It took eight years for Mathew Portell to get an undergraduate degree. Not sure what to major in, the self-described, “free-spirited vagabond” matriculated at more than a handful of colleges and universities throughout the Midwest while working low-paying jobs to support himself.
Yet this month, Portell was hired as director of communities for PACEsConnection, where he will help our Growing Resilient Communities and Cooperative of Communities programs find the resources our network provides to grow resilience among their communities across the U.S.
After trying everything from anthropology to forestry, he finally earned a B.S. in elementary education from Tennessee State University in 2006 with a specialty in teaching English to non-native speakers. In 2008, he earned a master’s in education curriculum from the same university. And then, in 2015, an administration license. However, once he learned about PACEs science in 2015, his rise to stardom as a trauma-informed educator accelerated.
Early Roots and Procrastination
“What took you so long to start teaching?” I ask.
Behind him on the wall of his room was a painting of multicolored rays of sunshine with the signatures of his former students emblazoned on each ray.
“I didn’t start teaching until I was 29,” he says. “I was doing everything I could not to be in education. People told me I was very gifted with kids, but I was a free-spirited vagabond for a few years.
“When I met my wife [a civil engineer], I began to buckle down and focus. She convinced me that I could accomplish whatever I wanted.”
Looking back, Portell attributes his low self-esteem and procrastination to having grown up near St. Louis, Missouri, in an evangelical culture—his father was an ordained missionary, although he worked in healthcare, and his mother worked with children in special education. The evangelical school he attended also played a role. Teachers and administrators focused on shaming children who misbehaved, making them feel guilty and instilling fear of punishment for deviating from accepted behaviors. However, Portell says that he did have some caring and supportive adults both in school and in his community.
After getting his degree and teaching for several years, Portell was appointed principal of Nashville’s Fall-Hamilton Elementary in 2015, he adopted the standard school practices of suspensions and using physical restraint for children who “misbehaved”.
Discovering PACEs Science
That same year, however, he discovered the CDC-Kaiser Permanente Adverse Childhood Experiences Study during a lecture at Vanderbilt University given by two speakers, a researcher and an assistant principal, who talked about the impact of ACEs in school.
When he heard them speak, he says, “I broke down emotionally. I had a major response. It made sense.”
Later, he sat in a small session with the two presenters. “I actually wept,” he recalls. “I hadn’t been living my educational intent, to support kids to help them reach their full potential during the eight years of teaching before becoming a principal. I was hurting kids based on the punitive approach I was taking.”
After learning about ACEs science and watching the late Jamie Redford’s documentary, Paper Tigers, Portell decided to change his discipline practices. He said he didn’t ask for permission. Since his school was one of 172 in the district, he could make these changes while not being noticed.
First, he started educating his staff, parents, and teachers with the “why,” the science behind childhood adversity, to shift the paradigm from blame, shame and punishment to understanding, nurturing and healing. In 2019, he also completed a level 1 certification in trauma and resilience at Florida State University.
Then his team began to shift practices, setting up peace corners, mentors, and encouraging children to practice self-regulation, form clubs, and assume leadership positions. Suspensions were halted and office referrals were limited. The changes were made incrementally, over three to four years and required convening a social and emotional health team that included a full-time social worker, school counselor, and community mental health provider, as well as training school staff and administration to move from a punitive to a proactive and restorative approach.
The results were stunning: Suspensions stopped. Office referrals declined 96 percent the first four years. Teacher satisfaction stayed high. And most importantly, 98 percent of the students felt there was at least one adult in the school who loved them. Portell followed up with the other 2 percent to make sure they received the attention and love they needed.
The next phase moved to policy changes. Administrative and teacher handbooks were changed. Peace corners and self-regulation practices were embedded into teacher training in a school that was 65 percent Black, 15 percent Hispanic, 1 percent Asian, and the remainder White. More than 80 percent of the students came from low-income families, and many of the children were immigrants.
Nashville, one of the largest growing cities in the U.S., is also a major relocation destination for immigrants, with a large Kurdish and Somali population. While teaching a self-contained classroom of fourth-grade English learners before he became a principal, Portell said most of his kids were from Mexico and Central America.
Going Viral with ACEs-Based Education
In 2017, Edutopia, a website co-founded by filmmaker George Lucas to encourage innovation in education, did a case study of Portell’s school and made an 8-minute documentary. With seven million views, the video went viral and Portell was invited to speak throughout the world.
The once itinerant student took the social media reins even further and in 2018 founded the Trauma Informed Educators Network Group on Facebook, which has connected more than 29,000 educators in 100 countries around the world. In 2019, he also launched the Trauma Informed Educators Network Podcast, which features trauma experts, including Dr. Bruce Perry.
It's no wonder then, that in 2021, Portell was named the 2020-2021 Elementary School Principal of the Year in Metro Nashville Public Schools. Fall-Hamilton Elementary became a district and state pilot school for use of trauma-informed practices, which has moved statewide. Portell and his staff also created a system for collecting data to monitor progress and built leadership opportunities for teachers and students based on their respective strengths.
As Portell adjusts to his new role as director of communities at PACEs Connection, expect him to be a powerful force in helping PACEsConnection.com members build resilient communities across the U.S. and the world.