Mary MacDonald speaks at a ceremony to award the Kapteyn Prize for excellence in teaching in 2018.
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — Mary MacDonald this Tuesday leaves the principal's office at Mount Greylock Regional School.
But she hopes to not go very far.
MacDonald, who moved into the corner office in 2013, announced this winter that she will wrap up her seven-year stint as the school's top administrator with the hope of returning in the fall as one of its teachers..
Although hiring plans at the middle/high school are unknown at the moment because of the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic, MacDonald remains focused on her plan to get back to the classroom.
"Mount Greylock has a history of principals going back to the classroom," MacDonald said recently. "Ellen Kaiser, Dr. Bill Clark — they called him ‘Mr. Mountie,' he was a history teacher, coach and principal who went back to the classroom — Beth Singer was principal and became a guidance counselor. Beverly Maselli was the director of special education and came back as a guidance counselor.
"[Williams College President Emeritus] Frank Oakley went back to the classroom. I've always been so impressed by Frank's scholarship. I think there's an opportunity to be scholarly [as a teacher], and you don't always have the time, being principal, which is more of a political position."
And there has been a fair amount of politics in the district the last seven years.
During MacDonald's tenure, she has seen: a push by elected officials
in Lanesborough to remove the town's elementary school from a shared services arrangement with Mount Greylock and Williamstowns Elementary; the development and completion of a $64 million addition/renovation project at Mount Greylock; the abrupt departure
of a Tri-District superintendent after a little more than a year on the job and following a letter of non-confidence from the three principals in the Tri-District; the expansion of the region to include the two feeder elementary schools; and, most recently, an ongoing discussion
of how to address deficiencies in the middle/high school playing fields.
This spring, long after her decision to make this her final year as principal, MacDonald, like principals throughout the commonwealth, faced the herculean task of guiding the school through the advent of "remote learning" brought on by a global pandemic.
Earlier this month, she took some time to sit down with iBerkshires.com and talk about her time at the helm and why now is the right time to begin a new chapter of her career.
Question: I know you've spoken about your reasons for leaving the principal position in the past, but why is now the right time for that move?
Mary MacDonald: I've loved being principal, and the piece I've loved most is when I get to interact with students — whether it's developing programs with them like Greylock Plays or interacting with them in committee meetings like going to Student Council or working with the student reps on School Council. I especially enjoy it when students come to me with ideas and projects … that's the best part of my day.
I realized that being in the principal role, while you're always thinking about students and everything you do should be intentional with how it supports students, it doesn't mean you get to spend time with them. As a teacher, you do.
I"m also fascinated with how education has changed in the last eight years. … I made this decision before remote learning, but the integration of technology, the ways you can meet needs more broadly. I'm intrigued not only by changes in content but pedagogical approaches to it.
More recently, I'm looking at what's happening in our world at present and wondering how, as a teacher, I might help students ask questions and find answers for taking responsibility for changing the world. That's the role of teachers, to support conversations and create environments where students can actively think and do. I see that as something I can do in the classroom more intimately than I can as a principal.
Q: How has the experience of being a principal changed you as a teacher?
MM: One thing is the process of observing classes and watching teachers. We have some very strong teachers at Mount Greylock. And I've been able to watch how they organize their curricula, how they instruct, how they integrate content with other disciplines or current events. … Whenever I was watching teachers, I said to myself, 'I wonder how I would do that?' Obviously, that happened more when I was in an English class or a social studies class. But I feel I've learned a lot about good teaching from watching my colleagues at Mount Greylock.
When I watched what they were doing, I was like, ‘Wow, this is great.' Sometimes when I watched I would say, ‘I'd do this differently.' That made me eager, too. I wondered how I would restructure the rigor for students differently, how would I individually support students' learning.
Q: Has exposure to other disciplines helped you as a teacher of the humanities?
MM: [Science teacher] Shawn Burdick would roll his eyes if I said I was going to teach AP physics. But it has helped to look at how information is communicated, how technology is used or not.
