We Love Illinois Schools

Justin Johnson: Reflections on being Illinois 2021 Teacher of the Year

March 25, 2022 Illinois State Board of Education Season 1 Episode 8
We Love Illinois Schools
Justin Johnson: Reflections on being Illinois 2021 Teacher of the Year
Show Notes Transcript

Days before announcing our 2022 Teacher of the Year, we asked Justin Johnson, our 2021 Teacher of the Year, to tell us what he learned, what he missed, what advice he has for the next Teacher of the Year -- and what advice he has for ISBE, as we work to retain and sustain teachers of color.
Our theme music is by José Rivera.

Justin Johnson

My Teacher of the Year time, the first year of it was spent during the pandemic. So I was still teaching during all that time, in addition to all the speaking engagements. So, with what I do, not being able to like be in front of students and make music together on the computer screen, I don't really count that because that was something completely different. But it's been a, it's been a weird year to be away. It's very difficult, especially for what I do and being a person that's always like, I'm always there. I'm always at the building. I'm always engaging with students during the classes that I teach in during lunchtime, after school. So it's been difficult to kind of step away. 
And I believe, I feel like it's more difficult for me because of the subject that I teach. So I don't just get students for one year, and then they're going to someone else. I typically have my students for four years. So there's already relationships developed there with students who are now seniors that miss me this year, that'll be gone away to college next year, and the freshmen who are new, who didn't really get the opportunity to know me as they would if I were doing regularly during the year. So it's been kind of weird being away knowing that when I go back into the classroom in the fall, there's gonna kind of be some repair there to, as quickly as possible, get to know the new students and then introduce a brand new crop of freshmen into my program at the high school. 
But I'm excited to get back. I've kind of been going in periodically, so the kids do see me and they always say, “Oh, we miss you, we miss you!” But, you know, I'm just excited to get back to it. One of the things that, fortunately, that I've had the time to do while on sabbatical is just read and prepare and be ready to go back and use some of the things that I've learned and been able to kind of see in action over this time and kind of use those in my classroom. So I'm excited to get back.

Dusty Rhodes:
Now being an old band nerd myself, I thought you might do charts or new halftime shows or something like that.

Johnson:
I actually, I did all the marching band stuff in the fall. I actually went in to work every single day, even though I'm on sabbatical. I went in every single day during October, so all the way until October, so … [laughs]

Rhodes:
You just couldn't help yourself. Right?

Johnson:
No, no, unfortunately no.

Rhodes:
OK, any other time that you snuck in? I mean, like any other events that you just couldn't keep yourself away from?

Johnson:
I mean, I still go in now. I went to the state music convention, which I presented there as well, but I went with my all-state students to take them to the convention. And we actually have a concert next Friday. So I'll be there at the concert, of course, to see the seniors because we honor all the seniors at the spring concert. We typically honor the seniors, announce them, have them stand, they wear like carnation boutonnieres and they're acknowledged during the concert. So that's a big deal. So I'll be there for that concert as well. So I'll be around.

Rhodes:
You're a band director. You would basically, like, go into withdrawal if you didn't get ...

Johnson:
Probably, yeah. Right.

Rhodes:
Well, I mean, maybe that's why you're Teacher of the Year, I mean, that kind of relationship. So in your year away, you said you did some reading? So did you pick up any new strategies or new insights? Or like hanging out with your cohort? Did you learn anything you want to try?

