Education, Feature

Retirees 2024: District 153 fostered leadership roles for Mary Kay Gardiner

Retiring Churchill School Assistant Principal Mary Kay Gardiner said she was propelled into leadership roles because of the support and encouragement she received in Homewood District 153 the past 31 years.

Mary Kay Gardiner

“From day one as a young classroom teacher to now being at the end of my career, there is not another district that’s like it. It’s so unique,” she said. “The collaboration among staff is amazing and you can’t teach that. Teacher leaders, you grow them in their opportunities in this district. If you want leadership, we’re going to afford those opportunities here. And that’s how I’m in this position.”

Gardiner came to the district as a junior high English teacher at James Hart School. Within a few years she took on co-curricular activities co-coaching girls cross country and co-sponsoring the National Junior Honor Society.

“I loved being a teacher. I grew up in Homewood. I loved this community and still love this community. It’s brought so much joy in my life,” she said. Her Homewood-Flossmoor High algebra teacher Mrs. Franklin encouraged her interest in a teaching career.

“She just believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself, and I struggled. We used to have these conversations and she would say ‘I see you as a leader. I see you working with kids. I see you making a difference.’”

The other was her H-F counselor Dick Taylor who hired her for her first job as a lifeguard at Ravisloe Country Club. He was her H-F swim team coach and always had encouraging words for her.

Gardiner found that as a new teacher the commitment and dedication of the District 153 administrative team was strong. She remembers Hart teacher and Principal John Carney and sixth grade teacher Sue Johnson as wonderful mentors.

Carney began mentoring her “talking about being a good teacher, a good teammate, collaboration is so important, partnering with parents,” she said. When he became Hart’s principal, he gave her insights into school administration, including creating class schedules and using different computer programs.

“I attribute my success in this district to them because they saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself. They saw leadership and (retired superintendent) Dale Mitchell just continued to grow that for me. That was my support team.”

In 2002, Gardiner was named assistant principal at Millennium School serving fifth and sixth graders. A year later, she was named principal. She had the job for six years and during that time she and her husband, Don, became parents three times. Trying to keep up with work and a young family was tough.

Something had to give.

“I’d come to realize that the principalship was just too much for me with three kids under the age of 5,” she said. The District 153 school board agreed to a job switch. Gardiner would become the assistant principal and the assistant principal became the principal.

She stayed at Millennium as assistant principal until the district consolidated schools. When Millennium closed in 2015, Gardiner became assistant principal at Churchill School. Her first year was what she called a transition year as Principal Cece Coffey prepared to leave Churchill after 16 years on the job. She has since worked for two other principals — Nikki Kerr and current Principal Sarah Schnoor.

As the door closes on this chapter of her life, Gardiner said: “I am grateful for what this school district has afforded me to do in my career here. It’s been an honor.”

She hopes to find a college or university position that will allow her to mentor student teachers.

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