Donovan-Grassi devoted 24 years to teaching & leading at Tenney

By Darrell Halen
MethuenLife Writer

Mary Beth Donovan-Grassi remembers the visit she made to a classroom that impacted her life and changed her career.

She was in the classroom, while working as a newspaper reporter, and watched teacher Jean Tearno teach her students fractions by having them build snowmen out of cotton balls.

“I just remember being so taken by the energy in the room. Kids were so engaged,” Donovan-Grassi recalled. “I had a moment thinking, ‘This is what is really important, this is important stuff.’ I never thought about teaching before but I knew this was something I had to explore.”

So she went to see Arthur Nicholson, who at the time was serving as assistant superintendent for Methuen Public Schools, to tell him she was interested in becoming a teacher. She trusted his judgment.

If he raised his eyebrow to show disapproval, she would go away.

Instead, “Mr. Nick” excused himself, and shortly returned with a stack of books about teaching and education. They were hers to keep, and he offered to write a letter of recommendation for graduate school for her.

Donovan-Grassi went on to leave her 13-year career as a journalist, earn a master’s degree in education from UMass-Lowell, and serve 24 years as an educator and administrator at Tenney Grammar School.

“It was without a doubt the best thing I did. I’m so grateful Arthur Nicholson encouraged me,” said Donovan-Grassi, who retired Dec. 31.

“I’m so grateful I’ve been able to work in the community where my husband and I have settled and raised our children. I’m so grateful so many parents trusted me and my colleagues with their kids. It’s just been the best, best times.”

Donovan-Grassi, who had earned her bachelor’s degree in English, started her career in education as an eighth-grade language arts teacher. She would later become associate principal, and next spend the last seven years as supervising principal.

She fondly recalls that many students went on to attend fine colleges or serve in the military.

Her former students include state Rep. Tram T. Nguyen of the 18th Essex District who is the first Vietnamese American woman to hold elective office in Massachusetts, and Michael Gorman whose nonprofit, The Movement Family, has helped people battling homelessness and drug addiction.

“Our kids have gone on to do great things,” said Donovan-Grassi, who as principal has seen a second generation of students at Tenney – children of former students.

“One of the nicest things about this job is that I often hear from my former students. Some stay local, they’re business owners, they have families now.”

She’s proud to have seen her students achieve success in the Letters About Literature writing initiative sponsored by the Massachusetts Center for the Book. Her students also participated in the annual Israel Arbeiter Holocaust Essay Contest, named after the Holocaust survivor in Newton who helped establish the New England Holocaust Memorial in Boston and promoted awareness to prevent future genocides.

“It’s great when your words go out into the world,” instead of just being on papers on a teacher’s desk, Donovan-Grassi said.

Donovan-Grassi was troubled that some of her students, while learning about diarist Anne Frank, doubted that the Holocaust really occurred. She had her students write letters to Mr. Arbeiter, inviting him to come to the school. He ended up visiting several times, and over the years several Tenney students ranked high in the writing contest.

“He became a friend of our students. He saw the good in our students,” Donovan-Grassi recalled. “He taught us all about how one little stone cast in a pond can have a ripple effect. It was pretty powerful for me as a teacher and of course for the kids. His story is pretty interesting.”
Donovan-Grassi, who grew up in Lawrence, is in her third year as a Nevins Library trustee. She holds a Certificate of Advanced Graduate Study (CAGS) from Salem State University.

She and her husband, Tom, have two children: Caroline, 32, and Christopher, 29, a former Tenney student. Chris and his wife, Molly, have a 6-month-old son, Harrison.

Donovan-Grassi said this is the right time to retire, citing the addition of Harrison to the family. She will be replaced by David Hill, an assistant principal in Lawrence.

“Her passion, dedication, laughter, loyalty and spirit will be deeply missed.”
Superintendent Brandi Kwong, on Mary Beth Donovan-Grassi who has retired after 24 years at the Tenney

“There were just so many wonderful experiences, lots of challenges being in education – COVID, state regulations,” she said. “But in the end … working with kids, making them feel safe, getting them ready for the world – boy, that’s a great job, that’s an awesome responsibility.”

Her retirement plans include being active with Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. Donovan-Grassi was diagnosed with breast cancer at the height of COVID and while her son, serving in the Air Force, was being deployed. She credits the support of everyone at Tenney for enabling her to continue working and being able to take care of herself during that tough time.

“I was very lucky to find a support group of women. Now, I kind of have the opportunity to be on the other side and support those who’ve been recently diagnosed,” she said. “That’s very important to me.”

She also plans to help out at Methuen Arlington Neighborhood (MAN) Inc., a non-profit organization that serves students and families in need. It’s dynamic and one of the best places in the city, she said.

“Love that place. So many of my students and their families live around there. I grew up not far from there,” she said. “So I’m really excited about spending some time there, working with some of the kids.”

“I’m hoping they’ll be as excited to see me coming,” she added with a laugh.

According to two people who know her, Donovan-Grassi left an indelible impression on Tenney Grammar School.

“She has cared deeply for all the students, family and faculty (there),” said Superintendent Brandi Kwong. “It has been an honor and pleasure to work alongside her as an educator in Methuen. Her passion, dedication, laughter, loyalty and spirit will be deeply missed. I wish her all the very best as she will be able to spend more time with her family and friends especially her young grandson Harry.”

Jennifer Loiselle, former president of the school’s PTO, credits Donovan-Grassi for being supportive of the group’s innovative programs and fostering a vibrant atmosphere at the school. Her genuine connections with children, staff and parents, Loiselle said, have been the cornerstone of the “Tenney experience.”