Johnson:
I don't know about necessarily learning new things to try... I know I've read a bunch. I normally never have time to read, and I'm already up to I think 30 books this year. And I've never been a reader! I don't know if it was something that was given to me or people told me I wasn't a reader, but for some reason, I just got an itch over the winter break, and I just started hammering through books, and I'm just ... I know my wife would probably tell me to stop. But I've been buying books and reading books, I mean, as fast as they can come into the house right now. So I've read a lot. 
And there's just been a lot of insight with some of the books that I've read, just about continuing to keep the student voice and continuing to keep building community in the classroom and it just reaffirmed me, always putting student needs first, and doing what I can to support them. And that's kind of been the biggest theme of all the things that I've read in terms of like educational books and things of that nature is just continuing to think more through the lens of what the students need, and putting the student needs first and their voices first, as opposed to doing things that make me comfortable. And if my discomfort creates a situation where the students can thrive more, then I’ve got to be OK with that. So that's kind of, that's kind of some of the things that I've been reading.
But probably the most impactful thing of my time away has been meeting the other people in my [TOY] cohort. And that's not to say I don't work with some awesome colleagues where I work, but it's just different to see other people in other states that have different situations, different things, and just us collectively coming together like a group. I mean, it was like where have these people have been my whole life? And I mean, we talk daily, we've got a text thread, we've got a Marco Polo group that we're just continually in communication with each other being encouraging, like being sounding boards, like talking about things that are working in our states, talking about things that are working in our individual classrooms. And it's been very powerful to be kind of in community with those people. And although we didn't get a full normal year of all the extra Teacher of the Year things because of COVID -- we only had a few times where we were able to meet in person -- I think they kind of forced us to find alternative means of communication, and I think that's helped us be even closer together. Because we've continued to communicate, I mean, the entire time, and here we are away from those meetings now, and we still continue to do the same. So that's probably been the best and most impactful thing about my time is just being able to be in community with those people, and now have that family of other teachers to learn from and grow with. 

Rhodes:
That's cool. So back to what you said a second ago about putting student voice first. Can you give me an example of how that would play out as a band director?

Johnson:
I mean, for me, it's a bit different. Like if I were to say, “Hey, kids, you can pick the music,” that's cool. They should have like, I want them to have a say because they're the ones that are gonna prepare it and play it. Like, there's only so much I can do from the podium, like, they've got to go get the notes and rhythms and all this stuff done. They've got to put work in. 
But I mean, for me, it's just always making them know that they're valuable. And that's something I always try to do, like, how are you today? Like, if today needs to be a conversation where we talk about something that's happening in the school or happening in your lives or in another class -- who knows what it may be? -- then I’ve got to give them time for that because if they can't get that off of their brains, we're not going to be able to make music together anyway. So it's just being OK with it. 
And when I was a young teacher, like, I was a task master. I was driven. I had a plan down to the minute of rehearsal, and we were going to do XYZ. And I couldn't stop here because it's going to take a minute away from this thing that I need to take care of, so we've got to get it moving. And now looking back, there was so many opportunities missed to not just make the students feel more fulfilled, because they know I value them. And I make sure I say it often that I value them being there, and I appreciate them. But just the opportunities to put that in action and show them that I value them instead of it just being lip service. So how are we like, and if there's something that needs to be done, or other things that are more pressing that needs to be discussed, then the notes and rhythms today have to be put on the backburner because we're still going to get that stuff done. Regardless of how much time we have a month, a week, a day, we're gonna get that stuff done, but just showing them that I'm willing to do something, if it's what they need. I think that's really what it boils down to is just getting them to feel empowered, that their voice matters so that they share it. Because oftentimes, they feel like the people say we want student voice and then the students speak and then we go OK, thank you, and then we do what we're gonna do anyway. Right? So when we have an opportunity to actually let them speak and actually take their words and listen to them and say, "Thank you, now let us work on getting you what you need," I think that's a valuable piece to be able to do and say and actually follow through with.

Rhodes:
Instead of just checking that off, it's like, OK, scales, and we've asked you how you are. OK. Are you the first teacher of the year who's Black?

Johnson:
Um, I don't believe so. And the only reason I know that is because I looked it up. But I do believe there was one other Black male and potentially a Black female before me. William Branch is his name. I believe he was Illinois Teacher of the Year 1991 and was a later the principal in Evanston Township I do believe, one of the Evanston principals. And also a Milken [Educator] Award winner. So I know he was one before me, and there's potentially one more. But I mean, sadly, it took a ton of research to find that information out. And still, over the course of this award that's been given for decades and decades, not enough, in my opinion, you know, not enough. 

Rhodes:
We agree with your opinion. And how about in your cohort?

Johnson:
In my cohort? Actually, my cohort is very, very diverse. There are a lot of us in many different states, many of which are first in their state, first or second in their state, and I believe this next year, this upcoming year, there's kind of been a diversification of the Teacher of the Year awards. But I know for a fact that my cohort is very, very diverse. Many different states have their first African American male, first African American period, first person of color in many different states. So I'm glad to be a part of that for my cohort as well. 

