Kearney's Katie Mathews named 2016 National Distinguished Principal from Nebraska

Kearney's Katie Mathews named 2016 National Distinguished Principal from Nebraska

By Tyler Dahlgren

NCSA Communications Specialist

The daughter of educators, Katie Mathews grew up playing school with her best friends, helping her mom in the classroom and attending high school activities with her father.

When the time came to choose a profession, Mathews did her due diligence.

“Although I explored other career options, I knew when I began my coursework in elementary education at Hastings College that it was my calling,” Mathews said. “It has been a wonderful career and I wouldn’t change anything about it.”

Thirty-three years in education later, on a podium at the Kearney Convention Center in a ballroom filled with her principal peers throughout the state, Mathews named the 2016 National Distinguished Principal from Nebraska.

In her acceptance speech, and in interviews after, Mathews, in her 20th year as principal at Park Elementary in Kearney, continually thanked those around her, the ones she feels made the honor possible.

“I feel it is a recognition of our entire Park Elementary and Kearney Public Schools team, and both teams deserve recognition for their contribution in educating our young children,” Mathews said. “KPS, and Nebraska, are led by some of the most powerful educational leaders, and to be recognized among them is a tremendous honor.”

Mathews road in education began 33 years ago when she took part in a student teaching program called Cooperative Urban Teacher in Kansas City, KS. The program was designed to prepare teachers for culturally diverse settings, and Mathews says she fell in love with Kansas City while teaching kindergarten and second-graders.

During that first year in Kansas City, the school’s principal, Art Newton, told Mathews he felt she would thrive in a principal position. He made a call to his advisor at Kansas University, and the next day Mathews was registered for classes.

She was on her way to an administrative career, but her love for the classroom never dwindled.

“I consider myself a teacher, that is where my heart is, in the classroom teaching and learning,” Mathews said. “It is my passion and it is some fierce work. I hold teachers in the absolute highest esteem anyone could possibly imagine, and I fervently believe Kearney, and all of Nebraska, has the most gifted educators anywhere in the world.”

Her journey continued back in her home state, where an opportunity presented itself in a “pretty special little town.” Kearney, Mathews feels, provides top-notch education to students through a collaborative effort from the school board, mayor and city council, county planning commission, Chamber of Commerce, the two colleges in town, and the medical community.

“All entities work hard and together to provide a solid educational experience for each child,” Mathews said, adding that the educational systems play a large role in making Kearney a special town. “We have a strong pre-kindergarten through 12th-grade program that focuses on the academic, socio-emotional, creative, innovative, critical thinking and problem-solving aspects of the whole child.”

Mathews also feels the Distinguished Principal award mirrors the collective leadership in KPS, from the classified staff to the certified staff.

“They are all committed and dedicated to our young people, and I am proud to be a member of the community and this district,” she said.

Mathews calls her parents, and her husband Mike’s parents, her heroes and role models.

“I have always sought to be like them as people, parents, service providers and members of the community,” Mathews said. “Mike has been my rock for 32 married years. He keeps me grounded and has supported everything I have ever aspired to do.”

As a principal, Mathews missed out on some “mom moments”, but her family has always been supportive and encouraging, she said.

“Having grown children is pretty special, but those young adults have had to sacrifice having their mom transport them to and from school, be there for their first days of school, and other important milestones,” Mathews says of her children. “They have always seemed to understand that’s what it means to have a mother who so intensely loves her mission field.”

What motivates Mathews to go above and beyond for her students? She can’t put a finger on just one thing she loves about Park Elementary.

“I just love coming to school each day,” she said. “The kids and teachers buoy me. They are funny. They are energetic. They make me laugh and they make me cry. The kids and educators are just good people.”

It’s hard for Mathews to express the way she feels about her staff without getting tear-eyed, she said, calling each one “fiercely unique with his or her own set of gifts.”

“They are my second family and would do anything for any kid or one another,” Mathews said. “I simply love each one.”

At the State Principals Conference in early December, Mathews relished the opportunity to spend time and grow professionally with Nebraska’s principals, a highly dedicated group of strong-willed leaders. Mathews calls passion a requirement for the job. It’s a key ingredient in what makes Nebraska’s principals some of the best in the country.

“If someone doesn’t have that passion or faith, I don’t know how they could actually do what we do,” Mathews said, acknowledging that grief and tragedy is sometimes unavoidable in a school community. “Our little ones are pretty resilient, and they have principals and teachers who care for them so much.”


Katie Mathews, Principal at Park Elementary in Kearney and the 2016 National Distinguished Principal from Nebraska, on what makes our public schools special:

“There are many special things about Nebraska schools, but mainly it is the people who work within them.  They are dedicated to providing the best possible education to every single child.  The focus for Nebraska educators has always been on what is best for the whole child, not just academic performance (although that is highly valued).  Nebraska educators understand how important it is to provide students with a rich fine arts education, skills that some call "soft" but are absolutely critical to each person's success in life like social skills, emotional well-being, ability to work well with others, to work hard and persevere, problem-solve and take risks.  We value school activities that keep children engaged in school like debate, drama, band, sports and clubs.  And Nebraska schools are all about differentiating curriculum and classes to recognize that each student has their own area of "giftedness" and "challenges".  Since educators cannot serve all the needs of children in a vacuum, we rely heavily on parents, local businesses, and community services to assist in meeting each child as needed.  We enjoy tremendous community support and engagement in our schools. Every child is valued in Nebraska schools.