Spotlights

Face of the Week: Mike Leavey of Woodholme Elementary School

Team BCPS is made up of thousands of accomplished and interesting students, employees, and community supporters. “Face of the Week” introduces you to some of the people who make BCPS such an amazing mosaic of talent, caring, and commitment.
12/04/2017

Mike Leavey of Woodholme Elementary School

At first glance, Mike Leavey’s classroom looks like any other Grade 4 homeroom. Mathematics equations and cheerful posters cover the walls. Bookbags lean against chair legs. A 3-D printer quietly whirrs as it molds a plastic, student-designed name tag.

But look closer – or, rather, look up. Stuck incongruously to the ceiling is a playing card with the name “Rob” scrawled in red across the front. What’s that doing there?

“That’s the ‘Card on the Ceiling’ trick,” Leavey says matter-of-factly. “It’ll be there for quite a while, actually.”

How Rob’s eight of spades got there is what makes Leavey’s classroom a little different, a little special. Leavey put it there when he had one of his students – the Rob in question – select a card from one of the ever present decks Leavey keeps in his classroom, write his name on the card, and insert it back into the middle of the pack. Then, to the delight of his class, Leavey threw the full deck up, cards exploding against the ceiling and all fluttering back to the floor. All except Rob’s eight of spades, of course, which mysteriously clings aloft to this day.

“I’ll do card tricks at the end of a week just to keep my students engaged; they’re good to break the tension of a long week. That or I’ll make something vanish,” Leavey says. “It’s a way for them to stay interested and alert, and to learn about the value of practicing something, like a magic trick or sleight of hand. The way I figure it, any learning is good learning.”

Coming from Leavey, that’s saying a lot. The 41-year-old Owings Mills resident is in his fourth year at Woodholme Elementary School and has carved out a unique reputation for himself thanks to a background in juggling, magic, and science.

In addition to incorporating magic in his teaching, Leavey entertains bar mitzvahs, Boy Scout camps, and library groups with “Professor Mike’s Science and Magic Show” in his off-hours. And in his off-off-hours, he tends to a beekeeping avocation that nets him plenty of both knowledge and honey – in the last year, he collected 50 pounds for his family. The common thread in these endeavors: Learning something new.

“Mike makes learning fun yet meaningful, and he is always looking for a connection to prior learning, future learning, and cross-curricular content,” says Woodholme’s principal, Teresa Young. She notes that Leavey’s use of jokes, magic, experiments, and inquiry invariably sparks student interest.

“He’s always looking for real-life connections for students to make the learning meaningful,” she adds. “His passion inspires students and staff alike.”

Finding his way

Yet while he champions the importance of lifelong learning, Leavey and learning have had an interesting relationship, and not always a happy one. Growing up in Pikesville, Leavey admits to being a lazy learner. “I was one of those students about whom the teacher says, ‘He’s got the potential, but he doesn’t try very hard,’” he says.

Which wasn’t to say Leavey didn’t want to learn, however. The purchase of a book on juggling in middle school led to a lifelong hobby, and that led to an interest in magic and sleight of hand – all skills that appealed to the showman within. “I’m realized that I’m a performer, a creative thinker,” he says, “an outside-the-box kind of thinker.”

At Drexel University, his dabbling with magic snowballed; he says he “fell in love with the human interactions that magic (creates).” As he moved into the business world, he kept at his hobby, creating an enjoyable side business doing weddings or corporate events on the weekends at the same time he learned marketing at a toy company – Life-Like Products – for his day job. Eventually he left Life-Like with the intention of making his magic a full-time job.

But life stepped in; his magic would have to wait. When his wife, Shauna, was diagnosed with lymphoma, he went to work helping her. And his attention became even more focused when the couple welcomed the arrival of their first child, Nora. But he was becoming increasingly restless at work, including stints at Lee’s Ice Cream and Diamond Select toys. But nothing clicked, and Leavey says he began looking for another career, one more suitable for “someone who’s not a cubicle-type of guy like me.”

