One spring day in 2018, while substitute teaching at W. G. Coleman Elementary School in Marshall, Sandy O’Connor found she couldn’t stand up from her chair. She dispatched a student to a nearby teacher, who quickly responded. With the help of aides, O’Connor finished her workday.
“I knew something was really wrong,” O’Connor said.
Consulting with physicians at three orthopedic centers yielded a diagnosis of acute spinal stenosis. Every disc in her spine was closed.
“They told me on a scale from 1 to 10 -- 10 being the worst -- my spine was 9.5,” said O’Connor. “Thus began my incredible journey of trying to fix my spine.” Surgery was too dangerous, she said. The cost of a medication to strengthen her bones is prohibitive at $1,100 a month, so she pushes through much of her pain without drugs.
Epidurals kept her going -- and in the classroom -- for a little while. She continued substitute teaching until just before the Christmas break of 2018. She was instructing the students of a teacher whom she had taught in fourth grade.
O’Connor liked to be on her feet and in the midst of students. “I was always a mover,” she said. “I wanted to see what the kids were doing.”
But she found she had to lean on desks and counters to get around.
“I knew that would be the last day,” O’Connor said, as she fought back tears.
Recently, the 35-year veteran educator sat in her living room surrounded by warm tones of beige, cream and brown, while her dog, Amy Anne, blended into the color scheme. She talked about her lifetime of teaching.
Some of us are seemingly born to our professions. O’Connor was frequently in her make-believe classroom as a little girl, playing school. “It’s like I never grew up,” she said.
Transitioning from fantasy to reality, she earned a master’s degree in education. In the course of her career as a teacher and a librarian in three school systems, she was nominated to the Who’s Who Among America’s Teachers list.
O’Connor had her first job as a librarian in the basement of Warrenton Middle School. The library was underneath the gym. She remembers acclimating to the sounds of balls bouncing and students’ feet hitting the floor.
Jackie Moon, who teaches at Greenville Elementary School, remembers O’Connor substituting for the librarian there. “She seemed super happy to see kindergarten visit the library and had a way to make them feel heard,” said Moon.
But as a librarian, O’Connor found a lack of depth in her relationships with students. She just didn’t have the opportunity to get to know them well. “The library was something I always wanted to do,” she said. “But I found I missed the closeness of the kids.” She likens her students to a family.
“Those kiddos were important to her,” said Moon. She once subbed for O’Connor, who was out for an extended period attending to family matters. O’Connor always delivered her lesson plans and made time to chat.
After teaching fourth grade at Coleman, an opening at Bradley Elementary School developed for a teacher with special skills. The administration wanted someone to work with children who present behavioral challenges.
“I had a good reputation for discipline that wasn’t harsh,” O’Connor said. She said she focused on discovering the cause of the student’s misbehavior and figuring out a way to help.
“Once you hit the key to turn that child around,” O’Connor said, “You’re the bridge that will turn that child around for a lifetime.”
Working in partnership with parents was part of O’Connor’s approach, as well as nurturing the student’s self-esteem. “I would try everything I could to make that child feel he was worthwhile,” she said.
Ellen Steiner, a first-grade teacher at Bradley, remembers O’Connor as “adept at building relationships with her students.”
The challenge of the job appealed to O’Connor and she remained at Bradley for 20 years.
In 2009, O’Connor retired from Fauquier County Public Schools and promptly joined the teaching staff of a private school in Manassas.
“It’s hard to quit cold turkey,” said Susan Laing, who was a reading specialist and special education teacher at Mary Walter Elementary School. “You know it’s time to retire, but you’re not ready to leave the children.”
Fauquier County offered O’Connor a part-time position tutoring students. For two years she traveled to schools around the county. Then she began substitute teaching, continuing until her physical condition deteriorated.
Now O’Conner gets around using a walker and a wheelchair. Neighbors built a ramp from her front door to the driveway.
One of her neighbors transports people in wheelchairs, and often gives O’Connor a lift. He mentioned concerns he had about his granddaughter, a fourth grader. She was doing poorly in school, and threw tantrums when confronted with homework, he said.
“There’s got to be a reason and you need to find it out soon,” O’Connor said. The neighbor asked her to talk with his granddaughter.
O’Connor is now tutoring the girl and her twin sister every Wednesday for about an hour. Recent report cards for them were almost all As and Bs. They write stories and make puppets.
O’Connor said that the girl’s’ grandmother brought her flowers and homemade bread for Thanksgiving. “It made me feel important and worthwhile.”
O’Connor had viewed teaching again as a hopeless proposition. It’s true that O’Connor can’t go to students, but students can come to her. She is offering tutoring in her home and the price can’t be beat. She’s not charging a penny.
The problem-solver for challenged students is looking forward to continuing the work she loves. O’Connor can be contacted at 540-219-0419.