Charismatic teacher, performer and leader Karen O’Leary had an unlikely and unpromising start to formal learning. Even so, she now sees early education as “vitally important” and needing “the best people at this end of the system”.

captain-electricAn unfortunate misunderstanding meant Karen O’Leary didn’t actually attend any early childhood education, even though she is now team leader at a highly successful Wellington whanau-led centre.

Even when very young, a vivid imagination and a creative streak were already evident. Karen’s favourite book was Mrs Nelson’s Gone Missing, which featured a witch. Unfortunately, a teacher at her local kindergarten with bright blue eyes and black hair bore a striking resemblance to the witch. So Karen spent most of her first day at kindergarten standing by the gate waiting for her mother to come back. Then the head teacher told Karen’s mother, “She’s a bit odd.”

Her mother told Karen she didn’t have to go back. When the first day of school loomed, Karen was terrified.
“But from day one I loved every part of it. Hated the school holidays. Tried to join all the clubs.” A few years later, an intermediate teacher, Jo Carter, modelled much what Karen would later aspire to. “She inspired the best in everyone in the class no matter their learning style or approach. She had an ability to work in a diverse way. There was no right way to learning, and she was going to support you whichever way. That spoke volumes to me. She was fun and had a sense of humour but she also commanded respect in a positive way.”

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Captain Electric” an orange-clad superhero with a silver cape who was formed out of the magma created by an earthquake near Opunake

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Karen describes her own learning style as “enthusiastic and hands-on”, as someone “who enjoys the challenge of working things out”. This worked well at Wellington High School, where she explored an interest in sports. She still loves soccer, and will return to play this season, after taking a few years off as a parent.
“I was captain of the First 11 at High, though it was more like the First 8 – nobody wanted to play sports at High.” But she says the experience helped her work out who she was as a teenager, which she now sees as being more valuable than playing elite sport under pressure.
But a certain over-enthusiasm ran aground at university where she initially signed up for primary teacher training. Fortunately, a meeting on a bus with a former soccer-team friend turned into an invitation to relieve at a childcare centre in the city.

From there, she began relieving at Adelaide Early Childhood and realised “this isn’t just glorified babysitting. It was a really important part of a child’s education. I realised I’d be able to make a positive difference for the child and their family if I became an early childhood teacher.”
Fifteen years on, Karen is team leader at Adelaide, which has thrived in an increasingly difficult climate for community-based centres. Karen puts the centre’s success down to lots of hard work, and says staying financially ahead is essential in order to keep improving the service. Adelaide is also helped by owning its own building.

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… this isn’t just glorified babysitting. It was a really important part of a child’s education. I realised I’d be able to make a positive difference for the child and their family if I became an early childhood teacher.

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She is concerned at the growth of big corporates in the sector, which are buying up community centres, and says corporates do a good job of making their environments look very appealing to the uninformed eye. The success of McDonald’s in its marketing of food is a parallel. “I do worry about the quality of education at some of those places. You just have to look at the quality indicators. They don’t pay their teachers properly and they don’t have enough teachers.”
As a sector leader, Karen works hard on behalf of all ECE teachers and the sector, but with a strong imagination comes another kind of hope.

She is well-known in Wellington, and now internationally, as a singer and performer. A few years ago she persuaded her brother-in-law, who imported electric bikes, to give her a permanent loan of one by creating a new identity as “Captain Electric”, an orange-clad superhero with a silver cape who was formed out of the magma created by an earthquake near Opunake. The DomPost also reported her as saying, “There are too many grumpy people in the world so I’m here to help people look beyond that.”

More recently she starred as Officer O’Leary in what is fast becoming the cult classic movie What We Do In The Shadows, by Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement.
“Maybe HBO is going to ring me any minute? But I won’t forget my roots. People love famous people don’t they? I’ll get the message out to all these families of New Zealand about what they need to be looking for when they go to an early childhood centre!”