Rhodes:
You know, I heard a student trustee on the University of Illinois Board of Trustees [WT4] [RD5] make the point that we should stop using the term “diverse.” We should stop saying “diversify,” and we should just say “normalize.”

Johnson:
I agree. I agree.

Rhodes:
And he attributed it to Shonda Rhimes -- Chicago girl! -- that the term “diverse” means, you know, that white is the default and so we're just making it normal.

Johnson:
I agree with that statement. And because I feel like we have to be careful that the word "diversify" or "diversity" doesn't get weaponized. It can be weaponized to go, "Hey, we've already had this, why do we need to continue to work at this?" And it's not necessarily about just diversifying what we have; it's to make it be normal, where we don't have to have a conversation about who was the other only Black Teacher of the Year in Illinois. I think that's the powerful piece in that statement is that in a lot of times when we start having this conversation about diversity and diversification and all of these things, that we forget that the reason we're having the conversation is because it's not normal yet. So we have to start, we have to normalize that. So we no longer have to have this conversation. And the only way it's got to be normalized is if we start really investigating systems that lead us to this reality.

Rhodes:
So did you feel any added sense of responsibility or pressure since it has been so rare?

Johnson:
Yeah, but I mean, for me, there's always pressure. I mean, in my profession, I teach music. There are not a lot of people that look like me. When I go to state conventions, state meetings, there's not a lot of people that look like me. So there's always that pressure. Yeah, I don't know that I've ever been in any activity that I've done, where I haven't felt that pressure. And I don't know if that pressure just me feeling it, or if it's the reality. I think it's a bit of both. But there's always that pressure, that added pressure, because I know that I'm the representation of a whole lot of people, whether I choose to be or not, I know that my success or failure will be used to some extent, probably as opposed to it just being me. "Hey, this guy was this way" as opposed to "That's how this group of people are." So I think that's more the source of that pressure anyway, is knowing that no matter how I fare in the position, I'm going to be used as an example for an entire group of people whether I want to or not. Fair or unfair, that's gonna be what it is. And partly due to the fact that there aren't many other examples of people that look like me that have been in this position. 
So I did kind of struggle early with, like, trying to find my niche or where I fit in because there was a lot of pressure of trying to be, or operate, like other people who have come before me have operated when I can't operate that way. Because I'm different. So I don't know at what point I came to this, but I was just like: I'm not an expert on all subjects. I teach band. I'm smart. I know a lot of stuff. But the one thing that I know for a fact that I'm an expert on is being myself. So I'm going to lean into what I'm an expert at, and I'm going to offer experiences, and I'm going to speak in a way that only I can speak given my lived experiences and the way I was born and how I was raised and where I'm from. So I just kind of lean into that and say whatever happens from here is going to happen. I'm just going to lean into being myself and really operating under the fact that I'm going to give the thing that I know no one else can or will ever bring to this position and that's me being myself.

Rhodes:
OK, so our next crop of finalists to be the next Teacher of the Year, there are no Black educators, although the outstanding early career educator is Black. So what are your thoughts about that situation?

Johnson:
I mean, it's been widely researched in terms of numbers and what the demographic of teachers looks like, it's a sheer numbers thing. There are not as many teachers of color -- Black teachers, specifically -- teaching, and this is Illinois, this is across the country. So when you just look at it from a statistical standpoint, we are far less likely to be awarded this award because there are fewer of us. So when you look at it just from a statistics standpoint, I mean, it's not surprising. But from my perspective, I feel like we have to start to try to figure out how we can give more opportunities or find the reasons why we don't see more people that resemble a wider spectrum of race, culture, in these awards, and figure out if it's the process, if it's the people reviewing the applications, and this is not making assumptions, this is whatever the case may be. I think it just warrants more and further investigation to see if there's a way that we can... And again, I like to talk a lot about systems because I believe we often try to isolate people or institutions and talk about how to fix things, but we ignore the systems that create the people and the institutions. 
So I feel like if we were really going to take seriously, like, why we keep winding up with cohorts of little diversity -- I guess that's an apt way to say it -- that we kind of have to start investigating what could potentially be some of the reasons why cohorts look that way? And I think last year, my cohort -- and this is just, this is not research, I did not research this, but just in pictures that I've seen -- I feel like my cohort was one of the most diverse and I guess representative cohorts that I've seen from any other year. And again, I can't go back very far, but I do feel like my cohort had that. And then this year, not. And that's not a slight on any of the people in this cohort; they are all excellent educators. This is just, I mean, telling the truth. It's what we see, there's no way around it. We can't, like, make it be something that it's not. So if that's the case, then I guess we need to investigate and look at like, what helped us in this year? Why was it not that way in this year? And if there's a correlation or causation here, we need to address it and figure out how we can make it be whatever we really, truly endeavor for that to look like. What do we want the cohorts to look like? What do we want it to be? And if it's not representative of the way we envision it, then we’ve got to do something different.

