Coach Jander — Connie — is a force of nature. Full-stop. You intuitively know this if you’ve ever waited in carpool and watched her work the Old Bonhomme parking lot; an absolute concertmaster in command of this symphony of children, teacher-helpers, automobiles, apex adults, and the occasional napping parent. You may move billion dollar decisions at work or design things that keep airplanes in the air, but with the sweep of her microphone hand or her attachment of your child’s name to a numbered position, Coach Jander is in charge. And you like it.
By Craig Williams
Connie is a remarkable educator, to be sure. But those words, alone — even when paired with her impressive credentials — fall well-short of what she brings to the table. So completely committed is she to her belief that movement is an essential wellspring for kids’ academic success throughout the day, that one almost has to squint to distinguish where her form ends and her aura begins. But it all comes so naturally to her, this gift she has to share with our kids — her kids. Growing up was largely an outdoor activity for Connie and her sister. Sports and an active lifestyle were just part of life. Hiking, riding bikes, playing ball, and experiencing the joy of an active childhood served as the foundation for a life of fitness but, equally important, for a set of beliefs that led to her professional pursuits.
Despite having a father who was a longtime teacher and athletic director, a career in education was not her first choice. In fact, she wanted to go into physical therapy and — irony of ironies — thinks she was likely not admitted to her program of choice because of the way she answered one of the interview questions: “Have you considered any other degrees?” To which she replied, “I was thinking about Education.” [Hard pass.] So, she enrolled at what was then Southwest Missouri State University. Connie chose PE as her major and wound-up graduating with a degree in both Physical Education and Sports Medicine. Right out of college, she landed at Old Bonhomme in 1997. “Old Bonhomme is deep in my heart,” she tells me. “It’s the only place I’ve ever taught.” Although she quickly adds that she did double-duty, working as one of two Athletic Trainers at Ladue Horton Watkins High School for 10-years early in her career at Old Bonhomme, and that this really solidified her love for PE. In fact, 10-years into her career — and quite to her surprise — she was honored by the National Association for Sport and Physical Education (NASPE) as one of just five (5) Elementary Teachers of the Year. Yeah, I think she made the right call.
In 2000, just a few years into her career with the Ladue School District, she chose to pursue a Master’s degree in Kinesiology and Exercise Behavior at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville, falling in love with a particular branch of study focused on body-brain connection. She remembers, not long ago, sitting in a workshop on SEL — social emotional learning — seeing the clear through-line between this important focal point in education today, and her work as a PE teacher. She points out that Ladue is one of the few districts that offers every day PE at the elementary level. “It shows up in our test scores, and it energizes our students, complementing the natural state-of-play so embedded in the lives of children. I just love being able to touch those lives early. It’s a game changer.” Connie is such a firm believer in the value of PE that she’s upgraded its acronym to ‘Powerful Education.’
I see a lean, similarly energized figure pass behind Connie during our Zoom interview and ask about her family. “Oh, yeah, that was my 16-year-old son, Evan! I also have a 19-year-old daughter, Ellie, and they both run cross-country and track.” Reminiscing on her kids’ younger years, she tells me of their days camping in the backyard, at State and National Parks as often as they could; how — like her — they played outside growing-up, soaking up the warm rays of a natural childhood. And how they enjoyed participating in various youth sports and bicycling along the Katy Trail on their self-styled ‘bike train’ — Connie leading on her bike, attached to a trail-along, attached to a Burley Bee-style child trailer. It is clear to me that Connie’s love for her children, her family, and for life itself is a love in motion. Her 79-year-old father remains active and mows 4 or 5 yards every week. Her 74-year-old mother works out at the community center twice a week and keeps a weekly pickle ball date, as well. “Speaking of kids,” I say, “what sort of advice do you suppose you’d give your 6th grade self, if you had the chance to sit down with her today?” “I’d tell her not to worry about what other people think.” Along those same lines, she shared a moment with me that unfolded one day in class, “I was having a conversation with one of my students and I found myself saying, ‘Look, you’re the only person you have to live with ALL the time. So be the kind of person you’d want to hang out with!” She continued, "No sooner than the words left my mouth, plus 3-beats, I turned to catch Coach [Matt] Prange's epic comedic timing and raised eyebrow, who muttered, 'Well that was deep — for Third Grade guidance,' and we both had a good laugh. Honestly, though" she quickly adds, "We make a very good team."
As our interview was drawing to a close, we chatted a bit about how life for some of her students can be difficult, but how she tries to be in a place to lend support, in whatever form that may take. “Some days I just listen, others, I encourage, and sometimes, I just help them to see their strength.” Connie Jander — Coach Jander — brings her whole self to her role as a PE Teacher at Old Bonhomme, and it is an immutable fact that our kids are better for it; we’re all better for it. The carpool symphony conductor persona was a clue, early-on, but an incomplete definition. Our Zoom call broadened my perspective, and I found myself inspired to get out more with my kids; to find my own brain-body connection through a bit more outdoor activity and movement.
A few days later, on a particular Thursday in late October, I caught up with Connie at Stacy Park to photograph her for this story. It was a little before 9:30, and she was wrapping up with a group of Third Graders performing orchestral maneuvers on the fallen leaves. If I didn’t know better, I’d have sworn she had them gathering, sorting, and piling the leaves by species. It was PE, and these kids were at-play, but in the chaos, there was, somehow, order. From my vantage point, the piles were symmetric, the kids were moving with genuine enthusiasm for this task, and with a kind of kinetic rhythm that seemed invisibly tethered to her own. I was reminded of how unconventionally remarkable Connie and this whole moment was by the way she closed our interview. In connection to some of the challenges she’s overcome, I’d made a remark about turning lemons into lemonade, but she interrupted and said, “I really prefer to say I make lemons into chocolate milk!” Continuing, she offered, “Not only do I prefer chocolate milk to lemonade, but nobody sees it coming.” Touché, Coach Jander, touché.