Sarah Conner, Allen Elementary art teacher

“Teachers and school systems have become the center of a much larger societal conversation and debate. I am acutely aware of the spectrum of learning experiences that families in our district are currently facing. Early in this experience, it became clear that we should not paint broad strokes or make sweeping assumptions about our learners and families. Parents and community members are experiencing and expressing so many valid worries and concerns.”

Sarah Conner

By Jo Mathis/AAPS District News Editor

Sarah Conner grew up in the heart of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado. Her parents were ski bums who chose to stay and raise a family in Breckenridge. Her mother worked for a mortgage company and her dad was an insurance agent. She has a younger sister with whom she is very close, although she lives in California.

Conner graduated from Colorado State University with a degree in art education and graphic design before earning her masters’s degree in Curriculum Design & Arts Integration from Lesley University.  This is her ninth year teaching elementary art. She previously taught in the Poudre School District in Fort Collins, Colorado, and Jeffco Public Schools in Arvada, Colorado. She then stepped out of the classroom when her youngest was born and the family was in the process of moving to Ann Arbor after her husband, Jack, finished medical school at The University of Colorado and was matched at the University of Michigan for his residency.

This is Conner’s second year of teaching in AAPS. Before that, she spent a year subbing in the district and teaching at High Point through the Washtenaw Intermediate School District.

Creative endeavors have always been part of her life, and Conner is currently working on improving her quilting skills—”with varying levels of success.”

She and her husband have two children.

Principal Laura Wolf says you have embraced what it means to engage students in virtual format. How so? 

Laura and I have had many conversations during which I have really been able to identify the things that I can control in a virtual setting, and how I can harness that control in order to serve my students. I try to remain grounded in the big picture of learning for this year. I have established practices within my 30-minute synchronous class that honors the students, their efforts, and their time. I try to create a sense of community that is welcoming to everyone. I want my students to know how much I care about them not only as artists but also as young humans trying to navigate our current world. I try to convey that art has a voice and that their voices hold power.

All of the decisions that I make during our time together stem from a much broader lens of supporting young learners to the best of my ability in this setting.  I have been able to offer some additional learning opportunities for older students during drop-in studio time. Students can attend this time to work and create with friends, they can share work with me, they can ask for advice or for help or they can just drop in to say hello. The limitations of our current situation often feel overwhelming; directing my energy towards what I can control has been a strategy that has helped mitigate some of the fatigue we all feel. 

You and your husband, Jack, who is his fourth year of a radiology residency at U-M, are parents of a son who is a second-grader at Burns Park Elementary and a daughter, 5, who will begin kindergarten in the fall. How do you juggle all your roles?

There is constant give and take. At this point in the year, our routines feel more established (whether or not those routines always work is another matter).  Like all families, both of us feel overwhelmed.  Late last summer, when there were so many unknowns about what the school year would look like, we came to the consensus that this year was going to be full of hard things. We decided we would try our best to do the hard things. That mantra is how we approach each week, we identify the hard parts and then we just do our best to get through the hard parts. And then we do the same thing again the next week. 

When you first realized you’d be teaching art virtually, what was your reaction? 

I would say initially I experienced a rollercoaster of emotions regarding teaching virtually. I had so many questions. I was constantly trying to juggle information as a parent and as a teacher.  The unknown aspects of schedules, expectations, and what-if’s dominated my thoughts through the end of the summer and into the start of the year.  

So how do you do it? 

I still experience the rollercoaster of emotions daily.  I keep waiting for the surreal aspects of teaching and parenting and living in our current world to feel normal and it just never does. In the first couple of weeks, I had to force myself into a mindset of existing within the unknowns and existing alongside the things I cannot control. As soon as I had some context for teaching art through zoom, I was able to identify the things I could control and try my best to direct my energy there. I have two main goals when I teach in this format.  

1. I want my students to experience a positive interaction with an adult that cares about them VERY much. This is only my second year at Allen and I continue to do everything I can to know my students better. 

2. I want my students to feel proud of any creative endeavor they are engaging in. I strive to meet students in the exact space that they come to art. 

I structure my time with students to cover content in a succinct and clear manner, and then provide time to show, share, and ask questions.  I respond to every student that posts their work, written responses for older students, and voice recordings for younger students.  Regardless of what is happening both personally and professionally, I am committed to showing up for every interaction with students with joy and enthusiasm. Throughout my years of teaching, I have come to recognize the value of a consistent reflection process. I am constantly reflecting on just about every detail of this virtual learning experience and I just try to do it a little bit better every day.  

Sarah Conner is dressed as the mouse from “If You Give A Mouse A Cookie” on March 13, 2020. It was the last day students were in the buildings before the COVID shutdown, and it was “Dress Like Your Favorite Book Character Day.”

When did you realize you wanted to be an art teacher? 

