How do teachers captivate their students? Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask great educators how they approach their jobs. You can see other pieces in this series here.
Eight years ago, James Johnson was doing everything right to become an attorney.
He was interning for the United States Department of Justice, but said the experience actually shifted his ambition from the courtroom to the classroom.
“I witnessed firsthand how juveniles and young adults who committed non-violent crimes were doing so as a means to survive,” Johnson said. “Most of the defendants were from Southeast D.C. which has a high concentration of poverty, crime, and failing public schools. I often wondered to myself, would their future have been different if they had an excellent public school education.”
Now, Johnson teaches 6th-grade science at Chickasaw Middle School in the Memphis neighborhood of Westwood. He was one of five Memphis educators selected by nonprofit New Memphis for its first class of the Educators of Excellence Awards.
He said he wants his students, the majority of whom are students of color, to never limit themselves in what they can become. For example, he asks his students to draw a picture of what they think a scientist looks like.
“Overwhelmingly so each year, I get the same images of white men in white lab coats with crazy hair,” Johnson said. “I share this story to say when students don’t see role models that look like them, they don’t see a reality of endless possibilities and opportunities.”
Read what he has to say about the future of the schools, the best advice he’s received, and how teaching influenced him as a principal.
Responses have been edited for length and clarity.
Was there a moment when you decided to become a teacher?
I would definitely have to say that my experience interning for the United States Department of Justice threw me a complete career curveball. I had my sights set on becoming an attorney, but my experience in D.C. soon shifted from the courtroom to the classroom. I witnessed firsthand how juveniles and young adults who committed non-violent crimes were doing so as a means to survive. Most of the defendants were from Southeast D.C. which has a high concentration of poverty, crime, and failing public schools. I often wondered to myself, would their future have been different if they had an excellent public school education, access to high-quality jobs and career opportunities, adequate healthcare, or even affordable housing? We can’t expect for individuals to thrive and become productive citizens of society when there are high levels of inequality and social injustices concentrated in certain neighborhoods or among certain groups of people. I realized that the real crimes start when students are not properly educated or invested in by adults. I thought that if I became an educator that I could help interrupt the marginalization of our young people one child at a time. Eight years later, I’m doing just that.
How do you get to know your students?
I get to know my students by attending sports events, after-school activities, and church periodically in the neighborhood where I teach. This makes a world of a difference when you are trying to build relationships with students. The more that you can connect with your students outside of the classroom, the stronger your credibility and relationships will be with your students. I remember when I was a child, I was always shocked when I ran into my teachers in public, mainly because I was that problem child who gave everyone the blues and was afraid of what they would say to my parents. As an educator now, students shouldn’t feel a disconnect or separation from their teachers. They should be connected and excited to see us because we really are a part of their extended family and village.
Tell us about a favorite lesson to teach. Where did the idea come from?
I hope no one judges me for saying this, but to me, the best lessons to teach are outside of the textbook and about life. I think sometimes we get so caught up in teaching from the curriculum and focusing so much of our energy on standardized testing that we forget we have a whole child in front of us. As a science teacher, my job is to teach my students to observe the natural world around them, ask questions from their curiosities, think critically and ultimately solve problems. If I’m not teaching them things like why it’s important to be a team player or how to persevere in the midst of challenges or why they should care and want to give back to their community or even why it’s important to have integrity and self-respect, my curriculum means nothing. When I teach my students about life I’m essentially setting them up to actually apply their knowledge to future experiences that they will have and to me that’s the true goal of education.
What’s something happening in the community that affects what goes on inside your class?
The Westwood community is full of rich history and many of the community members that I know are dedicated to do whatever it takes to create a brighter future for our students. Unfortunately, it’s an aging community and a lot of the young professionals in the area have moved to different parts of Memphis. Every year, during the first week of school, I lead my students into an exercise where I give them one clean sheet of white copy paper along with some markers and crayons. They have to draw up a picture of what they believe a scientist looks like. Overwhelmingly so each year, I get the same images of white men in white lab coats with crazy hair. I share this story to say when students don’t see role models that look like them, they don’t see a reality of endless possibilities and opportunities. When I ask students what type of career they want, it’s always something around sports or entertainment. That is all they see. Not knocking those industries, but our students deserve to be exposed to more than just that.
Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
I remember during my second year of teaching, I had a goal of reaching out to all of my parents by the end of the second week of school. I vividly remember calling one parent and she assumed that it was about something negative. I told her that I was actually calling to introduce myself and wanted to learn more about her child, what she wanted me to include in the curriculum, and ideas on how she could get involved in the school based on her schedule. The parent was shocked and kept reiterating the fact that no one had ever called her at the beginning of the school year with anything positive to say. She said, “every time I get a phone call from the school, it’s about something negative.” That really stuck with me and helped me realize that moving forward I would continue to make positive phone calls home to parents as much as I could. When a parent is working hard all day, it makes their day when we call them to share positive news about their child and exciting things taking place at school. No parent wants to hear something negative about their child every time a teacher calls home. We need to reach out to the parents not just when we are having issues, but to share good news as well.
What part of your job is most difficult?
I think the most difficult part of teaching is the emotional rollercoaster that you will experience throughout the year. This work is heart work and if you don’t love children then you will not last long in this field. Several of my students go through things that you would never imagine and the trauma that they face has to be addressed in order for me to teach them. Although I have no control over what occurs outside of the school building, what I can control is the type of support and encouragement I give my students to persevere through some of the obstacles and challenges they face on a daily basis.
What was your biggest misconception that you initially brought to teaching?
That parents of students in underserved communities don’t care about their child’s education. That is definitely not true. I serve in a neighborhood that has its fair share of social and economic challenges, but my parents are always concerned, involved and willing to do whatever it takes to ensure their child is successful in school. Some parents did not have a great experience when they were in school so they’re definitely not going to get involved if they feel like they are being judged or looked down upon. As educators, we must always remember that the parent is the first teacher in a child’s life. In order to truly serve the student, we must create welcoming environments in our school and build relationships with our parents. An engaged parent translates into an engaged student and positive academic outcomes.
What are you reading for enjoyment?
Right now I’m reading this book called The University of Success by OG Mandino. It’s an awesome collection of stories from folks who share their wisdom from challenging life experiences. I have always been fascinated with learning from my elders, especially my grandparents, and this book reminds me so much of them and other influential role models in my life growing up.