He met me at the principal’s office by the school’s entrance.
Matt DeHart, a fifth grade teacher at Heritage Elementary School, waited as I signed in and received my visitor’s sticker. I followed him down the hallway with its squeaky clean afternoon floors and bright lighting.
“Do you always dress this way for work?” I asked him.
It was nearly four o-clock in the afternoon, he’d been teaching ten and eleven year olds all day and yet not a hair was out of place, his beard was neatly trimmed and his three piece suit (and tie) looked freshly laundered and quite sharp.
“My dad always said – ‘Dress for the job you want.'” Matt smiled and as we stepped into his brightly lit cheerful classroom, I knew this story would basically write itself, as long as my voice recorder – and later my keyboard – could keep up.
Matt has just received the honor of Emerging Teacher of the Year in the Greenville County school system. This is an honor given to only one second year teacher in the district. Matt team teaches the fifth graders in English Language Arts and Social Studies. He’s now in his third year at Heritage.
Matt’s classroom (Ahem. Mr. DeHart’s classroom, in case any of his students are reading this.) is inviting. There’s a high-tech projector system and posters on the wall with nods to Harry Potter and Hunger Games. A quote from Booker T. Washington takes up the wall by the door and brown paper bags filled with Narnia project work line the shelves. Mr. DeHart’s Rules of Conduct and typed expectations are hanging neatly laminated along the top of the wall too.
These are rules that are more than just turn in your papers and don’t speak when others are talking. Matt outlines guidelines for his students in regards to their cafeteria conduct and their manners as well. These guidelines includes making eye contact with the cafeteria staff and clearly thanking them for their work by their names.
We chatted about the upcoming wax museum project, the narrative stories the kids are working on, the read alouds in the classroom and the way history and writing and reading seamlessly intertwine in the classroom.
“For the wax museum, the kids dress up as characters in history that they’re learning about,” Matt said. It’s a project the fifth grade classes take part in each year. In his first year of teaching, Matt discovered a problem with this particular assignment. “I wanted the kids to wear a costume for their projects – to dress like the character. And sometimes it was hard for the kids to find the right clothing for the project. So I just fixed that.”
And by fixing that problem, an entire other classroom dynamic evolved.
“I started a clothing closet for the kids to get their costumes,” Matt explains, showing me the storage room-turned closet with more dapper options for elementary students than a department store. That year, Matt made a Facebook request for some options for his students and that request turned into generous donations and what is now called The Closet of Dreams. “I had more clothes than I could deal with so my wife came and helped and organized the clothes for me,” he laughs. Now the clothes are all grouped according to sizes and styles. (If you want to add some to his collection, we’ll give you his info!)
When projects like the wax figure museum arise, kids can gather materials from this closet. And, when the wax figure project is over, there’s no need return he clothing. The kids get to keep them.
In fact, they want to keep them because now, every Wednesday, students in Mr. DeHart’s class dress like him.
Each week the students in his class celebrate DeHart Wednesdays by dressing up to head to elementary school. (This idea was born from a student a few years ago who did just that as surprise – matched his teacher’s wardrobe choices – and boldly declared every Wednesday to be Dress Like Mr. Dehart Day!) The idea stuck and now it’s fifth grade routine at Heritage!
Matt says he loves that the kids dress up each week. “This year, for our school photos, every kid from my class is wearing a suit coat or a tie or a dress. It’s really cool – it looks like a prep school photo album.” His smile and joy is contagious and I guarantee the kids feel that same glow in the classroom. There’s a director’s chair in the classroom and although Matt and I are sitting at the student tables for the interview, I can imagine him taking his place in the director’s chair as he reads and leads this classroom full of young learners. It seems like the right choice for the guidance he offers.
Matt attended Northwest Middle School (where his dad taught) and Travelers Rest High School. You could say education runs in the family. His mom taught school for forty years at Brook Glenn Elementary School. Berea High’s gymnasium is even named after Matt’s grandfather!
Although the thoughts on becoming a teacher were embedded early for Matt, when he graduated from college he actually headed to a job with ESPN, traveling the country, as well as working at a local radio station. If his voice sounds familiar, and it’s not because you’ve sat in his classroom, you might be hearing it on radio station 94.5 on the daily business report. (He gets up very very early to record that before heading to school to inspire kids in literature and history – and attire!)
Matt and his wife have been married for three years – in fact, he was married for only five days before his first day of work as a teacher. (Maybe you’ve seen Kaylie at Tandem where she currently works!)
As if educating and inspiring fifth graders and waking up early to complete a radio show doesn’t keep Matt busy enough, he’s started a foundation to benefit the students he teaches as well.
Teach From DeHart Foundation (say that one out loud and it’ll make perfect sense) has a primary goal of taking TR students out of the classroom, away from the Upstate and exposing them to travel and different environments. Throughout the year, the trips stay small and are called Pod Trips. These smaller Pod Trips are to various destinations each year.
“One month we’ll tour a college so they can see that college is an option,” Matt says. Additionally, they’ll eat out together. Matt works with the kids to teach them how to order, how to tip, how to recall the wait staff’s names. “There’s a whole routine they have go through,” Matt says of his students. “But they have so much pride in it. They’re making eye contact, they’re sitting up straight.” Matt has them learn how to clean up after eating, to be considerate to the employees at the restaurant.
