A Tribute to a Giant: Mary Anne O’Leary

My world and the educational world as a whole got some bad news this week with the passing of Mary Anne O’Leary. I sit here tonight, the night before attending her funeral, and needed to stop and consider the context of this amazing woman.

Just some background for people who may not have known Mary Anne. She was the founding principal of Mary Ward CSS and was the driving force behind it adopting the model of Self-Directed Learning that it still has today. She made many other contributions to education through her work as a superintendent and then on the faculty of the Education wing of UOIT. While she did lots of amazing things, (including raising two great kids), her impact on me was with her connection to Mary Ward.

I have mentioned before what a profound impact teaching in that school had on me and on how I look at education as a whole. I often wonder what I would be like today if I had not made the decision to teach at Ward over 15 years ago. I wonder about it but I know for sure that I would not see things the way I do now. I also know for a fact that I would not be nearly the educator that I am if it was not for that experience. For this reason I owe a huge debt to Mary Anne. I owe her because she was able to bring a style of learning to a board and a city that had NEVER seen anything like it. She was able to convince people of an idea that has profoundly changed the way I see the world. How do you thank someone for that? (I guess you write a blog!)

While I have always appreciated what Mary Anne was able to accomplish I think that this past year as principal has heightened my appreciation for it even more. She was a true agent for change and she did the work to get people to try something totally new. It was not always the most graceful thing in the world but it has been a great success and as I feel my way through my first year of leadership, I marvel at what she was able to do. I marvel at her ability to connect with people on a level that they could trust her enough to literally challenge everything they had known about education. The staff in the early years of Mary Ward had to vote on the idea of becoming a Self Directed School, and I know that many of them voted FOR Mary Anne and not necessarily the pedagogy. That is extraordinary to me! She was able to lead, not through proclamations and directives, but through relationship and trust. What an incredible role model.

I really have not too much more to say than that. I wonder how I will react at the funeral tomorrow? There will be emotions for sure but I know that mine are the result of not what we have lost by her passing, but by what we have gained from her living. I suppose that is what leadership is really all about.

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