Morgan O’Leary came a long way from her home in Buffalo, New York to start her teaching career in Forsyth County.
She first moved from home when she began school at Wake Forest University in North Carolina where she later earned her degree in Elementary Education and Teaching, and instead of heading back home, she moved down to Atlanta.
“You know, it’s funny as far as moving to Atlanta goes, it was kind of on a whim,” O’Leary said. “I just knew I wanted to be in the south and stay south after going to school in North Carolina. But then when I was looking for jobs and all that, I just kind of stumbled upon Forsyth County.”
School: Big Creek Elementary
Years teaching: 6
Subject: First grade
She got her foot in the door and landed her first interview for a job at Big Creek Elementary School. As she walked through the halls of Forsyth County’s oldest school, she had a thought — “This is it.”
“I just got that gut feeling of this is where I’m meant to be,” O’Leary said.
She began teaching at Big Creek that same year in 2015, and she has been teaching first grade at the school ever since.
After six years of hard work, the community voted O’Leary as the Forsyth County News’ Teacher of the Month for January. She spoke with the FCN about what drew her to Big Creek, why she loves teaching first graders and how she likes to spend her time outside of the classroom.
What do you love about working at Big Creek?
“There is so much to love about working here, and I think the minute I walked in the door for my interview, I was like, ‘This is the place that I’m meant to be.’ You can tell there is just something special about Big Creek. [It’s] very family-oriented; the staff is very much like a family. It’s a very special place that I feel like you just know the minute that you walk in that it’s different. So I love it. I mean, there are challenging days for sure as there are in any school and in any profession, but I love having to work every day. And I think that’s the most important thing. Not everybody has that.”
What drew you to the school when you came for your interview?
“There is just such a community here. And obviously, Big Creek is the oldest school in Forsyth County and it’s been around for over 80 years, and I think that you can really just feel that here. A lot of established families, established staff, lots of traditions. And I think everybody really just takes that community very seriously, and that’s what drew me in is just that community feel.”
What do you love about teaching first grade?
“They’re just little blank slates, and they hang on your every word. I think the joy of learning is there with first graders. They come to school every day and want to be here and are excited to be here. They just love to learn, and that is why I went into teaching to begin with is to teach kids to love learning and to keep fostering that. For me, to be able to have kids every day that are here just ready to learn, excited about learning, I think is awesome.
“One of the things for me, too, is they are so little, but we also have really good conversations. That is one of my biggest goals is that they know their voices are important even though they’re six and seven and that they know they can do hard things and we can have hard conversations.”
How has it been teaching first grade during the pandemic?
“For them, it’s hard, and a lot of our kids are showing their emotions in different ways and different behaviors. But they’re so resilient, and I think that’s what I’ve learned. We’ve all been through a lot, but I think kids right now have been through a lot and they’re confused. And it really has been a good gateway to have some of those honest conversations and being able to talk about our feelings.
“As far as the masks go …. that was one of my biggest concerns. How am I going to get a 6-year-old to keep a mask on all day? But when I tell you, [they are] incredible. And so much kudos to families, too, because I think they’ve instilled it at home and then we instill it here, so they just know that’s the expectation.”
What do you like to do outside of teaching?
“Honestly, I love to spend time with friends. My parents live in Florida and my brother lives in Texas, so any chance I get to go the beach and visit my parents, I just love.
“I do like to read for pleasure as well. I try to talk to my kids about that like, “One day when you’re a grown-up like Ms. O’Leary, you’re going to want to read, too, and you’re not going to have time, so take this time to do it!’
“But honestly, just anytime I get with friends and family is just good for me.”
Have you been able to visit your parents during the pandemic?
“I went for both holidays, so for Thanksgiving and Christmas, and my mom came here once this summer. But it’s just been hard with COVID. Being around kids all day and all that, I just would hate to ever bring something to them. So I’ve seen them two or three times, which has been hard, but it’s just what I get for moving away.”