A group of graduating seniors coming together around the contents of a muddy popcorn tin on a misty May afternoon is a testament to why Trisha Connor is this year’s Gwinnett County Teacher of the Year.
It’s about relationships. She says she didn’t know if any of her former fifth-grade students would show up to unearth the time capsule seven years after they’d buried it. But there they were: eighteen young adults whose lives were touched by that one special teacher— and it meant the world to Trisha Connor.
“It just shows that what we do matters and impacts lives,” she says. “And the extra things—the little things, the creative and different things—that we do leave a mark. To me, this was proof-positive that relationships make the difference.” She has served for the past two of her four years at Harbin Elementary School as a facilitator for their STEM and project-based learning team, working with all students from kindergarten through fifth grade. “Eleven-hundred babies,” Connor says, laughing. “They’re all mine!”
Connor has stayed within Gwinnett County throughout her career, fostering her relationship with the community in the years since. She began teaching in a first-grade classroom at Stripling Elementary School, eventually immersing herself in problem-solving and technology enrichment (K-5) and serving as a Parent Instructional Support Coordinator. Connor was a Gifted and Advanced Content Math Instructor at Magill Elementary School before joining the faculty at Harbins Elementary School, where she just completed her fourth year as a fourth-grade teacher in addition to her STEM commitments.
Connor, 39, was previously chosen for Teacher of the Year in 2005, nominated for the award an additional four times, and was a finalist still three other times. She’s an obvious firestarter, eager to shake the dust off her students’ brains and get them connecting the dots on their own. Her deep passion for what she does not only drives her forward but can be contagious in the classroom. She’s a firm believer in the sharing of ideas between teachers, again coming back to an underlying theme of relationship.
When Connor talks about teaching, her voice swells with pride for her students and a deep love for what she does.
She says it’s all about a willingness to be open and honest with colleagues, and stresses the importance of taking the time to share ideas. Connor credits Dr. Cindy Truett, her principal for her first three years at Harbin, for showing her that teacher-sharing is a huge component in successfully educating young people.
Her devotion to pushing her kids to do their best runs deep and sincere. An ambitious child, Connor wanted to be both a teacher and an astronaut. She jokes that her height, poor vision and gender–which was more of a barrier at the time–stood in the way of space travel. Nothing could stop her from teaching, however. Learning and instilling a love of it in others came easily.
“I came from a family where education was so very clearly valued. Never at any point in my life was college a ‘maybe.’ It was made very clear in our home that our first job was to be a student,” Connor says. “My parents are still constant learners. The common things around the house are crossword puzzles and ‘Jeopardy!’. That’s what we do. We value knowledge.”
She also credits her experience as a swimming coach throughout high school and college with helping to shape her teaching style. She says it was from building those bonds at the swimming pool and showed her how much she loved helping and encouraging young people.
“As a STEM teacher, I see myself as a coach as opposed to someone who imparts knowledge on others. That coaching element is something that’s deep rooted in me. It’s not telling them what I want them to know but cheering them on to figure it out,” Connor says.
Seeing her students apply what they’ve learned in order to shape a new concept is a staple of her teaching philosophy. Learning doesn’t stop with memorizing facts, she says. The key is to get–and keep–young people thinking and wondering. This is evident by her classroom’s Wall of Wonder, posted with questions about this world and beyond.
“One thing I love about teaching STEM is it’s so much about collaboration. We work on how to respectfully disagree and how to have that scholarly conversation about our disagreements. We work on giving those kids that vocabulary so they can express themselves,” Connor says. “If you always guide yourself with the question, ‘What is best for kids?,’ then you’re always going to be in a good place.”
And at the root of the applied knowledge, the student collaboration and the constant encouragement, lies the cement that holds every teaching moment together and provides staying power–a quality relationship with the kids, she says.
“If I don’t build a relationship where students trust me, where students know that I care about them and am interested in improving their future, none of that other stuff is really going to make a difference,” Connor says.