I used to actively use [education platform] Moodle when I taught at Lenox, their version of Canvas, which we use at Mount Greylock. I've been thinking about how communication happens both with students and families. I think there's a presumption that your mode of communication is picked up by students and families. In my role, I could see where the shortcomings were, and that will inform me in my teaching as well.
Obviously, my timing in returning to the classroom is not impeccable.
With the financial picture at Mount Greylock, how we're going to address any shortcomings in the budget hasn't been decided. I certainly have a very internal view of that.
Q: Have you given any thoughts to other options?
MM: You mean would I look for other administration jobs? I think if teaching positions aren't filled, administration positions won't be available.
I was anticipating that I would have a job. … I am thinking about what's next. I'm also conscious that I'm an experienced teacher who almost has a PhD, so I'm expensive. And principals think about that. When someone retires, you don't want to necessarily hire someone expensive.
I'm definitely still interested, though. I want to end my career in the classroom. I'm not retiring at all. I'm too young to retire despite the white hair.
Q: You have been part of arguably the two greatest transitions at Mount Greylock since the district was formed: the move to fully regionalize with Lanesborough Elementary and Williamstown Elementary and the building project. Speaking of the latter first, I know you were heavily involved in planning a building that would serve the school's academic mission. Has it worked out to do so as you'd hoped?
MM: Some of the spaces in the new building have fostered a level of communication and interaction that we didn't necessarily have in the old building. The foyer itself, I think about how it's been used with Greylock Plays, for example. The library being central and filled with light and accessible has literally become the heart of the building.
With the organization of the classroom wings … one of the things I worry about is there's not as much interaction among colleagues. It's not much different from the way the old building was organized, but because there are three floors, the middle school [on the third floor] tends to be clustered. It's a good thing because it can foster teamwork and collegial academic ideas [within the middle school], but I think sometimes the teachers on the third floor don't necessarily see teachers on the first floor.
I don't think we've taken advantage of the outside enough yet. I was looking forward to this spring [before schools were forced to close in mid-March]. Teachers were seeing the beautiful outdoor classroom and the standup tables by the cafeteria, even the retaining wall out front and looking forward to purposefully using those outdoor spaces.
The gym is amazing, and the auditorium, thank God, we have an auditorium now. We just started having performances there, but I'm imagining using it for other uses. We have to bring in more speakers. … Our current meeting room is smaller [than the meeting room in the old school], and while I thought we might keep the auditorium for more special events, I can imagine a teacher bringing in a speaker and wanting it to happen there. We can have the same kind of intimacy we used to only have in the old meeting room.
The other thing is I can't wait until we can have concerts and art shows happening at the same time, to have full arts immersion. I'm stealing that from [Manchester, Vt.'s,] Burr and Burton. It just hasn't happened here yet.
Also, the building is beautiful, and the students recognize that. They take care of it. Yes, we've had issues with some of the toilets, but in regard to graffiti and picking up after themselves, they are taking care of the building. I think students respect that there's a beautiful building for learning that's been given to them.
Q: How has regionalization with the two elementary schools changed Mount Greylock?
MM: Eight years ago
[prior to being named principal], my main role was developing relationships with individual schools and cultivating relationships between schools. We had an arts summit back then to get all the art teachers on the same page, or at least learning from each other was doing. There hadn't been that communication between the middle/high school and the feeder schools. That opportunity and chance to get to know the principals well and get to know some of the teachers was a great stepping point for me when I was a principal. I was able to continue those relationships, certainly with the principals. The three of us now work very closely together as well as bringing in [Mount Greylock Assistant Principal and Principal-to-be Jake Schutz and Williamstown Elementary School Assistant Principal Elea Kaatz].
I would like to see more conversations around history and science. I think we've done a good job with English and math.
Q: There long has been a perception of a cultural divide at the middle/high school between kids who come from Lanesborough Elementary and kids who come from Williamstown Elementary. Have you seen it? If so, has it gotten less pronounced over the last seven or eight years?
MM: I taught here almost 20 years ago for three years. I've also had step-children go here. I've had a chance to look at that from a lot of different perspectives.