My first-grade teacher referred to paper rectangles as “markers.” We would place one under a line of text to help us with reading. One day, early in the year, she said, “Let’s get ready for our next activity. We will need the markers!” I loved reading but my first-grade heart was absolutely broken when I realized she wasn’t talking about art supplies.

In college, I worked as a camp counselor and it became evident every gall when I returned to campus just how much I missed working with kids. The idea of teaching art came full circle when I began the art education program at Colorado State. I knew I had found what I was born to do. 

What was always written on your report card in grade school?  

“Sarah enjoys school and faces every challenge with confidence. We appreciate her calm nature and positive attitude. We thoroughly enjoy having this bright and dedicated child in our class.” (Mrs. Boos & Mrs. Wynne, my second grade teachers.) 

What’s the most important thing you’ve learned about teaching? 

All students have a story to tell and truths to share. Creating an environment that allows this to happen in a visual way is an essential aspect of an educational experience. As an art teacher, student-choice is central to my practice and I have seen over and over again how a student-centered and choice-based classroom can help establish authentic critical thinking strategies and intrinsic motivation. Finding avenues for choice in this learning environment has certainly been a challenge and it is something I continue to work on.  I have tried to encourage the autonomy students have, both in their learning spaces and with materials available. Our learners have had to take on a huge amount of responsibility and I celebrate all successes within their work. 

What’s the most important thing you’ve learned about learning? 

Learning is more connected than the ways we sometimes acknowledge. COVID 19 has fully revealed many teaching practices and structures that should be reimagined or addressed.  I don’t believe that students should be learning skills and content in such rigid silos. An entire world of information is available to our students through technology; I hope that our culture and society can take this massive disruption in traditional learning to innovate the ways in which we reach and inspire all of our students. 

Describe an average workday. 

Before my kids wake up I prepare for my professional day and then I get my own kids ready for their learning.  My second grader needs some reminders about his materials and technology. He learns in our kitchen with varying levels of success. My daughter and I set up a learning plan for the morning that is a combination of independent activities and some screen time. This strategy of parenting while teaching sometimes works!

Earlier in the year, we were able to facilitate outdoor learning situations for our kids with some other families. Between the parents, we were able to lead and supervise some learning but as numbers crept up and the weather turned colder, this, unfortunately, couldn’t continue.

Additionally, my husband’s department has been incredibly supportive and there are times he is able to adjust his schedule.  

When classes begin, I surge from 0 to 60 and then I maintain that pace for the synchronous part of the day. I start with fifth graders and then work my way all the down to kindergarten. Our classes are back-to-back so transitions are tight. I have to be on high alert, ready for anything, and full of energy.  Teaching specials online is like sprinting on a tightrope. I am scanning my Zoom grid, taking anecdotal notes, capturing as much information about my learners as possible as we go through the lesson in such a short amount of time.

I try to have at least one-third of the time dedicated to hearing from students as others in the class get started on their work, and it is a race against the clock every day. My mind is constantly assessing all aspects of the lesson and my students, but I try to convey a sense of calm, patience, and joy as I respond to my learners.

On some days, everyone gets to share. On other days, we run out of time. This is one of the aspects I am continually trying to improve. I structure our synchronous time so that students can spend their asynchronous time finishing their work and posting it online. My own asynchronous time includes any meetings that might be scheduled, professional correspondence, daily reflections of synchronous time, and planning.

I also try to be a good mom during this time, supporting my own kids in their learning and trying to obtain a relative sense of order in our household. After my own kids are tucked in at night, I am able to log back on and spend an hour or two responding to student work. Like so many other working parents that are also at home with their kids, my professional and personal time often feels fused and tangled. It is nearly impossible for me to totally disconnect from these two roles I have in this space every day. 

I lay awake most nights balancing my feelings of worry and fatigue while trying to maintain a sense of optimism, a trait that has been such a core part of my existence for my whole life. The surrealness of this entire situation has not diminished. 

Favorite websites/podcasts/apps: 

Podcasts: The Daily, Stuff You Missed in History Class, Unlocking Us/Brene´Brown.

Is your home filled with art? If so, your own, or that of others? 

My home has some of my art, lots of art my kids have made, and a dedicated space to create.

What do you know about teaching now that you wish you’d known that first year? 

I always had this image that I would be the perfect teacher in every situation, that one day I would be able to do everything “right.”  What I know now is that teaching is about doing it better. The art of teaching is a process and you have to put in the work. A teacher cannot tackle every aspect of the practice at all times, but a steady approach to improving and becoming just a little bit better or knowing and learning just a little bit more, is going to compound over time. I don’t make the same mistakes I made in my first year of teaching but I certainly have work to do to continue becoming a better facilitator for kids. 

How do you keep students engaged? 