Rhodes:
Right. I mean, because one cohort that is diverse, is the student population.

Johnson:
We know that. So, that has been researched. We know that for a fact. And it's only continuing so...

Rhodes:
Right. And all kids need to see all kinds of role models. So, yeah. So, you know, the State Board of Education, I feel like, is trying to find a variety of strategies to address this. And one of the things that we've just launched is affinity groups for Black educators. And it's already apparent that not everyone understands why that's important. Can you explain a little bit?

Johnson:
Yeah, I can and I'll even go just a bit, just quickly, back to your previous question about just to diversify by us having a more representative body of teachers, is that I rarely hear people speak to kind of a systematic issue that has kind of led us to where we are. Because I've seen many, many times I've spoken at many conferences, where the topic of discussion is, how do we improve our pipeline? How do we create a pipeline that better serves or better reflects the student body? And I rarely hear people speak about the fact that when we desegregated schools, there were a whole lot of excellent Black educators that didn't have anywhere to teach. They were told they couldn't teach in schools because there were white and Black students there. 
So there's still that piece that we've yet to kind of rectify, which kind of cut that pipeline off, to be honest. So we had a lot of students who would have grown up looking at excellent Black educators, whether they be family members or people in their community, that now didn't have that role model to look at. And I speak as a person who was directly affected by being able to look at strong Black women role models that taught. I have an aunt that's a principal at an alternative school that's taught for 45 years at this point. My mom teaches. I've got many educators in my family on both sides, my dad and my mom's side. So I was fortunate enough to see that but I know for many people that's not the case. 
And I think that -- and this just kind of takes us back to like the need for like affinity groups -- like, when you have that system set up in that way, you need to kind of find ways to make people feel comfortable in those spaces, especially like, for me, when I came to my current job, there weren't many people that looked like me in the building. So, even though I had colleagues that were super supportive, but they didn't understand -- they couldn't understand -- how my experiences were in that building, and that would be things that would happen to me and I would take offense to, and it would be like, "What? Why? That's OK." And it's like, no, it's not OK! But unless you've lived my life and have my experiences, then you won't know that. 
So for people who may work in places where there may not be as much difference in the type of people's lived experiences, that might be difficult to find somebody who understands where you come from, so you just end up working in isolation. And then when you work in isolation, it's much easier to detach and go, "Why am I doing this? Let me go find somewhere else to be or something else to do." So I feel like a great importance of this affinity group is to try to help with retaining those educators, those educators of color in specific, but I mean, at this point, we need to be trying to retain all educators because we know that there are some issues that we're having right now in the country that if we don't get out in front of it, we're gonna be in a grave and dire situation here very soon. So I feel like this is a step.
And I think one of the most important, I guess, most critical parts about the affinity groups as they must be done with the agreement that we're going to give you information that's going to be critical and trying to hopefully improve our experiences in education, but we need you to act when we give you this information. And I know I've been a part of so many think tanks and groups and meetings, and we're going to discuss and discussion groups. And we discussed for years or months, and then we finished our discussion. And then just like, what happened? That was it? OK. 
And I know for me, that's frustrating, because I feel like when I go into those spaces, I'm going to be authentic about what it is that I see and what my experiences are. And there have been times where I feel like I was, it was just used to be a check mark, and then nothing really followed through with those conversations. And I think it's critical, especially right now, when we're just hanging on. There are so many teachers -- and I'm not trying to speak for everybody, I just know what I see -- there seems to be a lot of people who are like questioning whether or not this is something that they want to continue to give so much energy and effort to if it's not going to be reciprocated and appreciated. So I just, I know that a part of that affinity group has to, yes, to find a place where we can get people from like backgrounds with like lived experiences in the same community, and allow them that space to feel like hey, there's somebody else in this with me. Yes. But also allowing them to have impact on how we want to fix it. Because too often, we try to fix things for people without those people that we're trying to fix it for in the spaces that we're making the decisions. So I feel I feel like those are two critical things that need to happen.

