Building blocks

His advice to kindergartners and med students is pretty much the same

John Matias fell happily into kindergarten teaching, and, in truth, he hasn’t entirely left those days behind. His love of small chairs, bold lettering and five-year-olds with the kinetic energy of popcorn exerted an irresistible pull once he had sampled teaching during his senior year at the University of Rochester. He felt at home with the emotional development of children. “For some reason,” Matias says now, still sounding a bit mystified, “I could really relate to that.”
portrait of john matias
John Matias Leah Fasten

He was more than a dabbler in the classroom. After graduation, he taught for six years in the Boston area, making his mark as the only male kindergarten teacher in each of three different school systems. Matias says he used his gender as a “teachable moment,” with his comfort and ease in the teacher’s role, supplying proof to kids just learning about the world that men can be caregivers, too.

This ex-football player with the confident, sunny smile knew something about children that let him shed his distance and merge with them. Talking to Matias, you can tell how good a teacher he must have been. He’s a nice mix of authority and fun. To teach at this level means laying down some basic rules and then orchestrating a kind of chaos that’s fruitful for the kids. Or, as Matias puts it, “You see water flying off the water table, and that’s OK.”

The job was intensely demanding, and after six years, Matias decided to take a breather that lengthened into a hiatus and eventually landed him at Tufts in 1998 as a database administrator. Before long he was registrar at the medical school. Now, at 35, he’s assistant dean for enrollment services, charged with administrative oversight of admissions, financial aid, registration and graduate programs. He likens the apprehensive students who fill his doorway to the kids who used to clutch a parent’s leg on their first day of school. His message, as it happens, is exactly the same:
“You’re OK. Don’t worry. This will work out.”