Dr. Erin Connor has 20 years of experience in public school teaching and administration. She received her Master’s in Education from Harvard University and her Ph.D. from the University of Southern Maine. At the University of New England Online, Dr. Connor combines a lifetime of education expertise and an extensive network of peers to serve her students best.

What drew you to online education?

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. For example, there’s been a chasm between higher education 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.

Then 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 introduction 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.

What surprised you about online learning?

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.

What do you like best about working with online students?

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. 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 do you feel sets the UNE Online Graduate Programs in Education apart?

Our practitioner-scholar model (in which all of our faculty apply their research to their daily jobs in the education field and their daily jobs inform their research in return) 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 a learning theory in action,” 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.

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 would you say is your favorite thing about your job as Program Director?

Right now, this week, I am engaged with our faculty in regards to their experience with the previous 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.

To learn more about the Graduate Programs in Education at UNE Online, visit their website here