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O'Malley's move to literacy education fulfills her desire to make a difference

Cat O'Malley, Literacy Department Chair for Annapolis Middle School, found her way into the realm of education through an unconventional path. She began her career with roles in management, event management and sales, but found her true calling in literacy education. Her journey has been marked by determination and a commitment to making a difference, and her diverse skill set enriches her role as a teacher and educational leader.

Cat received her master's degree in literacy education from West Virginia University in 2021. She earned her degree nearly a decade after completing her undergraduate studies in tourism and events management from George Mason University.

Find out more about Cat's educational and professional journey below:

Catherine O'Malley sitting at the edge of the water reading a book with a flying WV hat on.

Cat (Miller) O'Malley

Major: Literacy Education (M.A.)

Hometown: Lovettsville, Va.
Current Residence: Annapolis, Md.

Full-time employment history prior to role as Literacy Department Chair for Annapolis Middle School:

  • Arlington Economic Development (2012)
    Events Manager
  • Uber Offices Co-working Space (2013)
    Community Manager
  • WeWork Co-working Space (2014)
    Community Manager
  • GoCanvas Paperless Forms (2015)
    Business Development & Sales
  • KIPP DC Public Charter Schools (2016)
    Capital Teaching Resident
  • KIPP DC (2017-19)
    1st Grade Lead Teacher
  • KIPP DC, Literacy Interventionist (2019-22)
    +8 months Special Education, 4th Grade
  • Anne Arundel County Public Schools (2022)
    6th Grade Language and Literacy Teacher
  • Anne Arundel County Public Schools (2023)
    Annapolis Middle School Literacy Department Chair

Can you share your journey of entering the field of education through a non-traditional path and how it has shaped your perspective as a literacy educator?

My journey really starts back in college - whenever I had a Friday off I would always go to visit my mom in her kindergarten classroom back in our hometown. I took care of a lot of the kids in our neighborhood during the summer, nannied an economics professor's kids in college, and babysat for many of my coworker's children in my early 20s. I have a much younger brother so I always give him a ton of credit for helping me develop my skill set - but I just love watching kids' brains work through play, exploration, and authentic learning and interaction with their environment.

I worked in sales and event management for a while. I hit this point where I said to myself - I can make money anyway in this world, but what will make me wake up every day knowing that I'm making a difference? I started studying for the Praxis - I literally took the book with me on the metro to and from work. At that same time, I serendipitously met a new friend who worked for KIPP DC. After exploring many alternative paths to certification I focused on applying and interviewing for the KIPP DC Capital Teaching Residency. I attended classes every Wednesday night and completed certification coursework on the weekend.

Entering education after I had experience in both the public local government sector and private business sector has had an impact on the way that I see education. The management skills that I learned in those environments like time and task mastering, organization, communication, and technology proficiency transferred to the demands of day-to-day classroom management.

As an interventionist and former special education teacher, what unique insights and experiences do you bring to the field of literacy education?

The unique insights I bring are primarily related to mindset. My mom was diagnosed with dyslexia when she was in middle school, and it really impacted the way that she saw herself as a struggling reader. However, when I was a little kid she met a wonderful librarian in my hometown who taught her to love reading through both audiobooks and large print text. She ended up going into education and now has 12 years of preschool experience and 17 years of public education teaching experience. I think having her story in the back of my mind always helped ground me in the philosophy that our job is to never give up on kids' potential, to always celebrate where kids are thriving, and to both push and support them in the places they need push and support.

As the future department lead for middle school language arts, what are some of your goals or initiatives for advancing literacy education in your school?

The number one goal that I have is to create a culture of care. When students walk into our literacy classrooms do they feel invited in? Do they see themselves affirmed in our space? Are we VABB-ing with our kids ( Validate, Affirm, and Build Bridges) so they trust us and listen to us and see us as agents to get them to their goals? That means helping all teachers I support dig into both the internal space and their philosophies about teaching and learning, but also the physical space and how it supports student learning goals.

My second goal is differentiated instruction in response to accurate student data. Rooted in ideas of ecological validity and authentic assessment, I want to help all literacy teachers become very intentional about the data they are collecting and how they respond to it once they see what students need. That means creating skill group structures, independent workstation rotations, and keeping clean and organized records. It also means maximizing team planning time with organized protocols, and observing teachers to provide them with the same community of support as I mentioned above for our students.

And, my third goal is tied between more intentional interdisciplinary literacy planning and building community literacy bridges. Our school is an International Baccalaureate school and many of the teachers and I are enthused to bridge our departments to create intentional interdisciplinary projects with our students. In the Annapolis area (as with any area in our country) we have wonderful thought leaders in all avenues of life. I would like to bring in more people from the community to help our students with their learning - either as audience members to student literacy presentations, funders of classroom libraries, or simply guests in our classroom who can support student learning.

How has the Literacy Education program at WVU prepared you for your current role as a language arts teacher and future department lead?

The literacy education program at WVU opened my eyes beyond the walls of the KIPP DC network. I credit the Capital Teaching Residency with a lot of great foundational knowledge, but when I came to WVU I really internalized the skills of how to assess readers, how to plan sound instruction, and how to evaluate the effectiveness of my teaching practice. It also helped me to have a window into literacy departments around the country and build relationships with teachers up and down the eastern seaboard, and even internationally. I also became smarter - I dig a lot deeper into source material and the research base behind anything that I put in front of children in my classroom. I am a more effective evaluator and a more responsive educator because of my experience in the program. Maybe most importantly, the literacy education program teaches you to think of yourself as a leader and a change agent for your community. This is what I hope to impart on the teachers I work with this year as department lead.

In your opinion, what are some of the key skills or qualities that aspiring literacy educators should possess in order to excel in the field?

Literacy educators need to be able to see each child's strengths. They need to have confidence in their ability to administer authentic assessment tasks that highlight each child's strengths and weaknesses. They must remain committed to helping students succeed through barriers like variable attendance, parental or administrative support, and student hesitancy. They need to be flexible in the way that they teach and find how to affirm each child's progress. Most important, at all times they have to believe in the potential for each child to be able to read.

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