Principal Morrison retires after 35 years

  • Mary Morrisson —Courtesy

  • Principal Mary Morrison reads to Canterbury Elementary School students during the holidays. Courtesy

Monitor staff
Published: 6/25/2020 4:57:59 PM

The halls of Canterbury Elementary School have been quiet for months now – no sounds of excited children, no rehearsal for the annual Memorial Day performance, no palpable anticipation of summer vacation after the spread of the coronavirus pandemic forced schools across the country to close.

The students and teachers are gone for the summer but the school isn’t totally empty just yet. Principal Mary Morrison has continued to come into work every day at Canterbury, as the school year came to a quiet close. 

“I haven’t taken any time off yet,” she said last week. “I figure after the 30th of June, I’ll have a lot of time.”

Morrison will retire at the end of the month after 53 years in education and 35 years as the principal at Canterbury, the end of a career marked by tradition, community, and care for her students. 

Morrison began teaching in 1967 in Millbury, Massachusetts. Two years later, she moved to New Hampshire, where she taught at Boscawen Elementary School for six years. After taking time off to raise her young children, Morrison began teaching first grade at Canterbury in 1979. She became the principal at Canterbury in 1985.

The decision to retire is never easy, and for Morrison, it was also marked by personal loss. When Morrison decided last fall that this would be her last year at Canterbury, her secretary of 35 years had recently passed away, as had Morrison’s husband, sister, and best friend.

“I realized that if there’s anything else I want to do in my life, I need to do it now,” she said.

Morrison leaves behind a legacy that has impacted countless students, as well as several of the teachers who work at Canterbury. Kimberly Briggs’s first teaching job was at Canterbury Elementary over 30 years ago.

“She’s the only principal I’ve ever had for my entire career,” Briggs said. “She’s been my mentor, my friend, even my mom sometimes. She’s a wonderful, wonderful lady.”

Briggs credits Morrison for not only leading the school to academic success, but also for establishing some of the school’s long-held traditions. Each year, Canterbury Elementary works with the Canterbury Historical Society to teach its students about a different decade in history. All students have the opportunity to learn about the history and culture of the selected decade throughout the school year, culminating in a day-long experience that transports students back in time at the historic one-room schoolhouse in Canterbury. Morrison credits the success of this tradition to the collaboration of community organizations such as the Canterbury Historical Society and dedicated volunteers she brings together each year to make the event happen.

Morrison is such a fixture of Canterbury that when teacher Andrea Cameron’s students ask her how long Mrs. Morrison has been at the school, Cameron jokes with them that Morrison was teaching one day when the town decided to build the school around her. Under Morrison’s leadership, the school’s performance has been repeatedly honored – Canterbury Elementary was recognized as the New Hampshire Elementary School of Excellence in 2004 and was named a Blue Ribbon School by the Department of Education in 2012.

Eight Canterbury teachers traveled to Washington D.C. that year for the recognition ceremony, even though only two people were allowed to attend the ceremony.

“We all felt like we should go and be part of the experience together,” Briggs said. Briggs recounts one night when Morrison suggested that they go to the Lincoln Memorial, her favorite landmark, to see it lit up at night.

“She was just in complete awe,” Briggs remembers. “She was so happy.”

“Mary’s a reluctant celebrator of herself,” said Andrea Cameron, another long-time teacher at Canterbury. “She did it more for us [teachers] and the students than for herself.”

In navigating the changes to the end of the school year after COVID-19 forced the end of in-person classes, Morrison’s leadership kept staff optimistic.

“She would constantly bring us back to ‘we’re going to do what we can,’ ” Cameron said. Cameron praised Morrison’s ability to remain calm and her “it is what it is” philosophy for guiding the school through the past few uncertain months.

While the abrupt end of the school year was not the way anyone anticipated Morrison’s career to come to an end, Cameron remembers a foundational piece of advice Morrison gave her at the beginning of her career at Canterbury. As Cameron worried about an impeding school event, Morrison reminded her to focus on what mattered – the students.

“She told me, ‘At some point, you have to stop paddling and just go over the waterfall,’ ” Cameron said. “I remember that being such a great picture – some things are out of our control, and it’s okay, so let’s focus on what’s important.”

Although the lasting impacts of COVID-19 will certainly bring changes to Canterbury Elementary next year, the biggest change will undoubtedly be Morrison’s absence. She won’t be reading holiday stories to students in a sweater adorned with festive lights before winter break or watching the annual Veterans Day commemoration, but there will be at least one physical reminder of Morrison’s impact on the school community. When one of Briggs’s early mentors at Canterbury retired, she had the idea to honor her by planting a tree at the school, inspired by a Shaker tradition. The next year, another teacher retired, and the tree-planting became yet another Canterbury tradition to honor each teacher’s career.

Each retiring teacher can choose the kind of tree they’d like to plant at the school, and soon, Morrison will get a tree of her own to commemorate her career. Her choice? A sugar maple, she told Briggs. The choice seemed unconventional to Briggs, but Morrison explained – after a few years, the tree could be tapped and used for a maple sugar activity with students.

“She’s so kid-centered,” Briggs said. “She loves those kids, and she will be greatly missed.”

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