Program Director Spotlight: Erin L. Connor, Ph.D.
Dr. Erin Connor is the Program Director for the Graduate Programs in Education at the College of Graduate and Professional Studies here at the University of New England. Dr. Connor comes from a long line of educators, but going into her undergraduate program at Swarthmore College, she was convinced that she was not going to become a teacher. It wasn’t until Dr. Connor took an Introduction to Education class to fulfill a prerequisite requirement during her freshman year at Swarthmore that she realized education was in fact her calling. Her professor at the time, who remains a close friend to this day, asked “when are you going to come to terms with the fact that this is what you need to do?”
Dr. Connor went on to become the first student in Swarthmore history to sit for honors exams in education. She then went on to obtain her Master of Science in Education from Harvard University and her Ph.D. from the University of Southern Maine.
With over 20 years of teaching and school administration experience primarily in the public school setting, Dr. Connor is an incredible resource for the students in the Graduate Programs in Education. She not only has situational and institutional expertise, but also an extensive network of administrators and teachers who serve to enhance the student experience at UNE Online.
Can you tell me a little bit about your background and what drew you to UNE Online?
Before I started in my current role at UNE Online, I was a classroom teacher and school administrator for 20 years, working mostly in public schools, but also at a charter school in Boston.
I began to have doubts about some of the challenges that public school communities were confronting and whether they could be solved from that side of the fence.
I began to think about what would it look like to work in higher ed, and in particular in teacher prep and the transition of high school students to higher education. There’s been a chasm between higher ed and K-12 teachers as to who is responsible for why kids aren’t prepared when they enter college. K-12 blames higher ed, and vice versa. The remediation gap is threatening the social mobility of a generation of students.
In 2008, I had a colleague who was working at UNE, and he suggested I teach as an adjunct for the Graduate Programs in Education, which I now direct. This served as my intro to online education. I was very nervous at first, because my DNA is as a classroom instructor and I couldn’t imagine what it would be like to not have that classroom presence. I found out pretty quickly that I was able to establish relationships with students based on their work in a way I wasn’t always able to in a face-to-face classroom. There is a lot of small talk in the classroom and time spent on the physical space. When you’re creating a relationship based on an artifact of student work that you share with that student, then some of the classroom “noise” is dialed down. It enabled me to work with my students up close with their work as our context.
I was also able to identify that there is no “back of the classroom.” In a classroom setting, I was always aware that there were students who hide and didn’t raise their hands or participate, and quite frequently they were women or girls.
With online education there is no “back,” and I found that the discussion boards gave a voice to people who normally wouldn’t raise their hand because they were intimidated or shy or not confident in themselves. That experience was a gateway for me and I began to transition to higher ed.
I worked at Kaplan University and Colby College, and during that time I began working on my PhD. Then the stars just aligned and the opportunity to lead the program I had been teaching in for almost a decade came up, and I felt like this is where I was meant to be. It’s a job I feel really well prepared to participate in.
How did you get interested in the field of education?
Oh, I come from a longggg line of educators. My parents were both educators and members of their families were teachers and administrators as well. It really was the family business. However, I went off to undergrad and knew with great certainty that I would never be a teacher. But by the end of my freshmen year when I needed to fulfill a gen-ed and took intro to education, my professor at the time—who is now a great friend—said “when are you going to come to terms with the fact that this is what you need to do?” I ended up being the first student at Swarthmore to go honors in education.
Luckily, I got a job right out of college at a rural K-12 school in Vermont, and it was amazing. I taught there for four years, and it was at that point that I realized I really needed to go back and get my Master’s degree. There was so much I didn’t know about implementing and assessing new programs.
I then applied and was accepted to Harvard for my Master’s in Education. My experience at Harvard, for me, was what I hope some of our students have in the sense that I met so many incredible students in the program from all over the world. There were students in my program from Ireland, and there were students from urban schools in Los Angeles, and there I was offering my perspective from a rural teaching background. It was such a rich environment, and I learned that while teaching is teaching no matter where you are, the challenges are SO diverse. The diversity at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education was what made that my experience such a valuable learning period in my life.
What do you feel sets the UNE Online Graduate Programs in Education apart?
I think our practitioner-scholar model is incredibly powerful. As educators, we come to grips at some point that a lot of the theory we learn in our prep is hard to see implemented unless you have someone standing by your shoulder telling you that “right there, that is Piaget,” and our faculty is able do just that because they can talk the talk and walk the walk. They’re teaching and running schools and working with our students to push them to learn that there is method and there is theory and that you need to be able to articulate both to others so that the model works.
That was not something I experienced in my education. I’ve had amazing professors, but being able to learn so closely from people actually doing the work in schools was not a significant part of my preparation.
I also think that people are stymied about progressing in their career in education because they feel like they can’t take classes and raise their families and also do activities on the weekend like coach soccer or prepare kids for the one act festival. Teaching is not a nine-to-five job and if someone wants to become a lead teacher or a principal, how do they do that without sacrificing the rest of their personal lives? Being a part of a program and university that is able to deliver our education online really can be revolutionary. Our students can choose to be active participants in their institutional culture AND pursue a degree that empowers them to make change. Studying online allows our students to grow and change through our education in the context of their career.
How do you feel that you prepare your students for life after graduation?
First and foremost, by creating networks of mentors who can both formally and informally work with graduates on what their next steps can be with the degrees they have earned.
Also, because our students are in class with peers from all over the country, it widens their perspective and their options. If all you’ve experienced is a classroom setting in Androscoggin County, Maine, you might not know the challenges or successes of someone who is teaching in Northern California.
That broadening of your perspective of a profession that spans the continent or even the world is empowering. Sometimes you need to work with other professionals to learn what is possible for you.
What do you like best about working with UNE Online students?
I think they keep me honest. Since I’m not in a public school classroom like I used to be, I think our students keep me honest about how hard the job of working in schools really is. Working with our doctoral students allows me to learn about how difficult and multi-faceted the problems they are trying to solve through their research, truly are. When you’re not actually in it, it’s easy to get cavalier and to say “oh, of course we can fix this.” Working with our students allows me to see how heavy the lift is, but it’s how passionate they are about making these changes that I like best.
What would say your favorite thing about the job is?
Right now, this week, I am engaged with our faculty in regards to their experience with the Summer A term, to learn about their thoughts in general, and see what we can improve.
I feel so proud and so touched that these tremendous professionals want to do this work, because they see our students as future peers and they want to contribute to the profession via the work they do with these students.
There is so much to be frustrated about in education right now, but the willingness of our faculty to educate their future peers and how much they care about their career trajectory is one of our great strengths as a profession.
As Dr. Connor mentions, online learning offers the flexibility to balance your day-to-day life while still achieving your goals. If you’re interested in furthering your educational career and would like to know more, we welcome you to download our Graduate Programs in Education Guide:Graduate Programs in Education