I do like the fact that I got my start as a paraprofessional. It’s about observing other teachers. I would be able to ask them questions. One strategy is to always connect with another teacher. Go into the classroom, observe them, ask questions
Can you talk a little bit about your journey?
I’ve always admired the teachers I’ve had growing up. As you know, Friendship first started out as Friendship House, and I went to Friendship House for early childhood students. There was also an afterschool program. The teachers simply inspired me. When I did a summer youth program, I was always picked to work in recreation. I later went to school at Virginia State, and received my BA in Community-Based Education before getting my masters in Elementary Education from St. Thomas University. In 2010 I started working with Friendship in the before and afterschool program. I later became an afterschool coordinator. I had multiple roles. I also subbed and eventually I became a classroom paraprofessional. Mr. Craig and Ms. Owo-Grant saw something in me and promoted me to be a teacher. This is my fourth year teaching here at Friendship Woodridge International.
Friendship House was where I started, then later I had so many great teachers which inspired me to become one myself.
What do you like most about what you do?
I live for those “Aha!” moments that students often get. I like to see how students have grown from the beginning of the year to the end of the year. I enjoy using my creativity to design unique lessons and build meaningful relationships with scholars. All scholars learn differently.
What’s one of your favorite lessons?
I have many favorites, but the one that comes to mind is when we do a story about the three little pigs. We take it to another level.
I love the story of the three little pigs. Being able to do it as a read aloud, I ask critical questions like, “what would happen if you had to build a house?” I also have students make predictions and we reenact the story together.
I love seeing the kids act and give their interpretation of the story. They even get a chance to build the houses. At Woodridge, we do a lot of project-based learning, which extends into their home with an opportunity for parents to get involved. Students do a lot of experimenting to see if their house is going to stand with the materials they have chosen. They might ask, “Why is your house going to fall down?” so we introduce words like, “sturdy” and “stable” and figure out how they can improve their houses. Getting students to think critically is what I like most.
We experiment with different endings of the story. One story ends with the wolf eating the pigs, a different story says he’s trying to get sugar. The kids share whether or not they believe the wolf or the pigs. We talk about the protagonist, the antagonist, which one is the good one or the bad one. I transform my learning centers to be all about that story, which provides the opportunity for scholars to be completely immersed in the story.
As an International Baccalaureate school, we teach students to become critical thinkers. We make sure they answer higher-order questions.
We also make real-world connections. We ask, “How much would you need to spend on materials to build this house?” Then students naturally talk about construction workers and community helpers. We compare our stories to real life.
Are there any strategies you would offer to someone who is new to teaching?
I do like the fact that I got my start as a paraprofessional. It’s about observing other teachers. I would be able to ask them questions. One strategy is to always connect with another teacher. Go into the classroom, observe them, ask questions. I’m a big fan of the Ron Clark book “Move Your Bus.” Always stay up to date within your field.
Another strategy is to build relationships with your scholars. You won’t just be “that teacher that they had,” but someone whose influence they’ll remember for a lifetime. You need to build relationships with scholars first. Also, connect with parents; I’m really big on parent engagement. Once you have a connection with families, you have a great connection with students. It’s a collaborative process that will make all the difference for a child.
Can you talk specifically about how you engage parents?
I engage parents in different ways. I am frequently in touch with them about their child’s progress. I send emails and photos of their child in learning centers. I host breakfasts where parents come in and form connections with other parents. I also have a “class mom” as the liaison between me and the parents.
We host different events. I may bring in Ms. Beghani and other leaders from the district office to talk about literacy or what they need in kindergarten. I also provide parents with a lot of resources—when you come in for teacher conferences, I have a table with a lot of hands-on materials, games, and activities they can do with their scholars.
I have an open-door policy. They can come in whenever they want to join our lessons and learning.
What do you like about Friendship?
I love Friendship because they appreciate their teachers, they invest in their teachers, and they make sure we have what we need to do our job well. Here at Woodridge, I love my principal, Ms. Owo-Grant. She helps us to become better leaders. She makes sure that I receive what I need. We’re like a family. The morale is great.
What was the experience like when becoming teacher of the year?
It was a great experience. I’ve worked at several different campuses in different roles, and at the end of the day, I felt appreciated for the work I’ve done. It felt great to know I made an impact and hear students later saying, “Oh, Ms. Johnson, you were teacher of the year. That’s the teacher of the year. We gotta be good.” My philosophy is that it doesn’t matter where you come from or where you start from, if you keep doing what you love, then you will definitely make it far.
Is there anything I haven’t asked that you would like to include?
I believe you should allow your passions to become your purpose—whatever you’re passionate about, continue to do it. There will be days when you want to give up. Remember that your students are the future and you need to prepare them to walk into the world and make a difference. I just want people to know that, whatever your role, always do your best—whether you’re a substitute teacher, a paraprofessional, or a leader. Whatever you do, do it to the best of your ability.
Is there a fun fact you’d like to share?
I love music, but I can’t sing. I also love to dance, but you won’t see me dancing unless I’m with the kids. I love art and being creative. I like to take something that is small and make it big. My students always tell me, “Ms. Johnson, you always want to do something over the top.” That’s just who I am.