5 Questions for…John O’Toole (ASL 1991-present)

Mr. O'Toole, center, with students at an ASL family picnic in Regent's Park many years ago!

If you’re lucky enough to have been a student of kindergarten teacher John O’Toole, a legend of the Lower School, then you will remember his profound reverence for Her Majesty, the Queen. Queen Elizabeth II’s portrait hangs on the wall in the sensory corner of his K2 room, where you will also find a verdant garden of amaryllis and geraniums, a well-loved leather sofa for morning meetings and story time, and dozens of class photos acquired over three decades of teaching. Mr. O began his 30th year at ASL this past fall. “For my colleagues who are new, I can tell you that it happens overnight,” he joked, during the faculty/staff opening assembly in August 2021. “What’s kept me here all this time is the people.” 

Each of John’s assistant teaching partners, from Melanie O’Leary (ASL 1997-present) to Lynn Sacks (ASL 2006-present), vouch for his quirky charisma, affable nature and talent for relationship-building. “John is one of a kind,” praises Lynn, now in her eighth year of co-teaching with Mr. O. “He has a wonderful sense of humor. He is kind, selfless, warm, patient and secure in himself, so he is happy to let others shine around him. When I say teaching in K2 with John is my happy place, it is not an exaggeration.” 

Lynn and John dressed up for the Halloween Parade in October 2021

John’s ease with others is likely rooted in his childhood, growing up alongside eight siblings in a rural Massachusetts town. “My mother’s favorite saying was, ‘Go out and play,’” John recently recalled. Days were spent climbing trees, splashing in the local pond and playing kickball with brothers, sisters and neighbors. The sprawling landscape ripened his active imagination; when John wasn’t getting muddy outdoors, he was nosing through his parents’ encyclopedia, reading about the reigns of kings and queens of England (the genesis of his royal obsession). “History was my favorite subject,” John explained. “I always loved school, and I always wanted to be a teacher.” He followed through on that ambition at Boston University, where he earned dual degrees in history and early childhood education, and jumped at the opportunity to complete his teaching practice at Reading University, UK. At long last, this lifelong Anglophile had landed in England! And he never left. Mr. O’s ASL career began in 1991. He has taught more than 600 students in every lower school grade except fourth. He has marched in 29 Halloween parades, met the Queen on one glorious occasion and gained innumerable lessons about learning and life.

1. What do you recall about your first day at ASL?
"My classroom was in a pre-renovated pod where passageways led to the next classroom. We had a world full of people coming by and saying hello, and we learned to just carry on. You do with what you have; if you don’t have a problem with it, children won’t have a problem with it. Several of my colleagues today started with me that year: Jackie Hewett (ASL 1991-present) was in kindergarten, and Elaine Robertson (1991-present) and Jude Ruff (ASL 1991-present) were in high school science. I have worked with all of them in some context. One thing I have learned is that the people you work with here are incredibly important. They will make your day, and make your life at ASL." 

John's first ASL classroom

2. Did you have any mentors early on in your career?
"I taught Grade 1 with a woman named Doris Leupp P ’05 (ASL 1993-94), who was at ASL for one year in 1993. She really inspired me. Doris was a Native American from Albuquerque who helped me see that it’s not only about the curriculum—but about the children and the relationship you have with them."

3. How did your parents influence you?
"My parents taught me acceptance. They had nine very different children, all of whom have very different lives, but it has never been a question of being loved. That’s important for children: to be loved while they are doing this important journey." 

John's class photo, 1994

4. If you only had 24 hours to entertain a friend in London, what would be the itinerary? 
"We would get up early for a walk on Hampstead Heath. Next, I would take them on my royal tour with stops at Green Park, Buckingham Palace, St. James’s Park, Whitehall and Westminster Abbey, before breaking for lunch at Old Shades pub. There’s a stained glass window there that a former housemate designed and I suggested the color scheme—a great talking point! We would then take a boat from Tower Bridge to Greenwich, hopping off at the Royal Observatory to learn about Greenwich Mean Time. Finally, we would cap off our day with dinner in Chinatown."

John with ASL colleagues on his wedding day in 2007

5. What do you consider to be your most memorable day?
"Meeting the Queen! In 2000, before I began my sabbatical, I took a job at Buckingham Palace in the special access department. We were responsible for ensuring that areas could accommodate wheelchairs and that people who need extra time to travel could have it. In August 2000, the Queen Mother turned 100, so there was a lot to prepare for her special birthday. The Queen came to special access to inquire about some of the logistics for the party. We were all so giddy as we bowed and curtseyed before her, and she asked the group: “Is everything ready to go?” No one said anything, so I exclaimed, “Yes, Your Majesty!” “Good to hear,” she replied. And then she smiled. I called my mom from a phone booth afterward, and she was thrilled for me."