Two interests beckoned. He had once considered teaching as a career, and he figured taking a teaching job might also satisfy another boyhood fascination with science and mathematics. After earning a master’s degree at Loyola University of Maryland, Leavey says he got lucky and landed a job teaching Grade 4 students at Edmondson Heights Elementary School in Woodlawn. It was 2011.

“When you come in as a career-changer, you have the benefit of having less of a learning curve,” Leavey says. “I didn’t have to deal with as much as a first-year teacher would. My life experiences gave me an advantage, I think, and I already had a lot of tools like marketing and fundraising and knowing how to put together a website. But, you know, once you enter that classroom, nothing prepares you for being a teacher than being a teacher.”

Embracing learning

Teaching was a good fit. And as he settled into the classroom – for three years at Edmondson Heights before coming to Woodholme – Leavey began to indulge in his passions once again. As he learned more about his magic, he resumed his extracurricular shows. This time, based on the old “Mr. Wizard” shows of his youth, he launched his “Professor Mike” ventures about two years ago. Leavey also began to see classroom applications for his hobby. “Eventually I thought I could do science (demonstrations) and tie both the science and magic together,” he says.

Things like juggling and plate spinning – part of his Professor Mike shows – could easily be used to demonstrate scientific lessons, for instance. A lesson on the water cycle might benefit from a trick in which Leavey produces containers that seem to dispense endless streams of water.

“It’s great because it allows me to be creative, and it allows me to learn how to apply these things to what I’m teaching every day,” he says. “There are some things I can’t do at school – juggling fireballs probably wouldn’t go over well – but it’s a great way to really think outside the box.”

His experimentation also allows him to gauge the interest students might have by enlisting his daughter, Nora, now 12, and twins Isaac and Jonah, both 8, as critics. They provide good feedback, but they haven’t taken to magic with perhaps the enthusiasm he hoped for, though Leavey remains intrigued about the possibilities of incorporating the twins into a future magic show.

Another learning opportunity arose several years ago when Leavey noticed he was having trouble raising zucchini in his home garden. After deducing that the plants weren’t being pollenated properly, Leavey enrolled in a beekeeping course at Irvine Nature Center in Owings Mills. Yet another interest took flight.

“I tried it and it was fun,” Leavey says. “There’s so much to it, but it’s been a great education.” And once again, he is able to bring his discoveries into Woodholme’s classrooms. His lessons with his bees inform the school’s environment club as well as a Grade 2 unit on pollination. “I’ll bring in some frames or wax from the hives for them to look at,” he says. “It’s a good tie-in.”

These days, Leavey uses an occasional magic trick or two to keep his classes engaged or to illustrate a math or science lesson, but it’s what he and his students will learn about tomorrow that most interests him. “Magic is endless; I’m always working on something new or practicing,” he says. In fact, his mind in motion can be observed in faculty meetings or other down times, when he says he fiddles with a card deck constantly as a way of honing his skills. Just mastering how to fan a deck of cards with one hand took him a solid year.

So perhaps Mike Leavey has come full circle in a way. The struggling reader who never clicked as a student and the marketing major who “lost his mojo” for the corporate world after a few years in – both have matured into an engaging educator who has become a true believer in lifelong learning. “It’s incredibly important (to be a lifelong learner), and I hope I’m a good model for that,” Leavey says. “Just being able to understand how you learn – whether it’s through teaching or videos or by talking with people – as long as you can walk away with new skills, that is what is so important.”

And maybe that is Mike Leavey’s best trick of all.

Do you know of a special person who would be a good candidate for the BCPS “Face of the Week”? Let us know! Send their name, contact information, and what makes them special to cherndon@bcps.org.  

For more photos, visit the album at the BCPS Flickr page.

©2017 Baltimore County Public Schools. All rights reserved. This site is optimized for 1280 display resolution and for use with the latest versions of most browsers.