Inspiring Women in Education, Mary Donnelly

Determined, driven and highly ambitious, Ms Donnelly started her career in education in the UK, but found the lack of opportunities stifling. Here in the UAE, the world has been her oyster, and this youthful school leader has shown that there's more to strong leadership than years in the job.
This article is part of an editorial series on Inspiring Women in Education
Inspiring Women in Education
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Inspiring Women in Education
This article is part of an editorial series on Inspiring Women in Education

At, we actively seek out those in the education sector driving positive change which is why, in this Inspiring Women In Education interview, we speak to Head of Primary at Arcadia School, Ms Mary Donnelly.

Determined, driven and highly ambitious, Ms Donnelly started her career in education in the UK, but found the lack of opportunities stifling. Here in the distinctly more meritocratic UAE, the world has been her oyster, and this youthful school leader has shown that there's more to strong leadership than years in the job. In the course of our interview we delved into her journey, felt the fire that burns within her, and saw with our own eyes the traits that serve her so well in her leadership role. 

Ms Donnelly (centre) with the Arcadia Arabic team

Who or what inspired you to become an educator?

During my own school days, I was really unsure about what I wanted to do as a career. My own schooling experience did not allow me to understand my strengths or see what I may be capable of. I really enjoyed sport, but I was never going to be an Olympian, and I didn’t have exposure to the many career options out there. I did what many young people do, and gravitated towards what was familiar. 

My Mum was a nurse, but she retrained as a teacher when I was nine or ten-years-old. Early on in her new career, I was very involved, I would even go to work with her, watching from the back of her classroom, if I was off school sick. When the time came to make a decision about my own career path, I suppose I made a very safe choice. I understood what teaching entailed and I felt confident I could do it. 

I went to the University of Brighton for my teacher training. I really enjoyed the course, but surprised myself when I came out with a first class honors degree. Doing so well really threw me, but I guess also added a bit of confidence. I started to recognise my own potential

Tell us about the early days of your career...

After completing my teacher training, I worked as a Year 5 class teacher in a school in West Sussex. It was a fairly impoverished area, which came with challenges, but I enjoyed it and I was good at it. I did very well in forming relationships with the children and parents, and I thrived on building good relationships with my support staff. I was very highly thought of as a newly qualified teacher. I was full of energy and passion and I felt that, given the chance, I could really make an impact. I could see clearly what changes were needed in the school and wanted to dive in and make a difference. 

Ms Donnelly with a pupil at Arcadia School

I would put myself forward to lead new initiatives, to take on additional responsibilities, but was repeatedly told I was too new in my career, that I needed more experience. They would suggest I shadowed a more experienced colleague instead, learn from them so that I’d be ready for these things in the future. 

After three years of this, I was feeling quite frustrated. There seemed to be no opportunities for growth and I was hungry for it. I wasn’t willing to remain in the same role for fifteen or twenty years for an opportunity to come my way. I was coming to the conclusion that if I ever wanted to be at the forefront in the education sector, it wasn’t going to be in the UK.

A colleague of mine at the time had already worked as a teacher in Dubai, and while she had a mixed view of the experience, she noted that it was fast paced with great opportunities for progression. I applied for jobs in a range of schools and honestly, Arcadia School was the only one that really interested me, that really aligned with my ideas. It was brand new and it excited me. 

Ms Donnelly in her teaching days, with pupils at Arcadia School

I didn’t know this at the time, but when I interviewed for a teaching role at Arcadia, one of the members of the interview panel said “One day, that girl is going to be Head of Primary at this school”. I wasn’t ready for that yet, but they saw it in me, and supported my growth. I joined the team as a teacher and Head of English. 

How did your career progress?

I was in the role of Head of English for a year and my goodness, I do cringe when I look back. I would overwhelm the teachers with information, go through hundreds of slides in endless training sessions, and expect them to carry out what I asked for perfectly. Safe to say, it fell flat, they weren't on board; it was all quite a learning curve for me.

I do think my ability to be vulnerable, to own my mistakes and be open to criticism, to ask people for their advice, has served me well. With some helpful words of advice from senior leaders, I would bounce back and strive to improve. 

What has also served me well, is my desire to continue learning. I have completed a Masters degree in Educational Leadership and Management, and have started a further Masters in Executive Coaching with Hult Ashridge. I find people and psychology immensely interesting, and have been able to use my developing knowledge in this area to benefit the school in numerous ways. 

While I'm an extremely collaborative person in my day to day work, something else in me takes over when an opportunity arises, and I become utterly determined. I was discovering that I loved leadership, that I wanted to keep growing, and I was going to make sure that happened. 

As the school was growing, new positions came up. In my second year I took on the role of Head of Key Stage 2, followed by Head of Teaching and Learning the following year, and then to Deputy Head of Primary. I was fortunate enough to play a significant role in leading the school through the turbulent period of the school's closure during the pandemic. I then became Acting Head of Primary once the school reopened, a role that later became permanent. 

I think the difference between me and others who have taken longer to grow in their careers, is that I have chosen not to limit myself according to how much experience I've had, I'm not going to wait in line simply because of my age. If I want something, and believe I'm capable of it, then I'll go for it.

Who supports you?

My sister and my Mum are very important in my life; I speak to them every single day. My sister is possibly the most intelligent person I've ever come across, her ability to articulate herself, her emotional intelligence, is incredible. 

I also have a couple of very close friends who support me, who I respect and whose opinions I value. I am not someone who has loads of friends, I don't really have much time for small talk or shallow conversation, so big group scenarios don't work for me. I value deeper meaningful connections. 

Ms Donnelly with an Arcadia pupil on international day 

What continues to get you up in the morning?

More than anything, what keeps the fire burning, is that I'm genuinely and deeply interested in the work I do. And I am continually trying to understand how to do what I'm doing better, to strengthen and perfect it, and every day I am learning

I am deeply interested in people, in the psychology of the school as a work place as a community. Deepening my understanding of this allows me to develop and enrich the culture of the school, which is something I find hugely rewarding.

I'm at the stage now where I'm trying very hard to refine the school's strategy in a way that works like cogs turning smoothly, like a well oiled machine. It's not quite there yet, but I do believe we keep getting better and better. 

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