Matt Killian: Making A Difference with Guilford County Students

Matt Killian, an English teacher at Penn-Griffin School of the Arts, stands with EF chairman Carrie Little and shows off what he received for his teaching excellence. In May, he was named the recipient of the 2022-2024 Leah Louise B. Tannenbaum Award for Excellence in Reading Instruction. The award will give him $1,000 a year for two years.

HIGH POINT –– Like so many teachers in Guilford County, Matt Killian digs into his own pocket to buy what he needs for his classroom.

Now, he’s got some help.

Killian received the 2022-2024 Leah Louise B. Tannenbaum Award for Excellence in Reading Instruction, and the award will give him $1,000 a year for two years to help him continue what he does so well at Penn-Griffin School of the Arts.

He teaches English, and he uses everything from poetry and classic literature to podcasts and short films to help his students become better writers and deeper thinkers. He works to stretch them intellectually and help them understand the ever-changing world around them.

Then, Killian says, they’re better prepared for whatever they face.

“They’re exposed to a lot of stuff, and you don’t want them to get stuck in their bubble,” he says. “You want them to become well-rounded citizens who think critically about where they are in the world.”

Building Confidence, Seeing Results

With every class he teaches, Killian tells his students the same thing.

“You’re not going to enjoy everything that we do, and that’s OK,” he says. “Our goal is to find something you love.”

Killian introduces them to short films from Pixar, the creators of the “Toy Story” franchise, as well as poetry by W.B. Yeats and Amanda Gorman and short stories by Ray Bradbury and Mark Twain.

He also brings in books such as “Night,” Elie Wiesel’s 1960 memoir about growing up in a German concentration camp during World War II, and “Between the World and Me,” Ta-Nehisi Coates’ 2015 book written as a letter to his son about being Black in the United States.

Matt Killian celebrates the June graduation with two of his students, Julia Key and Zion Raczenski, both of whom founded the PGSA book club Killian sponsored last year. Both Julia and Zion will attend UNCG in the fall.

His students do become better readers and more prepared for their End-of-Course Tests. But Killian also sees them become more confident in who they are. They begin to understand the relevance of what they study and gain a deeper appreciation of what they read.

He has seen that happen firsthand. Take the reaction one of his students.

He read “The Great Gatsby,” the classic 1925 novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald about the Jazz Age in New York City, as part of Killian’s class, and he enjoyed it so much he bought his own copy. He then began re-reading it, underlining his favorite passages in the book.

Killian loves seeing that happen.

“That’s one of the things that keeps me going,” he says. “English 2 is our biggest tested subject, and some kids come in barely confident in reading. But then, you see them grow. They gain more confidence, and they tell me, “I’m going to do really well on that test.’

“Or they come up and tell me they really enjoy reading a specific piece they just read. That’s a really good feeling.”

For the Love of Books

It’s easy to see why teaching literature fits Killian. Just look at his childhood.

He grew up in Buffalo, New York, and he grew to love reading early. When he and his two younger sisters made good grades, their mom took them to a local bookstore. They picked out two or three books, and she bought them for her three children as a reward.

Killian read everything from the Harry Potter series and Marvel volumes of Spider-Man. He also grew to love the cozy environment of bookstores, being surrounded by volumes of books with eye-catching covers.

Books soon filled the shelves of his bedroom. It joined his Buffalo Bills’ football helmet signed by its former quarterback Jim Kelly and more than a dozen baseballs he collected when he and his dad traveled to watch games at major-league ballparks across the East Coast.

One of Matt Killian’s favorite keepsakes are his Buffalo Bills helmet signed by former quarterback Jim Kelly, and the baseballs he collected when he and his dad journeyed to different major-league stadiums to catch games.

Killian’s parents, Peter Killian and Elizabeth Wynne, emphasized the importance of education. They both work in higher education. But what really grabbed Killian’s attention about becoming a teacher was a class he took at University of Buffalo.

His undergrad course looked into the inequities of education based on zip code and race. Killian became captivated by the subject matter, and it made him think about the values his parents instilled in him as well as the importance of public service.

He knew he wanted to act.

In 2015, after graduating with degrees in history and sociology, Killian joined Teach For America. Members then stay with the nonprofit for two years and teach in schools situated in one of 52 low-income communities nationwide.

That’s what brought Killian to Guilford County seven years ago. He first taught English at Andrews High and later at Northeast Guilford High. Since 2020, he has taught six English classes, including a course he calls “Media Performance” at Penn-Griffin.
“I didn’t think I’d stay in the classroom for seven years,” Killian says.

But he has.

‘It’s A Cool Thing’

Killian will turn 30 next February. He lives in Greensboro’s Green Valley neighborhood, and he’s married to a Teach For America alum. His wife, Whitney, is the assistant principal at Mendenhall Middle.

Matt Killian met his wife, Whitney, will they were both working for Teach For America in Greensboro. Whitney is the assistant principal at Mendenhall Middle School.

So, Guilford County has grown on him. So has teaching.

He’s teamed up with the literacy specialists at Guilford County Schools to help write the curriculum overview for the new textbooks the school system received for high school freshman, sophomores, juniors, and seniors countywide.

And now, he’s gotten an award for what he does –– and how he does it.

“It’s a cool thing to be recognized,” he says. “It gives me a chance to talk to people about public education, especially in North Carolina where it’s really underfunded.”

If it’s underfunded, why stay?

“It’s a job I really enjoy,” he says. “I’m not sitting in a cubicle somewhere. I can see the difference I make on a daily basis. I’m doing something beneficial, and that’s really important to me in a job. I enjoy waking up to do it each day.”