student and teacher working with letter tiles

The Many Hats of Deirdre Mulligan

by Hazel Crowley

Strategies to Unlock Content

What can you do with a marble, a balloon, a funnel, a magnet, a few dominoes, and some popsicle sticks? According to alums of Deirdre Mulligan’s “Rube Goldberg” unit in middle school science, you can use them to (usually) flip a coin. But according to Deirdre herself, you can also learn to take academic risks and collaborate when confronted by challenges.

The comparison to Goldberg, the cartoonist famed for creating convoluted devices to perform simple tasks, is unexpectedly apt. Though some called his contraptions “deviously complex,” Goldberg was an inexhaustible fount of ideas. Deirdre’s commitment to innovative accommodations, each carefully individualized to suit the needs and interests of her many students, is equally boundless. And like Goldberg, her aim is clear: help students build strategies to unlock content.

The Study Skills Guru

Deirdre’s dedication to Landmark is universally extolled. Appreciation for her organizational expertise is surpassed only by gratitude for her willingness to share, consult, and collaborate. “Her astounding knowledge base, teaching instincts, and study skills genius are shared without a hint of hesitation, self-aggrandizement, or desire for recognition,” says Elementary•Middle School (EMS) Head of School Rob Kahn. In fact, coworkers refer to Deirdre as the “Study Skills Guru,” a rich term that fits perfectly. Yes, she’s an expert in helping developing strategies, but Deirdre’s ability to illuminate the spirits of those around her extends far beyond the classroom. When collective thoughts must be conveyed to a colleague who has suffered a loss, is nursing an injury, or has had a baby, Deirdre is first to produce a card (homemade!) for other faculty to sign. Always modest, Deirdre takes little credit for herself.

Wearing Many Hats

Deirdre came to Landmark, fresh out of college, in 1994, but her inspiration can be traced back to a cauliflower she used in science class in middle school and a certain teacher, Mrs. Toomey. “She wanted to show us the brain stem. I loved the hands-on element. We still talk at Christmastime.” Twenty-three years later, Deirdre’s collection of “hats” is ever-growing. And yet, Academic Dean Deb Blanchard says, “The tough part to encapsulate is her ‘behind the scenes’ work on just about everything that happens at EMS: New Teacher Shepherd, Outreach, Master Teacher—in multiple departments—, Curriculum Wiz and Assistant Department Head for Elementary, former Board Representative, and Volunteer Extraordinaire. When she lived in the building, she even did snow removal!” Of her recent transition away from Director of the Landmark Summer Institute, Deirdre says, “It’s bittersweet but also a chance to explore other opportunities.” What keeps her here? “The community. I admire Landmark teachers and students for their ability to self-reflect. To think tomorrow’s a new day to do better.”

In 1931, Merriam-Webster officially entered the name “Rube Goldberg” into the dictionary as an adjective, defining it as “accomplishing by complex means what seemingly could be done simply.” If a dictionary is ever made of Landmark, Deirdre Mulligan’s entry will read “doing complex things every day by the best possible means—which might be the most unlikely ones.”