Thursday, Dec. 20, 2007

DeMatha principal is making the grade

McMahon shines in classroom, administrative offices

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Susan Whitney⁄The Gazette
DeMatha Catholic High School principal Dan McMahon (left) discusses Dante’s ‘‘Inferno” with junior Luke Thatcher, 16, of Mitchellville Friday.
Daniel McMahon sat at the front of his British literature class Dec. 14 flipping through the pages of ‘‘Hamlet.”

‘‘Who said, ‘This above all: to thine own self be true?’” he asked the room of about 15 12th grade boys as they prepared for an upcoming exam.

‘‘Polonius,” a handful of young men called out.

As principal of DeMetha Catholic High School, it is not required for McMahon to teach any classes – he does it because loves teaching.

‘‘[Teaching is] a part of who I am,” McMahon said later that day. He has been the principal at DeMatha since 2000.

He said he doesn’t know of many other principals who teach classes in addition to their administrative duties. McMahon also teaches world literature to 11th graders.

To make sure the students never suffer if McMahon is unable to attend a class because of his administrative duties, he team-teaches British literature with Charles Offutt and coincides his yearly world literature lesson plan with Patrick Smith.

‘‘That was one of the last questions I asked when I interviewed for the job [as principal] – if I would be allowed to teach,” he said. ‘‘I try to encourage all administrators to teach.”

Two of DeMatha’s assistant principals teach as well, which McMahon admitted makes it harder to schedule administrative meetings.

‘‘But at the same time, all of us stay in touch with what we do,” he said.

Karen Cook of Riva, who has a son in 11th grade at DeMatha and another who graduated two years ago, said her sons think McMahon is a great principal. Her 11th-grader, Christopher Cook, is currently in McMahon’s world literature class.

‘‘[Teaching] certainly keeps him in touch with what the students are like and what the teachers go through,” she said of McMahon.

Mary Favret Kerley, who is McMahon’s assistant, said all four of her sons attended and graduated from DeMatha, so she knew of McMahon before she worked for him.

‘‘I remember hearing my son say to one of my younger sons, ‘You’re not in Dr. McMahon’s class? You know his class was life-changing,’” she said. ‘‘[It was great to hear that] coming out of a teenage boy’s mouth.”

Because of his active role in the classroom, as well as demonstrating other qualities to create an exceptional education environment, McMahon recently received the 2007 Distinguished Educational Leadership Award for Private Schools by the Washington Post.

‘‘By definition, [being a principal] is not a job you can do by yourself,” he said. ‘‘I prefer to think of it as the school’s award and I just collected it.”

Smith, who began teaching in 1988 when McMahon was department chair, said McMahon’s strength was letting people pursue their interests.

Smith said he has suggested educational programs or additional lessons be taught, and McMahon always listened with an open mind, allowing a summer writing camp at the school for a few years.

McMahon, who grew up in Silver Spring and graduated from DeMatha in 1976, began teaching freshman and sophomore English at DeMatha in 1981.

He taught at DeMatha for 16 years before accepting a position at Bullis School as principal of the upper school, which includes grades nine through 12. He served at Bullis for three years before returning to DeMatha as principal.

McMahon said he plans to help DeMatha continue to grow academically and physically, with the construction of a 70,000-square-foot sports center. The building will include a basketball gym, two full-size practice courts, wrestling rooms, locker rooms, weight-training rooms, storage, athletic offices and five classrooms, McMahon said.

‘‘I always try to respond to the needs of the students,” he said. ‘‘I plan to continue to serve DeMatha in any way they need me to.”

Cook said McMahon lives by the school’s motto, ‘‘Gentleman and Scholars.”

‘‘He leads by example and is very professional,” she said. ‘‘One of the best decisions my husband and I have made was sending our boys to DeMatha.”

McMahon, who’s been in education for 26 years, said his hectic days at DeMatha never feel like he’s doing work.

‘‘I don’t feel like I’ve ever actually worked in my life,” he said. ‘‘It’s like I’ve played my whole adult life.”