St. John’s alum leads New Jersey school to national awardWritten by Patrick Timmis | | firstname.lastname@example.org
With a staff of about 300 and a student population greater than 2,800, Timothy Matheney, principal of South Brunswick High School in New Jersey, said he is almost like the CEO of a small company.
“My role is to point the school in the right direction,” he said.
He’s done a good job of it. The school, located in Monmouth Junction, won a National School of Character award this year from the Character Education Partnership based in Washington, D.C.
The National School of Character award recognizes select schools for their “outstanding character development of students,” according to the Character Education Partnership’s website. South Brunswick was one of three high schools in the nation to receive the award.
Described by South Brunswick parent Alicia Cassio as a quiet leader, Matheney, who grew up in Walbridge, has focused the school’s students on five core values of honesty, kindness, respect, responsibility and service.
Great role models
Matheney, 44, wasn’t sure he wanted a career in education when he began teaching.
But he had the profession in his blood. His father, Dean, was the assistant principal at Longfellow Elementary and his mother, Bettie, was a reading aide in the Title 1 program at Marshall Elementary.
“I’m an educator today because my parents were great role models for being curious and being avid readers … [and] lifelong learners,” he said.
Matheney attended Princeton University for his bachelor’s degree and seriously considered law school. But he discovered his love for secondary education through his involvement with a model congress. The model was designed to simulate an actual government for high school students.
Upon graduation in 1989, he decided to put off any final decision on a career and in the meantime returned to his alma mater, St. John’s Jesuit as a teacher, with the understanding that he might leave after two years. He stayed for six.
Matheney said puzzled students would often ask him why he would come back to high school and teach after attending Princeton. Because, he would answer, teaching is a fulfilling and noble profession.
“They were six really happy years in my life,” Matheney said.
Tom Harms, an English teacher at St. John’s, calls Matheney one of his best students in 34 years.
“I just remember him as such an outstanding leader and editor,” said Harms, who worked with Matheney on the school newspaper as an adviser. “He was just such a great delegator. He lifted people up.”
The national honor didn’t surprise Harms. The same qualities that impressed him while Matheney was a high school editor, he said, have served him well as the leader of a school.
“That’s what makes him so endearing as a person,” Harms said. “He is absolutely respectful, responsible, honest.”
Matheney left St. John’s in 1995 to earn his master’s degree in education from the University of Michigan. After stops at the University of Minnesota and Prior Lake High School, also in Minnesota, his career came full circle when he arrived at South Brunswick, just a few miles northeast of Princeton.
Gina Welsh, who has worked at South Brunswick for 15 years and is currently the activities coordinator, said Matheney brought with him a more directed zeal for service, honesty and integrity than had previously characterized the school.
“We were always a good school, no doubt about that,” she said. “But I think he brought that next level to our focus. Not only do we want our kids to be smart, but we want them to be good.”
A positive force
Matheney has had support, but he has led the way to success with commitment and a sense of humor.
Welsh remembered him attending a school pep rally dressed as a biker, where the cheerleading squad tossed him in the air.
Matheney, Welsh said, is intense. But, he is also devoted to “celebrating our goodness; celebrating what we do right,” she said.
“He’s not walking through the halls yelling at [students],” she said. “He’s not that kind of disciplinarian principal my generation grew up with.”
Instead, he works as a “positive” force rather than in a “darker, authoritarian overlord way,” she said. “Not that he can be walked all over. [Students] know that the rules are the rules and they will be enforced.”
The award, Matheney said, recognizes years of hard work.
“I could not have done this alone,” he said. “It’s a tribute to literally dozens of people who have helped us become that school of character.”
But that work isn’t done. He plans on holding a large-scale faculty meeting in August to discuss next steps.
“The awards are all well and good. But we need to take stock of where we are today, and where we’re going in the next couple of years.”
Matheney looks forward to being a high school principal for years to come; he’s only 44. Recently, a substitute teacher made his day by looking at him and saying, “You’re the principal? You’re so young!”
But he’s also ready to share some of the things he’s learned with others, particularly other principals. For a school to succeed in promoting character, he said, it has to be deliberate, especially because many core values are attacked in a student’s
“The good news is that if teenagers believe you have credibility, they will listen to you.”