Headshot depicting Dr. Lauri Conner against a black background.

Dr. Lauri Conner: Investing in Students and Teaching Them the World

by Elizabeth Turnbull

Pouring pen ink into words, Dr. Lauri Conner’s 12-year-old self began the process of writing out her feelings and expressing her way into a new future — as a poet, an educator earning a doctorate degree, and now, the new head of school at Lake Washington Girls Middle School (LWGMS).

“I started writing because it was the way I could express myself. It was a way I could get all those things that were bottled up inside out,” Conner told the Emerald in an interview. “So it just became the way.”

Born in Fort Devens, Massachusetts, to a father who served in the military and to a mother who owned a daycare, Conner was the youngest of three and raised by older parents who expected greatness, not conventionality. 

“There was no expectation for me to walk the path that everybody else travelled,” Conner said. “… I’m the baby by like seven years, so my family raised me to make a difference in the world.”

As Conner grew older, educators played pivotal roles in forming the trajectory of her life. From a teacher in high school, who encouraged her to sit in the front of the class and engage more, to a college professor at the University of Kansas, who questioned Conner’s initial career decision to become a lawyer.

“She goes, ‘No, why do you want to be a lawyer?’ And I said, ‘I think the way that I see the world could alter how people think,’” Conner said. “And she said, ‘Sounds like you want to be a teacher.’ And I had to go. I had to think about that.”

In college, Conner took two years off, between her sophomore and junior year, to mature and figure out what she wanted for her future. After college, she made a difficult phone call to her father, telling him she didn’t want to be a lawyer, but a poet. 

Her parents encouraged pivots and life changes, but they asked her for a plan. So she flew to Seattle in 1992 to live for a year before beginning her Master of Fine Arts in creative writing at the University of Washington (UW) in 1994.

“My parents always said to me, ‘You have to love what you are doing, because loving what you are doing will keep you healthy,’” Conner said. “So I didn’t enter education with the thought of making money.”

Following her master’s degree, Conner completed a Ph.D. in education from UW in 2018 and now serves as an emerging leaders mentor for the Northwest Association of Independent Schools, the president of Seattle Arts & Lectures’ board of directors, and has taught at Cornish College of the Arts, Antioch University, and Seattle Central College.

Up until 2021 and for roughly 20 years prior, Conner worked at the Seattle Academy — an independent middle and high school located in Capitol Hill — holding positions such as the director of diversity, the dean of students, the head of upper school, English instructor, and, most recently, the assistant head of school.

Following her work at Seattle Academy, LWGMS chose Conner, from a national pool of applicants, to begin her current position as head of school on July 1. 

Before Conner, Brenda Stonecipher worked as interim CFO and interim head of school at LWGMS, which was founded in 1995 and is located in North Beacon Hill. The school provides education to students who identify as girls and lists itself as “one of the most diverse independent schools in Seattle,” according to the LGWMS website.

Core to Conner’s specific leadership style is a simple principle she learned from her mother: Find out how students need to learn and then teach them that way. Conner also credits her time at Seattle Academy for allowing her to spread her wings and to understand education more fully.

“The teachers that I worked with taught me the world,” Conner said. “When it was time to step into the space here at [Lake Washington Girls Middle School], I was ready because of all those people who had invested their time and energy into me. And so my hope is, that with my leadership team and my faculty, that I am also investing in them.” 

In addition to accommodating the way students learn, Conner and the school have worked to foster an environment of education in all areas, including when students do something wrong. For this, Conner has highlighted the concepts of grace and space. Instead of condemning a student’s moral character or personhood, she and other teachers try to create room for learning.

“We have to teach kids, in particular, that it’s okay to get it wrong,” Conner said. “Give them grace to get it wrong but space to get it right … We want to make sure that if people get it wrong and they’re not at the table, that we leave room for them to be at the table.”

So far, Conner has added a few new faculty members and bolstered existing programming. In terms of a path toward the future, she believes the true heroes of the school are the very people who helped her find her own way to success — the teachers.

“They are the ones doing the work; they are the ones guiding the mission and pushing it with kids. They’re the ones that are entrenched in it and so, as an administrator, my job, and my role, is to make sure that I give them enough space and grace to do what it is that they do best and to support them in their endeavors,” Conner said. “… I have plans on being the best middle school in the nation, and it’s less about me and more about the faculty that I have.”

Elizabeth Turnbull is a journalist with reporting experience in the U.S. and the Middle East. She has a passion for covering human-centric issues and doing so consistently.

📸 Featured Image: Dr. Lauri Conner, head of school at Lake Washington Girls Middle School. Photo courtesy of LWGMS.

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