I think that students bring individual interests to school no matter what their zip code is. I think a lot of energy at Mount Greylock is designed to help students take responsibility for creating a new community. When I'm sitting in a performance or in a classroom or at a game, I probably know where the kids are from in the same way that I know they have a brother or a sister in the school … but I don't think about that as framing them.
It's a great question to ask seniors: Are they conscious of that? When seventh- and eighth-graders come, even ninth- and 10th-graders, to cultivate friends with people in other towns requires your parents to drive. Those relationships are cultivated through co-curricular programs, and I'm very proud of the co-curricular programming at Mount Greylock. That helps students stop thinking, ‘I'm from Williamstown,' or 'I'm from New Ashford,' or 'I'm from Lanesborough,' or 'I'm from Hancock.' And when they get older and can drive, they forget all about that. That's what I heard from my own step-children, that's what I heard when I was teaching here.
I was teaching seventh-graders and seniors. Seventh-graders are more cognizant of it. By the time they were seniors, they were the Mount Greylock class of 2005.
Part of that is work in the classroom. Part of it is work outside the classroom. Every student has the opportunity to excel here and have access to all kinds of opportunities. Some of the language you used to hear 15 or 20 years ago that students from Lanesborough don't have the same opportunities, I don't think that's true. I'd challenge that if someone said that. Lanesborough is a strong elementary school and helps open doors for opportunities at Mount Greylock.
Q: Are there any regrets or things you might have done differently or things that you maybe hoped to accomplish as principal but couldn't in the time you've had?
MM: I definitely wish I was in the classroom more. That's the role of the principal, to be in the classroom, but I wish I'd been in there much more. The building [project] took many years, not just the design but the construction. And regionalization, those meetings pulled me out.
Jake [Schutz] was gone for a year and a half [serving in the National Guard], and we did have an interim for part of that, but there was half a year when I was doing both jobs. I wish I could have been in the classroom more during that time.
I think we still have more work to do with the arts with regard to showcasing what we have. I think we have much more than people know. It takes time to market what you do and make sure you're communicating clearly. Despite the Instagram accounts and Twitter accounts and weekly emails, we need to figure out how we can communicate clearly.
I think we have a budding internship, work-based learning program. We had had it for a long time, and it stopped being as comprehensively enrolled as it used to be. We are starting to see more kids looking for internships and work-based learning opportunities. It's good for the students, good for them to apply more of what they're learning.
Next year, we're adding a personal finance quarter for ninth-graders. It will be part of the wellness curriculum, so they'll have a semester of physical education, a quarter of health and a quarter of personal finance — it's a more comprehensive approach to wellness. We're really stepping back and saying, we have the academics down, what are the life skills students need to have?
Q: I asked about the two big changes to the school that are apparent from the outside looking in — the building and the regionalization. What has been the biggest change that we don't necessarily see?
MM: I hope a sense of student empowerment. If a student has an idea, they can make it happen. I remember when we had the walkout looking at gun violence in schools. The students planned that. They came in and talked to administration, and administration looked at safe ways that could happen, but students did the planning. I keep going back to Greylock Plays, but that's also a student-driven program.
I wonder if people realize how vibrant our relationship is with Williams with regard to the Center for Learning in Action. I just read a letter from [Williams] students. They were affected by the building and the attitudes they encountered here. That's a rich opportunity we have — students who come in and work with our students after school.
I'm very excited by the relationship we have with Williams, including the grant we have every year that helps with our professional development and technology. While remote learning plans need more review and tweaking going forward, we were in a position when that started where every kid had a laptop, and we had funding for hotspots. Not every school can say that.
It helps that I feel comfortable interacting with people at Williams. That goes back to relationship building. They want students to have active learning outside the walls of Williams, and we appreciate that support.
And I hope our Mount Greylock students feel more empowered. I hope they feel that if they have an idea, they can make it happen. Sometimes I have an idea or Jake [Schutz] has an idea and the students feel they can take that and develop it into something that's supported by the administration and faculty and staff as well.