Meet the new boss: Assemblies help Hawkins teachers get to know their new director

Jeff Bobo • Jan 5, 2019 at 5:00 PM

CHURCH HILL — It’s going to be a hectic January for Matt Hixson, who must sell his house in California, buy one in Hawkins County, and move his wife, five kids and a dog before taking over as director of schools on Jan. 31.

Adding to the workload is the fact that his wife is recovering from major surgery that occurred Thursday. As a result, Hixson and his 15-year-old son have been tasked this week with house hunting.

Despite his full schedule, Hixson took the time Friday to meet with Hawkins County teachers during assemblies held at Cherokee High School in the morning and at Volunteer High School in the afternoon.

The assemblies gave Hixson an opportunity to share his transition plan and to interact with teachers on a personal level, answering questions and sharing candid insights on both his personal and professional background.

Hixson, who is the current assistant director of the San Jacinto, California, school system, was selected by the Board of Education in October to be the next Hawkins County director of schools, replacing Steve Starnes, who left in May to lead Greeneville City Schools.

Hixson has lived in Southern California since 1988, and he admitted to his VHS audience that it might seem like an unusual move on his part.

Why move to Hawkins County?

“It’s an opportunity to live in an area that we agree with the lifestyle of, we agree with how you all are very authentic, we agree with how well you welcomed us even before we set foot in the county. I have received more superintendent appreciation cards, Christmas cards and well wishes from you all than I did from which I’ve resided for 17 years. That’s nothing bad about my current district. It just speaks highly of you.”

For four springs in a row, Hixson visited Knoxville recruiting teachers. That’s where he met an educator from Northeast Tennessee who “talked up” the area and suggested that he look there if he decided to relocate.

“Each of the four years I ventured a little bit further out until I came across Hawkins County and the general area around here and fell in love with it. I started talking to my wife about it, and, lo and behold, this past May there was an opening.”

One of the first things he did to learn about the community was visit the local Walmart.

“You can find out a lot about the community by going to the local Walmart. That holds true for Southern California as well. I saw gentlemen holding the door open for my wife. I saw people making eye contact. I saw people saying hi to one another waking down the aisle, moving their cart over and excusing themselves, saying sorry when they had to walk in front of you while you’re looking at something on the shelf. You all are very authentic individuals. You care about one another.”

The question he expected to hear: So what the heck does this Southern California dude think he’s doing coming over here?

“It’s about finding a location I feel like I can continue to learn, continue to lead, and grow with a group of folks who are headed in the same direction I am and my family is. It was my desire to locate to a community that has the same desires, the same goals and the same mindset, and I did find that.”

Why he became a teacher

Hixson’s mother was a teacher, but spending his summers helping set up her classroom for each upcoming school year didn’t inspire him to follow in her footsteps.

Eventually he “saw the light.”

“The light I saw in her every time a student grasped something, grasped a concept that she very tirelessly worked on with that student ... and then she came home and said, ‘So-and-so’s got it.’ I saw that light. When I started teaching, I experienced that firsthand. ... That’s the light that keeps all of us in education, and I hope you’re seeing that each and every day.”

He taught second grade, fifth grade, middle school and high school before entering administration and has been in his current school system for 17 years.

Hixson’s leadership style

“I’m a hands-on leader. I believe in relationships, number one. Without relationships, you cannot tackle critical issues. Without relationships built on trust, you can’t have healthy disagreements and communication. You can’t convey the importance of something without the relationships in place. So first and foremost, I want to set healthy relationships built on trust with all of you. In order to do that, I want to make sure that I’m visible.”

Short-term goals are to spend time at each school, walking with the administrative team, visiting classrooms, asking them about what’s working and what’s not, and if they have the resources to tackle what’s not.

He also plans on meeting with each school board member to discuss what’s going well in their district and what needs improvement.

“One of my first jobs is to make sure those resources are allocated appropriately toward those ends. Finishing this year, going into next year, that’s how we’re going to set the tone, and that’s the information I’m going to be gathering.

“Every time there’s a leadership change, there’s typically a huge anxiety behind that, wondering what that person is going to do. I’m going to observe, look, listen and ask lots of questions. That’s it. And then with the board, sit down and determine what we need to do as far as a strategic plan moving forward. And then with our leadership team, seeing what we can do to make sure we meet those ends.”

A big move for Hixson’s family

Hixson’s father was wounded in Vietnam and after the war worked with the government, which resulted in his family relocating to seven cities and four states including New Mexico, Arizona and Missouri before landing in Southern California in 1988.

Hixson and his wife, Valerie, are going on 23 years of marriage and they have five children including oldest daughter Madison, who is 17 and a cancer survivor. She was diagnosed with brain cancer at the age of 3, which resulted in three years of treatment.

His son Hunter is 15 and plays the cello. Daughter Macy is 13 and plays violin, and he has twin sons who turn 11 on Sunday.

Hixson’s wife’s surgery Thursday to replace two discs in her neck is the reason his starting date was delayed a month.

He has one dog that’s making the move, and the cat is a question mark, but the chickens are staying in California.

The Hixsons haven’t picked a community to live in yet, although he and Hunter have been looking at homes from Mooresburg to the Kingsport boundary. The children will be attending Hawkins County Schools.

“They’re ready for the move. They’re very excited about green. They’re excited about water. They’re excited about a lot of the changes that we don’t see in California. Changes in the seasons.”

The assembly begins at the 9:30 minute mark in this video.

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