Salem’s 2024 Teacher of the Year is a former custom cabinetmaker who now spends his time building foundations for first graders at East Salem Elementary School.
“I am completely floored and honored by this recognition,” Matthew Frick said. “I work with some of the most amazing people I have ever met anywhere and for them to believe in me and have this kind of faith in me is unbelievable.”
Frick has been at East Salem for 10 years honing his craft and earning the respect of those co-workers and his admiring students.
“I am honored because I have so much respect for my peers,” he said. “I have never worked with people who have so much heart, love, and selflessness as the folks I have met while teaching at East. This is my second home.”
How Frick found his way into this East Salem home was anything but routine. The Delaware native was working for a German Baptist family’s cabinetry business in Roanoke County when he decided to make a complete career switch. He enrolled in the master’s program at Staunton’s Mary Baldwin University and successfully obtained his education degree at the age of 40. He applied to work in Salem but knew that his chances of getting hired were slim without any classroom experience.
“Honestly, I had kind of given up at that point,” he said. “But on the Friday before the first teacher workday, Salem gave me a call because their enrollment numbers had increased to the point where they needed another teacher. By then, most educators were already in place, but I was still looking.”
He was hired on a Friday and started the following Monday in the school division that was his first choice from the beginning. Frick had done several internships in the Roanoke Valley while pursuing his master’s degree through the continuing education center including a memorable stint in Bronwyn Thomas’ second grade class at South Salem Elementary.
“I learned so much from her in that one week,” he said. “That was one of my best experiences and a big reason why I knew I wanted to be in Salem.”
But he quickly discovered that working with power tools was much different than communicating in PowerSchool. Shaping a room full of 6-year-old kiddos would require different approaches, practices, and plenty of patience.
“I was lost the first couple of weeks; I mean, I was really lost.” he said. “But when I look back, I think about all the amazing people from that school who jumped in and helped me with my room and brought me materials. The entire school made sure I was ready for opening day.”
Frick is now one of the most respected teachers in the entire school. In addition to serving as a mentor and sounding board for his fellow educators, one of his greatest strengths is his culturally responsive approach to teaching in a diverse classroom. He is committed to treating all students with dignity and respect, especially those with special needs.
“Matthew has become a leader among his peers in the building,” Weston Thomas, East Salem assistant principal, said. “He continues to learn and grow so that he can better serve the children of our community and his hard work and positive spirit make him an excellent role model for students and adults.”
“For many kids, it really resonates to have a male teacher in their lives,” Frick said. “I think a big part of what I do is helping with the socialization of the students. We have all the academics, but then there is also learning how to work together, getting along, managing emotions, respecting one another, and getting through the day in a productive and happy way.”
To teach you must have plenty of passion and a great deal of compassion. For Frick and many others, the decision to teach was built around the opportunity to make a difference.
“I enjoyed the cabinetmaking and the challenge, but I spent a lot of time building very expensive things for very few people who could afford them,” he said. “I wanted to apply myself where I could contribute something that would help more than just our wealthiest citizens.”
Frick volunteers his time throughout the school year, and he regularly communicates with parents and leads East Salem’s “Watch Dog” program. This initiative invites family and community members to volunteer during the school day at East Salem. The positive partnership benefits both East Salem’s students and family members.
“Matthew Frick is the epitome of a humble, committed educator who makes every decision through the lens of what is best for his students,” Hunter Routt, East Salem Principal, said. “As a result, he is shaping compassionate, engaged learners who will accomplish great things for our entire community as they continue to grow.”
“Teaching these days is a difficult job, but right now I have a hard time imagining myself doing anything else,” he said. “I love first grade because when we get to about January those light bulbs start going off and the reading clicks and the arithmetic clicks and we pick up momentum. It’s exciting to see that leap in the academic growth.”
Frick grew up in Milford, Delaware and often escaped to the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia for backpacking trips. After earning his bachelor’s degree in biology from Delaware State in 1998, he moved to the valley and has been a resident here ever since. He enjoys everything about the outdoors including fishing, kayaking, camping, and gardening. But more than anything, he loves spending his free time with his son, his son’s family, and his extended family members at East Salem.
“I just love working with these students and building relationships with them throughout the year,” he said. “You see all these qualities in these kids, and you want to foster them and bring out all of the good you can and help those qualities shine.”
A shine that is brighter than a room full of brand-new cabinets.
Salem’s other 2024 Teachers of the Year
Liza Moles: Middle and high school subjects at AIIMS Center
Corbitt Hairston: Sixth grade social studies at Andrew Lewis Middle
Marcee McMillan: Third grade at G.W. Carver Elementary
Kristen Huffman: English at Salem High School
Lindsay Murray: Second grade at South Salem Elementary
Branden Wells: Instructional Technology Resources at West Salem Elementary
-The Salem Times-Register