Conversation with LRMS Principal Matthew Lokken

Lake Region Middle School Principal Matthew Lokken

Lake Region Middle School Principal Matthew Lokken

By Wayne E. Rivet

Staff Writer

If someone 20 years ago told Matt Lokken that he would someday become a middle school principal, he would have simply responded, “No way!”

Although several family members pursued careers in education, Matt’s passion was science.

“I love the outdoors,” he said. “I like the ecology, animal side of science.”

So, his career path started by attending the University of Wyoming. After earning a degree, Matt worked for different universities (Wyoming, Wake Forest, North Carolina and the University of California, San Diego as a researcher). He studied botany and wildlife biology.

In time, Matt came to the realization that to have a sustainable career in research, he would need to become a professor at a university or land a job with a governmental agency.

“Work was often seasonal, and I was at a point that I wanted more stability in my life,” he said. “I realized everything that I love about science — core principles — you teach.”

So, he followed in the footsteps of other family members and became a teacher. This fall, his career evolved once more when he was named principal at Lake Region Middle School.

The News recently sat down with Matt Lokken to talk about his journey from researcher to principal, as well as a look back over the past few months at LRMS.

How did you become interested in education?

ML. I grew up where “school” was the center of my family. My dad was a teacher and a coach. My mom was a school nurse. Two of my aunts and an uncle were teachers. Those people were huge parts of my life growing up, and I was very involved in school as an athlete and a student. So, school was a major component of my upbringing. It was a cornerstone of what we did as a family. I went off to college and earned a degree in wildlife biology. I worked in a scientific research capacity for about a decade. Then, I returned to school to become a teacher. I went to Montana State University to earn a master’s degree and got into a teaching program there. My first job was at the Flathead Indian Reservation in Wyoming as a science teacher for grades 7 to 12. It was a real challenging job with seven different science classes taught every day. It was a fantastic experience.

How did you land in Maine?

ML. I am a native of Iowa. My wife is from upstate New York. She works for an environmental consulting company, which has offices across the country. A position opened in Maine, so we both got jobs in Presque Isle. I was a biology teacher there. We then migrated south, and I took a job at Kennett (North Conway) as a chemistry teacher. I earned a second master’s degree in education leadership, and later worked in Dover-Foxcroft.

What moved you toward administration?

ML. I felt really good about some of the things I was doing in my classroom, and I wanted to share that vision on a broader level. Also, it seems like I’ve been taking classes forever (curriculum and instruction), which I enjoyed, and the next step was education leadership. During some course work, some professors early on gave me the tap on the shoulder and told me I needed to go for this. ‘You get it,’ they said.

I really enjoy the visioning, big picture look for education. As I took more classes, my interest grew. I took on more leadership roles as a teacher in my building, and wanted to keep progressing.

Biggest challenge from being a teacher to an administrator?

ML. I really enjoy science and sharing those conversations about science with students on a regular basis. It was tough to give up. There are a lot of difficult decisions to be made as an administration. The areas you have to manage and juggle expand greatly. Initially, that pushed me outside of my comfort zone. But, I have found the interactions I get to have with kids now are almost better than when I was a teacher. Teachers live in the bell schedule, sometimes 25 kids in a classroom. If they see a student that is misbehaving or struggling, they have little time to stop what they are doing and really give that student undivided attention and the help they need. Whereas in this capacity, those students that are struggling behaviorally or academically, I can stop what I am doing and work with that student for a half-hour or hour, really deep conversations, find out what is going on which is leading up to the struggles they are having. The opportunity to support students on a really meaningful level has been really enjoyable.

The principal’s position has evolved compared to years ago when it was a “bad” thing to be sent to the principal’s office?

ML. Kids are different. Demands on schools are different. The family is different. So many things today are different that impact the school and what it has to do. I find the most enjoyable part of the job is the ability to creatively problem-solve all of these challenges. We are trying to empower students more, take ownership of their learning, and really model positive behavior than get compliance from students. I’ll take five minutes to shoot baskets with the kids, poke my head out into the hallway and talk with kids. I want them to feel comfortable to come to me if they need help or just want to say ‘Hi.” When I do have to address behavioral issues, it’s easier. The rapport has been built. Kids want to be liked. They want to please everyone, at this age. They want to be accepted by all of their peers, their teachers, liked by everyone. They will work hard to gain that approval. It’s good to build those relationships. They are very receptive to feedback when they are not holding up their end of the bargain.

Why middle school?

ML. My background in teaching, 7-12, I knew the academics. I was an assistant principal for a pre-K to 8 school, so I had a chance to work with elementary students. I had a nice view, K-12, as to what each level held. What I found, I always thought I was a high school-type educator. I enjoyed the challenging content of AP Physics and Chemistry. But, middle school is definitely my niche. There is so much growth that happens in the span of middle school — physically and emotionally, in terms of maturity. The curriculum is advanced enough that it has rigor to make it exciting and engaging, yet it is still fun, and lends to project learning — not like the pressure in high school, which focuses on content to get ready for college. Middle school has a nice balance to develop the student as a person and still incorporate academic rigor — it’s a nice mix. The energy in a middle school building is phenomenal. High school is still enjoyable. Kids are who they are. It’s tough to impact them, less malleable. More mature. Middle school age is a unique journey.

