Helena Magazine

Steering the ship: Mathew Epps aims to guide others in finding their purpose

Published 3:35 pm Tuesday, February 28, 2023

By Meg Herndon

A school bell rings at Helena Middle School, and outside his office, Dr. Mathew Epps is in his element as he high-fives and fist-bumps a rush of kids making their way to their next class.

Mathew has stepped into his role as Principal of Helena Middle School with poise. Despite only helming the ship since September, he seems to be at home in his office and in the school.

With an air of certainty about him, many might believe that Mathew has always envisioned himself as a leader, but like many, his life was not so linear or set in stone. Originally, he obtained his associate’s degree in computer science and computer information systems, inspired by his uncle who worked for Texas Instruments, Mathew toyed with the idea of becoming an electrical engineer.

“It took me two semesters at UAB to realize that wasn’t my passion,” Mathew said. “That’s not what my purpose was or what I should be doing. So, after a very challenging semester, and honestly, not making the best grades, I had to sit back and reflect on what I really wanted to do.”

Mathew found himself thinking about his younger years and the things he found true joy and fulfillment in. As a teenager, he often found himself working at his local YMCA as a camp counselor in the summer and after school.

“I just had the best time working with kids,” he said. “I developed a passion to work with kids during that, and I have always been a fanatic basketball fan. So, when I was getting ready to change my major, I said, you know, I’d really like to coach basketball.”

Mathew went on to change his major to early childhood elementary education. In those classes, Mathew learned the ins and outs of teaching and the development of children’s minds, finding within himself a passion and excitement to teach.

Quickly after graduating with his bachelor’s, Mathew began teaching fifth grade at Rutledge Middle School in Midfield. He also had the opportunity to coach both the girls and boys middle school basketball teams.

“Throughout coaching, I started to see a whole other different life passion, from a mentor aspect,” Mathew said. “Not just teaching math, but teaching them about life.”

Being able to know the children he taught outside of a classroom through coaching, Mathew felt he was able to understand and guide them from a much more holistic point of view.

While at Midfield, Mathew was also the director of the after-school program which extended through summer.

“One of my principals at the time, who was a really good friend of mine, he basically said, ‘Everything you’re doing in this after school program is what a principal or administration does,’” Mathew said. “So, I was at the school one summer, and he called me into his office and had me sit down and fill out an application and go back to get my master’s at UAB.”

After receiving his master’s in educational leadership and a specialist’s in education leadership, he had the opportunity to work at Midfield High School as an assistant principal. A year later, he was hired to be the assistant principal of Oak Mountain High School.

Mathew worked at Oak Mountain from 2016 until he was offered the job to become the principal of Helena Middle School in September 2022.

“It’s been great,” he said about his time so far in Helena. “Great people, passionate educators. They want to do what’s best for the kids to make sure they learn.”

Mentors and leaders are not created out of thin air. While they might have an innate quality that makes them predisposed to leading, they themselves had and have their own support systems who help steer them, give them advice and work through problems.

“I’m very grateful and appreciative that someone saw some capabilities they felt I had and pushed me,” Mathew said. “I had some really great principals that I’ve worked from. So, I’ve been able to watch them and take stuff from each person. I have had some really good training just by watching people.”

Some of the best he has ever received is, “In leadership, you’re not going to make everyone happy.”

“Which is kind of blunt, but true,” he said. “Everybody’s not going to agree with every single decision—and that’s fine. But at the same time, if your goals are aligned to what you are trying to get accomplish, everything’s going to work out regardless.”

Making a single decision for thousands of individuals can be hard, and in an attempt to make it a bit easier, Mathew has created a leadership team. The team consists of a representative from each core area—english, history, science and math—P.E., electives, a media specialist and all of the schools counselors. Each representative is voted on by the departments and speaks on behalf of them.

“When it comes to some of the decisions we make in the school, I like to ask them their feedback before that decision is made,” he said. “I try my best to do at least once a month meetings with them. If I try to put 50 people in a room and say, ‘Hey, what should we do about this?’ I don’t think that’s the most effective way to get the decision made. But I do think with a small group of people, I think we can come to some form of consensus to get things done.”

He implemented the leadership team when he began working at the school in September, and he said it has been exactly what he hoped it would be—honest.

“They’ve been honest, and that’s what I asked for,” he said. “I’ve tried to be as vulnerable as I can to make sure they understand that if I make a mistake I want them to tell me. They tell me what their colleagues are feeling and thinking.”

In return, the representatives also go back to their colleagues and explain why they landed on certain outcomes. In his own way, Mathew has already begun to do the inherent part of leadership, what his previous principal at Midfield did for him—light the torch within and encourage others who are called to lead.

Mathew seems confident in his role as a leader, but as many would imagine, it is not always easy. The ripple effect of making decisions can weigh heavily on him. Even the most minute determination can lead to something he might not have considered. Something that might be considered a positive could become negative in unpredictable ways.

“I do think, in so many words, leaders want to serve people,” Mathew said. “And when you serve, you are always trying to do what’s best for people, But then, every decision you make is not what’s best for everybody. So, it’s almost impossible to do the job.”

It’s easy to allow oneself to linger in a negative headspace, worrying over unchangeable things of the past. Learning from past mistakes or actions is a part of self-improvement, however, stewing in depreciation is not productive to growth. Mathew’s advice for those who wish to lead or already are: be vulnerable, but have security.

“People do it in different ways—spiritually, physically, mentally—you have to take care of yourself,” he said. “You have to be willing to be vulnerable with yourself and understand you don’t have it all. You have to be willing to grow and learn. I don’t think an insecure leader is good for anybody. So, you have to believe in what you’re doing.”

This advice is even reflected in what he tells the kids that scramble throughout the halls of the middle school.

“I always say this—if you know your purpose, nobody can knock you off your purpose. So, if you feel like you are really doing what you’re supposed to be doing, when those outside forces and challenges are coming in, you just relate back to that. Now, this is what I was called to do. So how can anybody distort your calling if you know that’s what you were called to do?”

Mathew extended his gratitude to those who helped him along the way, all the teachers, children and their parents for “trusting them with their most precious jewel.”

“I have a very strong belief that this school, the people in this school, really deep down care about kids,” he said. “We have a passion for what we do. Our mission is to strive for academic excellence by providing a supportive and positive culture, and I do feel strongly in the mission statement. I do believe that the people in this building are striving for those goals.”