My Turn: James Connors

An instructional assistant with a masters in fine arts celebrates each day with students in Carroll County

James Connors, instructional assistant, Friendship Valley Elementary School, Carroll County

Like a bumblebee, I fly from class to class checking in on kids who need support, giving pep talks, and taking calming walks. I love this job because of what it means. But if someone had told my fifth-grade self where I’d be at 31, I wouldn’t believe them.

Shy, overweight, and lonely, my own elementary school self-esteem was only kept afloat by drawing and a few friends. Too self-conscious to focus, I kept my head down, sliding under the radar with poor grades through high school. Fortunately, I was accepted to Maryland Institute College of Art, where I met my future wife, Devin. She saw the happy child inside me under a patina of piercings and dark clothing.

We took turns going to graduate school while the other worked in Michigan and California. When private student debt and other responsibilities made certain things like owning a home impossible in the near term, Devin encouraged me to find a part-time job so I could produce more art and find fulfillment in the present.

Everyone has a personal renaissance — a time when a subtle change in behavior leads to a profound shift in perspective. For me, it was while working with students in the Palm Springs Unified School District Desert Learning Academy as a paraprofessional. It was there I first worked alongside teachers, a community of nurturers — peers I came to revere. Raising children up and validating them was life-changing. When it was time to move back to Maryland, I knew exactly what kind of job to find.

As I help kids and enjoy my colleagues and benefits, I remind those who hired me how grateful I am that they snagged me from California.

Now kids in every grade want to hang with Mr. Connors, which can be a problem as I am also a disciplinarian. Drafting referrals, making sure students are not being disruptive, or drawing when they should be listening are all part of being an instructional assistant.

We are literally raising the next generation (at less than $17 an hour) and I still feel like I’ve lucked out. For me this occupation is life-affirming. Every day is waiting to become a celebration.