New high-school STEM teachers bring intriguing pasts to their positions

Two STEM experts have joined the high-school faculty. Elissa Thomas teaches high-school computer science and mathematics, and Victoria Conner teaches high-school chemistry.

Victoria Conner

Kevin Huang
Victoria Conner demonstrates a reaction prior to having her students perform the experiment.

Victoria Conner last taught chemistry starting in 2003 at an alternative public high school in Bedford-Stuyvesant Brooklyn 10 years ago.

Her students, she said, were 17- to 21-year-olds who hadn’t done well in their original school but still wanted to succeed.

“The students at the school were similar to ones that go to Country Day in regards that both really do value education and want to do well,” Conner said.

“Some obvious differences between the students are their ages and socio-economic backgrounds.”

After teaching chemistry for four years, Conner stopped and went to law school because one of her students was murdered.

“The circumstances of his death made me angry, so I went to law school to get a better understanding of the legal system,” Conner said.

During and after attending law school at the Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, campus of Widener University, Conner worked with the Pennsylvania State Police Department, advising the police on Constitutional matters involving the Fourth and Fifth Amendments.  

Later, Conner worked at a veterans’ law clinic, helping people who didn’t have the money to afford a lawyer.

“I didn’t go to law school to become a lawyer,” Conner said. “I went for the education I could get to better understand the legal system and rules, and then apply this knowledge to help others.”

In 2010, Conner became a consultant for plastic companies. There she did market research, looking for new compounds that could make the companies’ products more attractive to consumers.

“An upside was that working for these companies kept me very current in what was happening in the chemical industry,” she said.

Conner said she was able to watch new products develop, such as new additives and colors companies could use to enhance their products’ compounds.

Conner says that she likes teaching chemistry because of its hands-on qualities.

“You can get your hands dirty and get instant results,” Conner said.

“I want students to see that chemistry isn’t just a class that they’re required to take, but it’s also a way of looking at the world and solving problems.”

Conner accepted the SCDS job offer in July because she and her family (her son, daughter and husband) were relocating from Pennsylvania to California to be closer to her husband’s family, who live in California.

Some of Conner’s hobbies include traveling, reading, watching movies and hiking.

Conner said she has traveled to Bangkok, Beijing, all over Europe and Israel, and wherever she could get a cheap ticket before she had children.

“Now that my kids are old enough, traveling is definitely a priority,” she said. “Traveling is a great education tool because you get to learn a lot about the world and yourself by doing it.”

Conner’s favorite book is “A Confederacy of Dunces” by John Kennedy Toole.

She said that she’s also a big fan of old Japanese movies because they have a lot of interesting philosophies in them, and currently her favorite movie is “Rashomon.”

In “Rashomon,” four characters describe their version of a man’s murder, and the philosophy of justice and human nature is explored.

Elissa Thomas

Elissa Thomas has taught computer science at Arizona State University in Tempe and a K-12 school in Barranquilla, Colombia (South America).

She began teaching at ASU four years ago, but said the teaching was a lot more lecture-oriented and less personal than teaching high school.

Elissa Thomas

“I stopped teaching college courses because I wanted to interact more with students,” she said.

Thomas said research, rather than teaching, is a college professor’s top goal.

“For me, making sure that the student is actually learning is more important (than getting grants),” she said.

After leaving Arizona, Thomas moved on to teaching in Colombia.

Thomas knew about the overseas teaching opportunities there because several of her family members had taught in the country, and when she had visited them during Christmas, she experienced the Colombian culture.

“I was instantly drawn by Colombia’s very social culture,” she said. “There was a very close-knit environment there.”

Because the school was bilingual (half the classes were taught in Spanish and the other half in English), Thomas could teach in English.

Thomas said that she still had to learn some Spanish to get around, since when she got to Barranquilla she didn’t know any.

“But immersing yourself in another culture makes learning the language easier,” Thomas said.

Barranquilla is known for having an amazing Carnaval celebration – it’s the second biggest in the world (behind the one in Rio de Janeiro) – according to Thomas.

“While I was there, I had the opportunity to attend many of the Carnaval parades and celebrations, which included some beautifully intricate costumes and dancing,” she said.

Thomas said that she also misses the easy beach access in Barranquilla.

After two years of teaching in Colombia, Thomas decided to move back to the U.S. after she saw the online job posting for a STEM teacher at SCDS.

By Katia Dahmani


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