Education major lands dream job in Goddard

Chance Swaim

Senior Connor Christensen has a lot to brag about. 

But if you talk to Christensen, an elementary education major graduating this spring, he’ll leave out some pretty significant details.

He won’t tell you he was nominated by a faculty member for a student-teacher award this year, or that he shadowed elementary school teachers to learn how to set up a classroom for kindergarten — the grade he plans to teach next fall — and went beyond the requirements of his student-teaching duties. 

He won’t tell you he’s a first-generation college student starting his master’s degree. 

He’s one of the most consistent students professor Jim Granada said he’s ever had at Wichita State. Granada advises WSU’s student teachers at Chisholm Trail Elementary.

“He does all of the little things,” Granada said. “Connor’s not one to draw attention to himself. He’s very humble and consistent and the kids seem to be very receptive to his teaching style.” 

But there are other things that set Christensen apart from his fellow elementary education student-teachers. 

For one, he’s a male. Of all the future teachers Granada has advised over the years who hope to go on to teach kindergarten, including his four students at Chisholm Trail Elementary School this spring, Christensen is the first male. 

According to World Bank Data in 2015, only 13 percent of U.S. primary — kindergarten through fifth grade — educators are male. 

Male teachers in kindergarten are even more rare. The latest data by U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics shows only 2.8 percent of U.S. kindergarten teachers are male.   

“I don’t know why more men don’t go into kindergarten teaching,” Christensen said. “Maybe it’s because most males go into teaching to be coaches, but maybe that’s a bad stereotype.” 

Christensen said the reason he chose to pursue a career as a kindergarten teacher is so he can give students a good first impression of school.

“I’m not all that interested in coaching,” Christensen said. “Don’t get me wrong, I love sports. I love the Royals and the Chiefs, but I want to teach.”

He enjoys the inquisitive nature and general interest in learning that comes with being five years old. 

“I just really like being with the little ones,” Christensen said. “It’s their first experience with school. They’re excited to be in school, and they haven’t gotten a tainted image of what school is or what school can be. Plus, I get to be silly with them.” 

One of his keys to success in the classroom is a transitional move between activities that involves the students putting their hands on top of their heads and looking at the front of the class so he knows they are paying attention. Christensen joins in and puts his hands on his head. The students stifle chuckles. 

So, he’s a funny, humble, hardworking and compassionate guy, and one of the few men to go in to kindergarten teaching.  

But what really sets Christensen apart from his classmates is that for the fall 2016, he already has a job.

‘A rocky start’ 

Christensen started college in 2012 at Fort Hays State University. Like many 18-year-olds, Christensen said he wasn’t sure what he wanted to do with his life. He thought about being a chiropractor, a doctor or an accountant. Nothing stuck.

After a year in Hays, Christensen transferred to the University of Kansas. He spent a semester there and decided he didn’t like the atmosphere or the high cost of tuition and housing.

“Something about the culture up there, it just wasn’t the right fit,” Christensen said. “I never felt at home at KU. I had heard good things about Wichita State, so I decided to go there for my last two years.” 

But Christensen still wasn’t sure about his career plans.  

“I thought about my grandpa who passed away my senior year of high school,” he said. “He was a huge influence on me. He lived across the street, and I was over there all the time. One summer he bought a chalk board at a garage sale and he would use it to give me spelling lessons and math problems and stuff.” 

Christensen said his grandfather, a military veteran, was always trying to educate him. 

“He would give me money for my grades, like a dollar for an ‘A,’” Christensen said. “He was always encouraging me and giving me that intrinsic motivation. So, when I thought about what I wanted to do, I thought, why not teach?”

‘It’s scary right now’

The teaching climate in Kansas has made national news in the past year, including an article in The Atlantic called “Unhappy teachers are leaving Kansas in droves” and “Why teachers can’t hotfoot it out of Kansas fast enough” from The Washington Post.

Kansas lawmakers face the task of closing the state’s $290 million deficit for this and next year. A handful of Kansas school districts have implemented hiring freezes while waiting to see how much money they will receive. 

“It’s scary right now with the state that Kansas education is in,” Christensen said. “But I think if you’re a good teacher and you’re passionate then you’re going to have a job, and the money is going to come.” 

Christensen recently took a job teaching kindergarten at Apollo Elementary School in Goddard. He was also offered a teaching position in the Dodge City school district.

Christensen said he understands why some people would be apprehensive about starting a teaching career in Kansas, but he said he thinks circumstances will get better.

“I do believe teachers are underpaid, but it’s not going to make an impact on my life because seeing the impact I make every day with those kids is more rewarding than the paycheck I’ll get at the end of the month,” he said.

Granada, who spent almost two decades teaching, said he thinks the districts in Kansas are being conservative with new hires to minimize the financial challenges they may face going forward.

“It’s not a black-and-white type of an issue,” Granada said. “There are reasons why things are happening. It’s not that the legislature is doing a terrible job or that the districts are not being fair. They are doing what they need to do in order to prepare for whatever scenario comes out.”

‘The perfect fit’

Christensen grew up in Minneapolis, Kansas, a town of a little more than 2,000 people. He said he applied to Goddard school district after attending an open house, where he instantly felt welcomed. 

“I’m a small-town guy,” Christensen said. “I like the intimacy and the close-knit culture of a small Kansas town. That’s home for me. That’s what I felt at Goddard.”

An unofficial hiring freeze in the Wichita School District has some of Christensen’s classmates looking out of state for a teaching position.

Christensen said he can understand the desire to leave the state, but the thought never crossed his mind.

“Wichita State has really allowed me to flourish, to thrive,” Christensen said. “You get to know your professors and they actually care about you and want to talk to you.”

Granada said he thinks Christensen has the potential to pursue an advanced degree, move up to an administrative role at a school or become a university professor. 

“I just hope that he stays in the classroom for a few years,” Granada said. “He really has a tremendous amount of potential, and I’d like to see him succeed.”