends. He remembers telling her that he, too, wanted to be a teacher.
“Are you crazy,” she said. “After everything I have done, and everything you’ve seen me do, are you sure this is what you want to do?”
“I said, ‘Mom it’s because of you that I want to do this.'”
He reflected on his time as a N.C. Teaching Fellow at Appalachian State and the influential educators he met there. And he reflected on the decision to settle down in Tarboro, recalling his first meeting with Dennis Hart, then principal at Tarboro High School.
“This is a small community with big challenges,” Hart told Bristow-Smith while showing him around the campus on a Sunday.
Bristow-Smith spent 15 years as an English teacher and was chairman of the school improvement team at Tarboro High. He led efforts to establish a freshman academy and to restore AP courses to the school district, and was a finalist for N.C. Teacher of the Year in 2010.
“He took a risk on us,” Bristow-Smith said, remembering Hart. “And that risk, 15 years in a classroom later, led me to administration.”
As a principal, Bristow-Smith developed a countywide initiative, the Scholar Teachers Program, a public-private partnership modeled after the NC Teaching Fellows program to attract and support high school students interested in teaching careers. The prospective teachers receive additional coursework, internships in local schools, and student loans repayable through teaching service in Edgecombe schools.
All of the little things he’s done for his students, their families, and the teachers he leads – though he chose not to discuss on Friday – certainly added up to his winning the state’s highest honor for principals. For his part, Bristow-Smith was quick to deflect the attention.
“It’s not about us,” he said. “The work is not about us. The work is about the kids. It’s about the families. It’s about the communities that we serve.”
Service is a strong value for Bristow-Smith. In fact, he took time out of his acceptance speech to underscore the importance of service by quoting two highly esteemed and influential servants. As he stood on stage addressing his peers, Bristow-Smith first quoted Gandhi:
“The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.”
And then he quoted Martin Luther King, Jr.:
“Life’s most persistent and urgent question is what are you doing in the service of others.”
“There’s not much more that I have to say,” he said. “Everybody in here are servant leaders. All of us are doing this in the service of kids and in the service of a future that we can’t even imagine. In the same way that people, all along the way for me, saw something in me and nudged me along and were there to support me in ways that I didn’t realize I needed supporting — that’s what we do.”
2019 Regional Principals of the Year Finalists
– Northeast: Melissa Fields, Perquimans Central (Perquimans County School)
– Southeast: Elizabeth P. Pierce, Frink Middle (Lenoir County Public Schools)
– Sandhills: James “Bo” Mullins, Clement Elementary (Sampson County Schools)
– Piedmont-Triad: Sean Gaillard, Lexington Middle (Lexington City Schools)
– Southwest: Dr. Timisha Barnes-Jones, West Charlotte High (Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools)
– Northwest: Michelle Baker, Eastfield Global Magnet (McDowell County Schools)
– Western: Brandon Sutton, Swain Middle (Swain County Schools)