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From cruise director to the classroom

Meet Your Interim Dean of Students: Cortney O’Brien

Editor’s note: Cortney O’Brien is the new interim dean of students for Cedar Trails Elementary School, serving in this capacity for the 2020-2021 school year. School News Network sat down with the educator (and fledgling musician) to get to know her better in this edition of Meet Your Administrators. 

What is your work background in teaching or other education positions? This is my fourth year in Cedar Springs; I taught first grade here before taking this position. The two years previous to that I taught at Central Montcalm Elementary School in Sheridan (Michigan). Before that I taught at Our Savior Lutheran School in Grand Rapids, in a combined 1st/2nd grade classroom. I also taught preschool for a year, and finished my master’s with an internship in Rockford. But I feel like I finally landed where I’m supposed to be; I really love the Cedar Trails building and the community. I’m very happy here. 

What is your education background? I have my BA in language and literature from Grand Valley State University. I took kind of an untraditional route into teaching; I got my BA first and took all the education classes and then kind of decided, yes, I really want to go into teaching. So then I did my student teaching. I also have a master’s degree in educational leadership, also from GVSU. 

What jobs have you held outside education? In college I was an IHOP manager during the school year. During the summers I lived in Ludington and was the cruise director on the SS Badger, the car ferry ship that goes over to Manitowoc, Wisconsin. I started as an auto attendant and worked my way up. As cruise director you’re taking care of all the customer service people and all of the passengers. It was actually a very similar role to education! The passengers were like the students and the customer service people were like the teachers, and you’re just doing anything that needs to get done to support everyone on the ship. I also got to work with my dad there; he was the captain on the Badger. Growing up he was always on freighters in the middle of the Great Lakes, and so to have the opportunity to see what he does for a living and be a part of it was really cool. 

The O’Brien family from left: Lucy, Jason, Walker and Cortney

What would you like to share about your family? My husband, Jason, and I are high school sweethearts; we have been together for 21 years and married for 13 years in October. We have two kiddos: Lucy is in fifth grade and Walker is a second-grader. We also have two dogs: one tiny, nine-pound dog named Moose and one giant, 90-pound dog named Leroy Brown. 

What are some of your hobbies or interests? Do you have any little-known talents? I love dogs — I’m a big sap for them. If we could have more dogs, I would, but my husband says no more! One of the things I’ve been teaching myself, especially during this COVID time, is to play the ukulele. And by no means am I good at it, but I did learn how to play “Happy Birthday” so that when I was teaching from home (last spring), when it was someone’s birthday I played “Happy Birthday” on my ukulele for the kids and we’d all sing for that person. I also know how to play the trumpet; I played in high school. 

What kind of kid were you in elementary school? I was super shy. But even though I was super shy, I was a leader. I was always the one organizing things. I can think of a time in first grade when everyone wanted to play something on the playground and no one could figure it out. So I just stepped up, even though that was way out of my comfort zone. I reflect on it now and think, “Oh my gosh, I can’t even believe I did that, because I felt like I was going to be sick!” But somehow I was a leader. I was also very athletic and did a lot of sports growing up, even into high school. 

What is the biggest lesson you’ve learned from students? The biggest lesson I’ve learned through all my years of teaching is that not all students come to school to learn — some are coming to be loved. And sometimes they show us that they need love in the most unloving ways. They’re not doing it to be spiteful; they’re doing it because they don’t know how to ask for what they need. They’re so little that they don’t have those skills. So I’ve learned that the kids need to guide us; they’ll tell me what they need. And a lot of those kiddos that are struggling are the ones that need to be loved before they can learn. 

Cortney O’Brien in 1st grade

If you could go back in time, which grade would you choose to return to, and why? It’s funny you ask this, because I did not like school growing up. A big reason I went into education is because I wanted to help those kids that were like me, who did not like school. So I would go back to third grade, because I had the same teacher that I had had in first grade and she really made a big difference in my life. Even when I was in college, I went back and did some observations in her classroom. And also, third grade was when things really started to click for me educationally. I can remember spelling “mountain” right for the first time on a spelling test and was so excited I got it right! Third grade was a good year for me. 

What is the #1 potential positive change for schools that you hope comes out of this pandemic? I think we all have a better understanding of what it’s really like to teach in circumstances like this, and that will definitely benefit us down the road. When this is all over, if someone has to be home from school for whatever reason, then we know how to support those kiddos and we can do it better than we ever did before. It’s just been a really good growth thing for us; everything we’ve tried, we’ve learned from. If it wasn’t the best approach, then we’re going to try something different. And we can only get better and do better when we know better. 

For me, I’m really excited to be in this position and to help shape what it could be for the following years to come, because I’m sure it will take a different direction over time. We know it’s not all within our control. As things change I want to be able to support teachers and students and continue to do that in whatever role I hold here at Cedar Springs.

If your theme song played every time you walked into your school building, which song would you choose? I actually listen to this song when I drive to work and it pumps me up: it’s “Mr. Blue Sky” by Electric Light Orchestra. I queue it up and it’s like, Here we go!

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Beth Heinen Bell
Beth Heinen Bell
Beth Heinen Bell is an award-winning journalist and editor who got her start as the education reporter for the Grand Haven Tribune. A Calvin University graduate, she later returned to her alma mater to help manage its national writing festival and edit and write for enrollment communications. Beth has also written for The Grand Rapids Press, Fox 17 and several West Michigan businesses and nonprofits. She is fascinated by the nuances of language, loves to travel and has strong feelings about the Oxford comma. Read Beth's full bio or email Beth.

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