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DPS Names Teacher of the Year

TOY 2024

First Sergeant Jeffery Matthews says his wife has been patiently waiting for him to plan their retirement travel. After all, he’s already served in the United States Army for 29 years. But he’s now working his second career as a JROTC instructor at the historic Hillside High School, and commits to four more years when he receives freshman students every year.  Having charge over ninth, tenth, eleventh, and twelfth grade students, the retired non-commissioned officer says he needs to see his freshmen graduate. He’s serving his seventh year of ushering his young scholars through the threshold of commencement after having tracked them through their high school careers.

A native of Louisiana, Matthews says he loves learning, citing history as his favorite subject because he loves dates and timelines. He also enjoys reading and writing. He is currently working on his Masters degree in business administration. He was a military instructor and taught advanced individual training while serving the country. He trained officers and non-commissioned officers in developing basic job skills, wrote curriculum, and worked for TRADOC (Training and Doctrine Command) of Virginia.

“In doing that, as chief instructor, I was writing curriculum, creating tests, facilitating courses, teaching them how to publicly speak and interact in a professional manner,” said Matthews. “I could see that… I could take adult learning and transfer my skills as a teacher to kids.”

Matthews says as a teenager he didn’t always demonstrate his capacity so his goal is to model the philosophy that one must overcome their shortcomings and achieve, despite those who don’t see your potential, including yourself. He describes his own self-neglect coupled with counselors who weren’t there for him during his high school years. He was the collateral damage after a perfect storm: “My counselors were not there for me. They kind of left me to the side. So I never had an advocate in school. I wasn't a bad student, but I wasn’t a great student. But what about the kids in the middle? We kind of always forget about the kids in the middle.”

As a result, he was forced to repeat eleventh grade. His father wanted him to learn his lesson and refused to allow him to attend summer school.

Now as a retired military instructor, he’s inspired to give back. And despite his experience of being overlooked by some, he acknowledges that he still had support.

“My dad and my mom were great motivators. Growing up in Louisiana, we had a great village of learning,” said Matthews.

He speaks highly of his high school principal, Mr. Kidd, with whom he had regular one-on-one talks. When he repeated a grade, Matthews said he never made him feel any different. “He always pushed me and got me more involved in academics and athletics to keep my mind off of what was going on.”

He told him the repeat was his chance for a re-do, a second chance to correct the mistakes that he’d made. They kept in contact until Matthews' increased travels slowed their interactions.

So the retirement vacation will have to wait for just a little while longer.

“It’s the kids who keep me here. I can see the transformation. We can be that connection for that child. If you can affect one you can affect many,” he said.

He tells of one rebellious student whose poor decisions could have cost him his life. On the brink of expulsion, Matthews convinced him to give JROTC a try. He did but dropped out. He eventually returned, brought his grades up, and is now serving in the military and raising children with his wife.

“Teaching is a great profession. You can show kids you can have success in adversity,” he says with a smile. “We share a lot of stories in JROTC as military instructors. We use our life skills and experience to enlighten kids to study and think critically.”

He admits that there are many challenges in the profession, competition for the students’ attention.

“The landscape is changing, so how do we engage and make everyone feel good enough to know they have potential? You  have to know the kids in some aspect. That’s what builds classroom culture. You have to take the me out of the picture.”

He encourages his younger colleagues in the profession to grow with the failures they may encounter and enjoy the learning process. Treat students the way you would want to be treated. He adds that every student is an individual and should be treated equitably. Doing so will encourage students to trust and open up to you and your teaching techniques.

Matthews is quick to say that he couldn’t experience the success that he has as a teacher without the support of his wife and family, and his faith in God. He also knows that the energy he brings to the classroom is a necessary ingredient. And for those who are considering the teaching profession, he simply says you must be drawn to it. 

“It’s a passion. You've got to have a passion for it. 99 percent of the teachers have a passion for this work. We are counselors, mentors, coaches, guiding lights,” he said.

Mark Jacobson Toyota provided 1st Sergeant Matthews with a one year lease on a 2024 Toyota Camry. He also received a $1,000 award, a laptop from Lenovo, an overnight stay and $50 dining credit at The Durham Hotel, VIP Cinema Pack to The Carolina Theatre, VIP Package with two tickets to Clue courtesy of the Durham Performing Arts Center, a four ticket prize pack to a Durham Bulls game, $100 gift card to Geer Street Garden, a 60-minute massage from Healing Strength, a gift card to Beyu Caffe, and a custom engraved Teacher of the Year keychain from local jeweler, JewelSmith. 

Additional Teacher of the Year Celebration sponsors were The DPS Foundations, EmergeOrtho, NC Specialty Hospital, Mark Jacobson Toyota, Triangle Media Partners, and  ABC11. In kind sponsors include Durham Bulls Baseball Club, The Mad Popper, Durham Toffee Co., Vaguely Reminiscent, Y’all Need Cookies, Geer St. Garden, and Healing Strength massage therapy.