In a virtual setting, I try my best to make sure students are seen and heard. I am cognizant of meeting students wherever they are. Students in my classes also know that if another idea or project is something that feels more inspiring, they are always welcome to choose how to spend their creative time! This setting has also allowed for a renewed approach to teaching in a more collaborative way. It has been really rewarding to hear and see the lessons and ideas that other art teachers have, and then we work together to bring the lessons to life. Working with other elementary art teachers in the district in a formal manner is an aspect of this year that I really appreciate. I am grateful for the other specials teachers in my school, and all the staff at Allen that are working tirelessly during this time. 

How do you show school spirit?

I love spirit days when I remember that they are happening! I wear Allen gear with conviction and have even purchased costumes on occasion. I value every single relationship with the incredible staff at Allen and am proud to be an Eagle.

What do you find the most rewarding aspect of teaching? 

I love nothing more than when a student finds their footing in their creative process. As students become more familiar with the process of creating, I love being an observer of their learning. After so many years and so many elementary art students, it is increasingly easier for me to recognize moments when students really connect with the learning. My favorite part of my job is observing students who are thinking critically to solve problems, exploring multiple solutions, and finding success. 

The confidence that exudes from artists that have authentically brought an idea to life is such an exciting moment. This can happen in big ways after long projects; I also see evidence of students feeling proud of their work when they post and share what they have made.  Capturing the creative process in a virtual setting is much harder.

This year, the most rewarding aspect of teaching has been the moments that students have chosen to share something important with me—whether it be a joke, a drawing they have been working on for weeks, art that a family member created, a new LOL doll, or a new book that they want to read to me. In each of those moments, I was the person that was worthy of their story and their truth. I recognize what an honor that is.

Authentic connections with students are going to carry critical weight as we move forward through this pandemic. I take seriously my role of ensuring that every student knows their own potential for creative thinking and learning. Too many art teachers have made students feel that they are not artists. I really try to combat that misconception. 

What do you wish everyone realized about the work of a teacher—especially right now? 

Teachers and school systems have become the center of a much larger societal conversation and debate. I am acutely aware of the spectrum of learning experiences that families in our district are currently facing. Early in this experience, it became clear that we should not paint broad strokes or make sweeping assumptions about our learners and families. Parents and community members are experiencing and expressing so many valid worries and concerns.

Teachers share many of the same concerns because we are also at the core of this experience with our learners. I worry about students I see each week and former students that I don’t currently teach. I am faced with opposite truths at every corner of this experience, and from every angle.  I see only a small spark in the eyes of some students whose eyes usually shine so brightly. I see an entirely new side of a typically quiet student that has started making 5-minute art tutorial videos. (The humor, encouragement, and instructions in these videos would make even the most reluctant learner want to try). I have met so many pets! I have met grandparents and siblings and cousins. I have seen the spaces that define some of our learners and I have learners that do not want to show their spaces. I have kids commenting on each other’s work. They mimic my cadence and response structure for providing feedback to peers. Some kids say, “Bye, I love you!” when I leave Zoom.

Some students choose not to engage in certain ways in my class and I think endlessly about how I can better reach those kids. Some students have embraced a love of art and I am blown away by their diligent work. The technological skills of some of even our youngest learners continue to impress me.  I recognize and encourage any ounce of creative energy a student might have.

I am desperate for the connections that are so familiar when we learn together in classrooms. I celebrate those instances when I can, even when the realities of this time continue to pose impossible obstacles.

Teachers are presented every year with learners who possess all kinds of strengths and challenges.  In any circumstance where I have the honor and privilege of facilitating learning for young students, I will continue to meet those students where they are. I believe fully in the potential of their futures.  

How do you recharge? 

In the time of Covid, I still don’t have a good strategy for this. Like so many working parents, I don’t think I have felt ‘charged’ in a long time! I try to disconnect from social media and technology, I try to focus on things that I can control, I try to practice yoga and read more but the consistent practice of self care has remained elusive. Mostly I just hope for a good(ish) night of sleep and I hold on tight to the brighter moments in all of this.

How do you spend your summers? 

My family loves to swim in the summers, and that includes our 12-year-old black lab. I enjoy catching up on all the reading I try to do during the school year.  Taking a break from teaching never lasts as long as I plan; I typically find myself in book studies and PD, slowly preparing for the next fall.  I also like to take time to create my own art and, under normal circumstances, we like to travel.  Summers in Michigan have been really wonderful, the humidity took some getting used to but we enjoy the days where light extends late into the evening and of course, fireflies!

Sarah Conner enjoys spending time outdoors with her family during the summer.

What’s most notable about your professional life right now?

Professionally there has been no reprieve. Every day feels intense, especially as situations around learning and teaching continue to evolve. I am not the same teacher I was when I left my building last March. I hope to spend a good portion of the summer reflecting and reimagining how and what art should look like next fall. Looking back at this time, I hope it proves to be a paradigm shift in education. Uncertainty, disruptions, and the unknown can often be fertile ground for innovation. There are many innovations I would like to participate in and witness in our current educational system. 

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