Leading the Learning

Mary Donaldson knew she wanted to be a teacher at age 5.

And she did – she grew up, got a degree, became a teacher and loved it. But when she went to Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota for her master’s degree, her professor and mentor told her she was in the wrong program. You shouldn’t be in teaching, he said to her. You should be in administration.

Mary Donaldson and her daughter, Grace, at Grace’s high school graduation. Submitted photo.

“I think I was kind of vocal during that class about how important a leader is,” Donaldson said. “I know that the teacher is the number one influence on student achievement. I’m very passionate about teachers, I just acknowledge and honor them, but it’s the leader that creates the conditions for those teachers to do what they can or can’t do.”

Donaldson will take over as principal of Sevastopol Elementary School and Director of Special Education on July 1, replacing former principal Joe Majeski who retired this year.

“It’s impossible to replace Joe Majeski because he’s been here for so long, but I believe with Mary’s experience and interest that she’s going to bring another dimension to Sevastopol, and we’re looking forward to her start,” superintendent Linda Underwood said. “We have a great deal of confidence in her. Her variety of experience, I believe, will help us strengthen what we already have and keep us moving forward.”

Donaldson has spent most of her career in urban schools, and was recently principal at a charter school in St. Paul. There were 400 students from kindergarten to eighth grade in the school, and 98 percent of them on a free or reduced lunch program. Despite that challenge, she said they had the highest reading scores in the state.

“We had great teachers,” Donaldson said. “You cried in the shower an awful lot for these kids, but at school you made it work.”

Donaldson understands the difference a principal can make to a school. For the past 25 years she’s consulted for schools and school districts looking for help, and has seen how poor leadership can hurt. Principals have to create a positive environment so teachers can do their best and give students the best education possible.

“It’s really been magnified for me how important is the leader’s role,” Donaldson said. “If the teachers are happy, the children are happy, and that’s my job.”

To create that positive atmosphere, Donaldson knows she has to engage the whole school. She plans to spend time with teachers and students so she can learn about their professional and home lives and to make herself available if anyone needs help or has suggestions or advice.

“As a principal you’re passionate about children, but I’m even more passionate about teachers,” Donaldson said.

But not all teachers are in the classroom. Coaches, administrative staff, custodians, cooks and every other adult working at the school counts, too.

“When I say teachers I mean everybody,” Donaldson said. “I consider them teachers also. They’re with the children from the minute they get on that bus to the minute that child gets home. It’s my responsibility to make [school] a safe place for them so they can be there for those kids.”

Donaldson grew up outside of Eau Claire and is ready to come back to her roots. She was raised a Packer fan through and through. Growing up, every Sunday her family would come home from church, shut the drapes, take the phone off the hook and watch the game. Living so close to Lambeau Field is like heaven.

Football has been Donaldson’s other passion since age 5, and although she’s never wanted to play the sport she’s definitely had her hands in the game. She was Wisconsin’s first female football official.

“I lived for sports,” Donaldson said. “When I got to college, my physical education class was football officiating, and Don Page said ‘Come on, Mary, you’re going to go ref with me.’

“Don Page is a legend and he’s the one that took me under his wing, and I give him a lot of credit for doing that because women didn’t break into that. It wasn’t hard [for me] because I knew the game.”

From 1978 until 1988, Donaldson officiated for middle school, high school and college games, even for NFL scrimmage games.

Although she’s excited to be a part of Sevastopol athletics Donaldson said the school’s students are well-rounded and talented, which drew her to apply for the position. Academics, athletics, music and the arts are all well represented at Sevastopol, and the small school has a family atmosphere that’s hard to find.

“[It has] that family support system,” Donaldson said. “The teachers seem very dedicated and passionate.”

And with a good principal leading the school, hopefully those successes will continue.