How was the transition starting a new job here?

ML. It was surprisingly easy. One, I have an incredible assistant principal (Maggie Thornton), who is motivated and energetic and just really competent. She was already on board when I came after Labor Day, the school was up and running. She was invaluable. The district has a ton of resources and support for teachers and administrators. I found endless support. Anything I needed, people were there to help me get settled in. The staff is phenomenal. They have a ‘can do’ attitude. They have been very supportive and willing to do what we decided we need to do.

Goals starting out?

ML. My plan was to just to have as many conversations I could with as many people as I could, to get to know as many students as I could right from the start. Then, take in everything and get a pulse on everything. Through the conversations, find out the areas the teachers want support (professional development), find out the pulse of the building, where student behavior is at, take it all in. Really, lay the groundwork for building relationships.

Surprises? I was really impressed with the students. Even when you set clear expectations, students will test the waters, push the boundaries to see what they can get away with. I saw very little of that. I was really impressed with how respectful, conscientious students were. I was blown away how little testing there was going on.

What do you see areas school needs to tackle over the next four, five or six months?

ML. I’ve always come back to as a teacher and administrator, it all hinges on students taking ownership of their learning, getting that buy-in, engagement, take an active role in their learning. That is the ultimate goal. Get that in place, it really opens up the potential to meet all of the other goals, like improvement in standardized test scores, getting kids ready for the transition to high school, meeting standards proficiency-based learning. Two ways to get to that point — offer as much student choice as you can, let them explore areas interested in with learning styles that work best for them. We’re really focusing on different instruction, working with teachers to come up with strategies that utilize different instructional techniques at the same time so that students can work toward the standards at their own pace, the way they learn. As it becomes more common, my goal and hope is student accountability in learning improves, and they start taking ownership of learning, push themselves, teachers and classmates to go further.

To measure schools strictly by a score, fair or unfair?

ML. Part of me says, ‘Bring it on,’ because I actually love standardized tests. I’ve always loved standardized tests. I learn and perform well in that format. It works for me. I’ve always been a fan of the underdog, so I like the challenge that says, ‘Show us what you can do, here’s the standardized test.’ We’re going to give it our best shot, but the science side of me also knows that it is just one data point. You need a lot of data points before you can come to a statistically sound conclusion. So, there is a need to hold a school accountable. There is a need to have some commonality in how you measure what students know. Just one data point once a year is high stakes, and doesn’t show the full picture. I enjoy the challenge, but I think there needs to be more opportunities for monitoring student understanding to see if what you are doing instructionally works. I see a need for some common assessments along the way throughout the year the gives us a real idea how kids are progressing and monitor trends to see if our approach is working.

How important is it to connect with parents and the community?

ML. It’s very important. We have a (software) program called Schoology, which helps parents see exactly what their student has for work and how they are doing. I am using it (Schoology) to create professional development opportunities for our teachers. The capacity is incredible. There is always more schools can do to reach out to families. We also want to take advantage of resources in our communities, like Maine Lakes Science Center, LEA, Loon Echo, Howell Labs and Downeast Industries. Those are huge resources within our community that we need to intertwine with our curriculum and make that bridge. Those types of tech businesses and research groups can be great mentors to our students. All the pieces are there. The potential is huge.

Has LRMS been everything you hoped it would be?

ML. More than I hoped it would be. You can do your research about a school, you know the area, you can only do so much homework to figure out if the fit will be right. I am just overjoyed that it has felt as good as a niche I could have hoped. There are always people in a school that are challenging individuals and can detract from the positive culture of a building. That doesn’t exist here. The staff is incredible.

If there were barriers, how would you address it?

ML. Like with students, you try to build relationships and lay the groundwork for more challenging conversations to come. As a science person and administrator, one of my strengths is collecting data and then provide feedback to teachers on what is working, what I seeing in observations and what might help. Analyzing data comes easy to me. I am able to share a real objective feedback with teachers. When it is presented in an objective way, it opens up dialogue for addressing performance, etc.

Evaluating staff, a difficult task?

ML. Difficult yes, but as a teacher, you try to find ways to help students learn. You do the same thing with teachers, by providing appropriate professional development to help teachers grow, which you hope transitions to helping students learn. As an administrator, you get to see the big picture and how all the parts need to come together to be successful. Just as we believe it is important to support and develop students as a ‘whole person,’ it is important that teachers have the same level of support so they come to work excited, and go home feeling they’ve made a difference. Job satisfaction is important. Teaching can be a draining profession.

After a rough week, what do you do to re-energize?

ML. I am a new father, son 22 months old. That has totally changed my life and perspective. When I come home, I have to be totally on with my little boy. He gets into everything in seconds. The focus is all encompassing. It takes me away from a rough week. It’s been great. I’m a big skier. Love the outdoors, mountains, bicycling.

Greatest reward?

ML. Ever since I took this step to education and left the science field, my reach has always extended my grasp. It feels like finally after earning two masters and jumping through all of the hoops (certifications, learning the curriculums, etc.) it feels like I am doing. I’ve always been reaching, striving, pushing myself for the next level, and now it feels I can enjoy this level now. It’s funny how life evolves. Twenty years ago, if you asked me if I would be a principal at a middle school, I would say, ‘No way.’ Today, now that I am here in this building, I feel this comfort level that I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.

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