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ODA welcomes new head of school

Debra Otey says she looks forward to her 30th year in education at ODA.

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Debra Otey never considered she could be a leader in education until sitting across from her mentor Jill Hawk during an end-of-year evaluation.

Otey was working as a middle school English teacher when Hawk asked her what she wanted to do with her career.

She told Hawk her husband, Rex Otey had a shot at being a college president someday, and she wanted to be the wife of a college president. 

Hawk’s response changed her life. 

“She looked at me and said, ‘You can be the college president,’” Otey said. 

Even with the love and support of her family growing up in West Virginia, Otey had never dreamed being the leader of an educational institution.

Now she is serving as the head of school at the Out-of-Door Academy as she enters her 30th year in education.

She will replace Jim Connor, who served as ODA’s interim head of school during the 2021-2022 school year. 

Taking over the post means a lot of responsibility.

“I do not take the development of students and adults in a school setting lightly,” Otey said. “That is my priority. If everyone is growing, learning and developing, that’s what we need. That’s what the world needs, people who are growing, learning and becoming better human beings.”

Before coming to Florida, Otey had been serving as the upper school head at Cannon School in North Carolina. She knew her youngest son, Caeden, would be graduating in May, so she thought about what her future would hold.

“I was at a point in my life where I said, ‘What am I going to do for the next 10 to 15 years of my career,’” Otey said. “I don’t have to be (in North Carolina) anymore because my children have completed their journey here. I started thinking and dreaming about another school I could love, that I could be a part of.”

From the moment Otey stepped on ODA’s campus in 2021 to interview to be the head of school, she said the people she met made her want to work with students and staff at ODA.

“Growing is important to me, and you can’t grow, students can’t grow and adults can’t grow unless they feel safe, comfortable, loved, and appreciated,” she said. “This was a place where I could feel that, and I wanted to be a part of that.”

Otey loves seeing students grow throughout their education and looks forward to being able to see students who start at ODA in pre-K eventually graduate as high school seniors.

“The powerful and emotional moments that you see when kids start a journey and end a journey somewhere is just inspiring,” Otey said. “It makes you want to get out of bed every day and come to work. Being a part of a community, if I work here for the remainder of my career, where I might get the chance to watch a child start and finish at ODA. That would be awesome.”

As she begins her time at ODA, Otey wants to develop relationships, observe classes and build upon what already is being done.

“I can help cultivate a faculty that does not put limitations on how creative it can be in the classroom and how it can engage students in their learning,” Otey said. “I see my role as a conduit for that creativity.”

Otey might even sing with the school’s choir class occasionally. She first went to Alderson-Broaddus College on a music scholarship that allowed her to take music classes but major in a different area. She was an English education major. 

“I knew I wanted to be a teacher, but I love music so much that I was afraid to teach it,” Otey said. “I thought if I teach it, I might get tired of it.”

Being in education has given Otey opportunities to combine other passions such as travel and education. In 2019, Otey was able to travel to China with her son Carter and other students from Cannon School who were in a Chinese class. 

“It was the perfect opportunity for me to enjoy China with my son,” Otey said. “Travel just reminds me how much I don’t know and how much I haven’t experienced.”