Inspiring young minds

Francis Howell Central High School journalism teacher one of only six educators across the nation receive the Kennedy Center/ Stephen Sondheim Inspirational Teacher Award 

By Brett Auten

Francis Howell Central High School should consider itself fortunate. 

Yearly, only six educators across the nation receive the Kennedy Center/ Stephen Sondheim Inspirational Teacher Award and one of them walks among its halls.

Central High School journalism teacher Matthew Schott is one of those six. This award recognizes individuals who have had a major impact on the lives of their students outside of academia. 

The award is titled after Stephen Sondheim, a decorated lyricist, who cites Oscar Hammerstein (of Rodgers and Hammerstein) for his success. Winners are nominated by former students and are awarded $10,000 in appreciation for their contributions to the field of teaching. Awardees are also posted on the Kennedy Center’s website.

Schott got the phone call to tell him he won while on spring break. He had to quell his enthusiasm as he and his family were in a crowded restaurant in Alabama.

“Stunned is the right word,” he said. “When I told my wife about it she was like, ‘Why aren’t you jumping up and down?’ I didn’t know how to react. I had won awards previously but not nationally and definitely not with a monetary attachment. It’s immensely flattering”

Schott was nominated by Lindsay Schallon, a former Howell Central student who called her mentor’s classroom a, “safe haven.” After graduating from Central, Schallon went on to journalism school and now works as a senior editor at Glamour Magazine and it was Schott’s encouragement as her motivation.

“He’s there for me when I need career advice or just to say he’s proud of a project I shared on Facebook,” Schallon said.

The focus in Schott’s classroom is more than proper writing, appealing photographs and catchy headlines. It is also about grit, determination, responsibility, relationships, and working with others. There is no denying that the subjects and the studies of what teachers do is important,  but Schott also leans toward how he treats students and the memories made for them is just as important and vital as they head out into society.

“I think it is easy for teachers to get caught up in the curriculum, and the ACT and college,” Schott said. “Yes, obviously, education is important. But if the student can’t focus or is close to breaking down, sometimes they just need 30 minutes.”

Schott’s room is a place where students will come in and eat their lunch if they choose. He makes it a place they want to be, where they can be who they are.

“I want to create a place where they can take risks and know that I and other teachers care about them,” he said. “You see (the students) come in quiet and leave two years later having the biggest personality in the room.”

Howell Central Principal Dr. Sonny Arnel said that the Stephen Sondheim Inspirational Teacher Award wants to publicly recognize specific teachers by spotlighting their extraordinary impact on the lives of students.

“And that is who Matt is,” Arnel said. “He has an incredible passion for making education relevant and that’s something students build on to make their lives richer as a result.”

Schott spent eight years in journalism, working primarily as a graphic designer before he segued from the grind of working nights at a desk to early morning in front of a classroom full of kids.

“I had thought about (teaching) in college and even when I was working in journalism I was around a lot of educators,” he said. “I was getting close to 30-years-old and was looking to have a bit of a life outside of my job. At the time, when everybody was coming home from work, I was just going.”

Schott is in his 14th year at Howell Central and teaching journalism in 2019 isn’t what it used to be. There are much more Schott and his students oversee than the school paper, such as the yearbook, websites, broadcasts (including podcasts) and a literary magazine.

“I want them to be well-rounded and have the kids capitalize on their interests and passions,” he said. “They are a little bit more natural at doing a lot of this. They are already used to sharing photos and videos. I want to give them opportunities to learn and try new things. For example, we started doing a podcast and some jumped in and others were hesitant and needed a little push. But I won’t push them too far out of their comfort zone.”

In retrospect, Schott doesn’t consider himself a master educator or a shining example.

“I don’t think what I do is super special or amazing,” he said. “I just try to do what a good person or a good educator would do.”

CUTLINE: Photo courtesy Francis Howell School District Francis Howell Central High School journalism teacher Matthew Schott is one of only six educators across the nation receive the Kennedy Center/ Stephen Sondheim Inspirational Teacher Award. This award recognizes individuals who have had a major impact on the lives of their students outside of academia.