Northern Round Table editors-in-chief D.J. Ellis and Brooklynn Cooper sat down with their new principal, Matthew Hunt, for a Q & A session
Round Table: What made you want to get into education after being a professional basketball player and a Wall Street banker?
Hunt: I didn’t feel good about any of the things I was doing. Both of my parents were educators, and I really admired their work. I’d always had a dream about playing basketball professionally, so I wanted to at least give it a shot. I disliked every single day of investment banking, and I wanted to do something I was passionate about. So my wife encouraged me to go back to school and become a teacher. I’m happy I did it.
RT: What was it like going back to school?
Hunt: It was great going back to graduate school because it’d been so long since college. After college, I realized I didn’t take advantage of every opportunity that I should have. I’d never been so excited to learn. It also didn’t hurt that I was paying for it out of my own pocket.
RT: What is your main objective for this school year?
Hunt: The administrative team wants every student to feel like they attend the best school in Durham. It’s going to look different for every student and teacher, but we want them to feel like there’s no rather place they’d rather be. If at the end of the year, every student felt that way, it would be a huge success.
RT: Why is being Uknighted important to you?
Hunt: I’m not sure if it has anything to do with having an athletic background, but Jackie Robinson said one of my favorite quotes of all time. “A life is not important except for its impact on other lives.” Individual successes are great, but it’s a lot more special to have a success collectively, as a school. We can’t do that unless we’re working together.
RT: What’s one random thing about you that would be entertaining to students?
Hunt: I have to be careful… I’m deathly afraid of heights. [The H hall] ramp is pushing it.
RT: So, at the fair, you don’t go on the rides?
Hunt: I’ve never been on a ferris wheel or a roller coaster. The only people that could ever get me on a ride are my two kids, and I would hate every minute of it. There’s actually a really embarrassing picture of me. I went to Chicago with [guidance counselor Thomas] McKoy, [math teacher William] Cole, and [assistant principal Alicia] Stevenson last year for a conference. We went to the Sears Tower, and the floor is made out of glass; it’s sick. It’s terrible. There’s a picture of them standing against the wall, and they asked me to stand on the glass so I’m standing six feet away from them with my [hand stretched out to them]. I don’t do heights.
RT: What has been the best part about being principal so far?
Hunt: I love it all. Certainly there are challenges, but no day is dull. I have a to-do list every day that has about 20 things on it, and I never get through it all. By the end of the day, there’s about 50 things [I want to accomplish], but it’s exciting. Finding ways to interact with teachers and students has been the most challenging thing. Finding time has become increasingly more difficult.
RT: What was it like to transition from assistant principal to head principal?
Hunt: Seeing [Kathy] Bonner go was sad, but in terms of the transition itself, it wasn’t very difficult because we’ve got such a great administrative team and faculty. It felt like we were all on the same page; it would have been different had it been a new school where you don’t know anybody. Because there weren’t many new faces, we trusted each other, and we knew what our goals were for the school year. It was a fairly easy transition.
RT: A lot of new teachers said that the supportive administrative staff is what drew them to Northern.
Hunt: We’re really excited about our first-year teachers. We were struck by how brilliant and caring they were, and how much they wanted to get better every single day. Most schools don’t feel as good as we do about all the hires we were able to make over the summer.
RT: What was your motivation for creating the new policies?
Hunt: There are no policies that students and teachers don’t buy into. There are a few things that nearly every student wants. Nearly every student want to feel safe, they want the opportunity to maximize their potential as students, and they want to have fun. The policies are designed to keep people safe and maximize the learning that takes place in the classroom. We surveyed teachers last year and one [concern] that kept coming up is consistency. In order to meet the students’ and teachers’ desires we tried to come up with very simple and basic expectations. I know some people don’t like the bathroom policy; some people don’t like the tardy policy. Before you have a consequence for the tardy policy, you can be late three times to a class. You have three bathroom trips. If you choose to use your tardies for the bathroom, you can go to the bathroom [during class time] a total of 96 times [each semester] without consequence. We felt that [the policies] were fair, and we want to keep students in the classroom because that’s where they learn.
RT: Is the warning for the cell phone policy for only that specific day?
Hunt: It’s a semester warning.
RT: It’s difficult because some teachers that students have had for multiple years that usually didn’t mind when kids have their phones out now have a no tolerance policy.
Hunt: Teachers and administrators have read countless articles on what schools are doing to make things fair and also have a positive impact on learning. One article article that stuck out to me was by a researcher at Harvard who found that when students say “I can multitask. I can listen to music and do my homework,” that is not true. Yes, it makes doing work enjoyable. Yes, it prevents students from talking, but that expectation is too low. Our students can meet high expectations. If the research says [listening to music] has a negative impact on learning, we can’t have it. We’re not saying we’re always right, we’re not. We’ve made changes based on student input, and we’d be happy to keep having conversations [with students].
RT: Was there a reason why you chose Durham Public Schools to start your education career?
Hunt: My wife and I were living in Boston. She was a lawyer, and I was in finance. We have family down here, and we were both changing jobs. We couldn’t afford the cost of living in Boston anymore, so we wanted to find a place with a [lower] cost of living. We didn’t have kids at the time so we were pretty mobile. I wanted to go somewhere I felt like I was needed. Durham gets a bad, unfair rep. We have some of the most brilliant students in the entire state at Northern. You don’t read about that in the papers. I take that personally, and that’s something I want to change. We want the community to see that.
RT: Do you see the bathrooms getting renovated any time soon?
Hunt: I wish the entire school could be renovated. Things are funded in different ways; the tennis courts, the basketball court, there’s a parking lot across the street being redone. DPS was supposed to open another high school, but they decided not to, it was based on population growth. The bathrooms are an issue. Students are beginning to feel like they’re safe here, with the exception of the bathrooms. So that is on the radar because that’s what students want.
RT: Sometimes the way students treat the bathrooms is what is wrong, not that they are not functioning.
Hunt: That’s part of the community we’re trying to build. We don’t treat our homes that way, we wouldn’t treat Duke’s facilities that way. It’s about how we feel about our environment. If students love their school, the number of trays that are left in the cafeteria [each lunch period] goes down. The number of things written on the bathroom walls goes down. If you love something, you don’t treat it poorly. If we find a way to make students believe that they attend the best school in Durham, we’re going to treat it accordingly.
RT: What is the status on juniors being able to go to open lunch?
Hunt: It really comes down to the safety issue. The more students that are off campus, the higher the chance of something bad happening, and we want our students safe. It’s not a dead issue, but I don’t see it happening any time this year.
RT: Where do you see yourself in ten years?
Hunt: I hope I’m the principal of Northern High School in ten years. I started my teaching career here, and I love this school because of the teachers, the students, and the graduates. I don’t see myself anywhere else. I didn’t apply for this position to be principal [anywhere], I applied for this position to be principal of Northern.
“Principal Matt Hunt watches students enjoy open gym before first period with freshman Cameryn Dixon.”
Photo by Brittany Whitaker