Jan Hunter meets a former Stokesley School pupil now making friends - and a difference - teaching in a tough part of Washington DC

IN one month earlier this year, there were three shootings within the boundaries of teacher Matthew Barker’s school, while the children were still in class.

Matthew, aged 29, is from Stokesley, but he now teaches in Washington DC, in the United States, working not in the beautiful western part of the city, but across the Anacostia River where the suburbs are home to poverty and crime.

The shootings in May – one of which was a gangland-style drive-by retaliation to a murder – were an eye-opener, even for Matthew, who began his working life in the Army.

“I get to leave the neighbourhood at 5pm each day,” he says.

“I come home to Old Town Alexandria, a charming colonial seaport, but unfortunately my students do not have that escape. Their escape is through education, and convincing them of playing the ‘long game’ is easier said than done.”

Matthew’s journey from Stokesley School to Washington began when he joined the Royal Signals aged 16 as a satellite communications specialist. He then acted as a bodyguard in Afghanistan and became one of the Queen’s guards at her royal residences, but left the Army after six years to further his education.

He enrolled at Leeds Metropolitan University to study international tourist management. For the holidays, he enlisted at a US summer camp in Pennsylvania, for children with special needs. He had great fun as the adventure sports specialist taking the kids rock climbing, camping and mountain-biking.

On his first day in America, a few hours off the plane in New York, he met the love of his life, Erica, a New York lawyer, outside a bar in Manhattan. They hit it off right away, and when the camp finished, Erica and Matthew took a trip to Yellowstone National Park where he proposed. Erica accepted.

He moved to Canada to continue his studies and would travel 24 hours on a Greyhound bus to see her. They eventually married in 2012 are expecting their first child in October.

Matthew’s experiences in the summer camp had led him on a new career path and in 2015 he was accepted onto the Washington DC Teaching Fellows programme, an alternative teaching certification route, and he was posted to the Achievement Prep Public Charter School at the Wahler Place Middle School Campus.

“The school was so run down, you couldn’t see out of the windows,” says Matthew. “They were all boarded up. The kids had no respect for me and made fun of my northern English accent. I felt out of my depth and very miserable but the support of my wife and my co-workers pulled me through.”

The idea behind the Teaching Fellows programme is “to train exceptional teachers for the students who need them most – those in our country’s most disadvantaged communities”. The Fellows “believe that every student has the power to succeed and our teachers develop the skills to hit the ground running on day one. They believe that change starts in the classroom”.

The training has been intense, but Matthew has now won his teaching licence – and respect in the classroom.

“It all changed when we were moved into a brand new building and I could re-set the culture,” he says. “In February, I won the teacher of the month award and in the spring I started a flag rugby team with a colleague, and we did very well in the city-wide tournament.”

At first, his students struggled with a game which they had never heard of and which goes contrary to all they knew – in American Football, the quarterback moves backwards and throws the ball forwards whereas the strange teacher from England was asking them to run forwards and throw the ball backwards.

But now rugby is proving popular, and the school has offered Matthew a new role combining his work as a special needs teacher with physical education as well. He plans to launch a five-a-side soccer team and league to play other schools, and an “adaptive physical education programme” so that students who cannot compete with their peers receive support to help them participate.

But although the school has a rigorous academic routine, it had little sports equipment and no money to buy it.

So through a website, DonarChoose.org, he set up a list of essential equipment which came to $1,200. It was funded in under a week through generous donations from family, friends and complete strangers.

“I also worked in a camp doing outdoor recreation this summer,” says Matthew, “and I managed to get the camp to donate all of its athletic equipment from two of its locations, totalling about $3,000 worth of equipment.”

His hard work and determination to give these kids a better chance has definitely paid off. One parent posted this message: “I would love to thank Mr Barker for taking time out with my son, Kimari. In the city there is not a lot of extra-curricular activities and positive outreach for youth. The experience has had a huge impact on him, and I can’t thank Mr Barker enough.”