His Pod Trips in the past have gone to a ropes course, a sports game, hiking and more. “Anything to get them out of their normal zones and to show them more is what we’re doing,” Matt says. Each year the trips are tailored to that group of students – creating experiences that might be new or beneficial, such as seeing a level theatre performance.
After a year of Pod Trips, during the summer the participating students head out on an adventure that involves a flight. Last year the destination was Atlanta and this year the goal is a mid-western city.
To be included in this foundation, students have to be in Mr. DeHart’s class for the year and then commit to a fundraiser to help support the trips. “We’ll always have a fundraiser so the kids will have a stake in what they’re doing, but the goal is to eventually have the trips fully funded so there’s no cost issue for the students.”
The remaining funds for the Pod Trips and the summer adventure are received through sponsorships – you can donate to this incredible cause right here – teachfromdehart.org – and just read more about the work Matt is doing with his students right here in TR.
The foundation has a board of directors and Matt has some extra help through them, as well as through a few folks who have stepped up in leadership and planning in his foundation that he expresses gratitude for. “It’s been a life saver to have their help – I’m so thankful!” Some of those volunteers are parents of current or former students. Lauren Rowland is the current Student Experiences Director and her help has been instrumental to the foundation’s organization. (I met Lauren at a TR event at Moss Oak Farmhouse recently and thanks goes to her for connecting me with Matt for this story! That’s TR at its best, singing one another’s praises and sharing the spotlight with those around you.)
Back to the classroom – the students have responded so well to the high expectations that Mr. DeHart has laid out. His goal is to prepare his fifth grade students for their upcoming transition to middle school the following year. Former students have written to him to let him know that junior high was less intimidating for them because of that preparation they received in his classroom.
Parents have seen a difference in their children as they progress through the fifth grade program. (Mr. DeHart co-teaches his fifth grade classroom with Devyn Washburn. They have nicknamed their group – HartBurn!) One parent, Julie Ledford, shares her experience. “Though we have many mutual friends and my husband knew him already, I hadn’t heard of Matt DeHart until last winter. A dear friend whose child was in his fifth grade class last year made mention of him one time and told me that Mr. DeHart was the best educator she had ever come across in her life. Period. This struck me and of course stuck in my head. I began to hear more about Mr. DeHart after that and the more I heard, the more interested I was. Sometime during the summer I began praying that my son Bennett, a rising 5th grader, would be placed in Mr. DeHart’s class. Bennett did get placed in Mr. DeHart’s class, and upon hearing this news I burst into tears. Which was kind of funny, considering I’d never even met the guy! Mr. DeHart co-teaches 5th grade with another beloved Heritage teacher, Devyn Washburn, so we found out that Bennett would have both of them as teachers. We could not have been more delighted.”
“After Meet the Teacher, I started reading the packets they sent home and was amazed and impressed and even a bit exhausted after reading the rules and expectations. Exhausted for the teachers. I’d never seen anything like it and I’ve read a lot of teacher send home packets over the years,” Julie shares. “The rule list was very long! They centered around respect. Respecting authority, respecting other students.”
Those Rules of Conduct are the ones laminated and hanging on the wall. Rules like:
Stand quietly and still while in line.
Make eye contact when speaking with another person.
Say yes/no, ma’am/sir to an adult every single time you are in conversation.
Celebrate the achievements of others every time there is an opportunity.
Say thank you within 3 seconds of receiving an item.
Give the cafeteria staff your whole attention while ordering.
Julie shared that Mr. DeHart makes a promise to each child in his class that they will go into the 6th grade with confidence in their abilities. And for her son Bennett, she sees the pay off already happening.
“Bennett’s confidence has skyrocketed since being in his class. The first month, he really struggled because there was more homework than other classes, higher standards everywhere, so many things to remember for each day, plus remembering all the rules,” she said. “Mr. DeHart was very consistent with consequences but also encouraging and fun. Bennett forgot papers, lost parts of his homework, forgot about rules, etc. a lot the first few weeks. For awhile there it seemed he had to walk at recess nearly every day. Mr DeHart told me that this is very common in his class at the beginning but after about a month, most kids have settled in and do really well.”
And that has been their experience as well.
Matt knows what he’s asking of his students is a challenge. But he believes they can handle it. That they will rise to the challenge.
One student recently created a poster for a weekly assignment and each week her grade was not what she wanted. Mr. DeHart knew she was capable of more so he gently encouraged her to keep trying. After a few weeks, instead of a poster, she came to class with a giant cardboard creation. When he asked her about the change, she just replied, “I was tired of not getting a 100!”
Matt’s classroom feels like an extension of himself, an extension of who he is and what he believes. “I love these kids,” Matt says, and that’s evident. “I tell them – I love you with no buts – meaning I love them without any conditions. Discipline or pushing them harder or cheering them on – I ask how I would want my kid to be treated and I try to do that. They give me the energy to keep doing everything I am doing.” Matt knows he is strict, but he’s not unfair. “I will hold them to a standard,” he says. “But in the form of discipline, once it’s handled, we will both move on.”
In his classroom, words matter. Matt and his students are learning the power of words. The strength of encouraging words. The danger of discouraging words.
And even as we spoke, Matt was educating me a little – and he was also learning too. Receptive to conversation and ideas. He’s humble and he’s confident and that’s as rare a combination as an elementary student wearing a suit and tie to school every Wednesday.