Rhodes:
What would you say in this current environment to anyone who's contemplating becoming a teacher?

Johnson:
Oh, we need you. And my biggest thing is just to trust that people are really genuine about trying to make it better. I mean, it's hard, yes, but I mean, at this point, we have to -- and I'm not sure if many people can, because there's been such a long history of people not being genuine about efforts to make it better for teachers, which in turn will make it better for the students. That's the piece that we missed, though. We keep talking about students, students, students and we forget that the people that have to deliver this information and instruction to the students is a teacher. So if we don't take care of them, then we can't really take care of the students like we claim we want to. 
So my thing is just that hopefully, those people that are interested in education will trust that people are going to now start to be genuine about making it better, and really setting teachers up to be successful so that we can take care of the students. And I feel like if teachers were in positions where they could actually spend the time that they need to get to every single student and ensure that every single student has exactly what they need, and that they're being taught in manners that are what they need education-wise, then things will be better. But if teachers are operating out of an empty cup, and they're already exhausted, and then still with different things being added and students are being tested to death and we're adding all these things on their plate, then that's not going to be a viable option for teachers looking for people that are interested looking at it going, well, I'm going to do this amount of school, I'm not sure if that's the way that I want to spend my career doing it that way or doing this. So we've got to address that, and we've got to be genuine about it in hopes that those people will start to see education as a viable career option. 
And then the other piece of that, too, was that I know for me -- I speak in an "I" statement here -- like, I didn't have a great experience with school when I was in school. So I know for other people, there can be a very contentious relationship with the systems of school for many young people of color. So if we don't address that, then those people aren't going to be interested in going to join a system that has harmed and traumatize them for the entire, like, school career. So those things kind of have to be addressed so that when people even have a flicker of idea of "Maybe I would like to teach," that there's something that could be appealing to them, as opposed to them investigating going, "Yeah, I'll do something else."

Rhodes:
Right. Can you dispel the myth that teaching doesn't pay very well?

Johnson:
Actually, I can't. Because I know when I first started teaching, I was barely making it. I started teaching, and I was only making $42,000 a year. And that was with a stipend. So really, my base was $38,000. So I know, and again, unfortunately, where I work [the salary is higher]. But I know for the majority of the state, that is not the case. And I don't want to center my experience here in this instance, talking about teacher pay knowing that some of my colleagues downstate don't experience the same thing. And I think that if we were to truly start to investigate what many teachers -- and this is not just our state, this is something, this is a conversation that's happening in many different states -- if we were really to start investigating, like, what teachers are making, and the amount of time that they're spending, grading papers, up on the weekends, contacting parents, preparing for the next week, doing lessons, then we would see that there has to be some type of reform done, whether it be done through giving tax credits, I don't know what the answer is. I don't proclaim to be the person that has that answer. But I do know that there needs to be something done. Because if we continue, again, to stay on the same trajectory and same pathway, then it's going to be another two, three, four, five, six, seven years where we're trying to figure out why people won't teach, and a lot of it's going to boil down to, hey, I'm going to have to work two jobs anyway. So why should I do that when I can just go take all these extra degrees that I have and go do something else, rather, where I can actually work this job, see my family, and not have to worry about, like, doing all of this extra, extra, extra all the time to kind of make ends meet. So …

Rhodes:
OK. So what advice do you have for the, for our next Teacher of the Year?

Johnson:
I guess I'll try to keep it to like, a few main points. So one of the first things that I would say is just be yourself. I mean, it's easy to say it's hard to do in practice. But going into the position, there's that stress and pressure that you have to fit in the shoes of the person that was before you or the people that were before you. And I think one of the unique things about the position is that we are picked for a reason ... likely because of who we are. So if we get into the position and try to change who we are, or experiences of our own, or the things that we've done to fit into some preconceived model of what the position should be, then not only are we not going to show up as our full selves, every single time that we that we're asked to do anything, but it's almost like we're taking the humanity out of ourselves, because we're trying to fit in this other idea instead of just going and being who we are. So one of my biggest pieces of advice is just to be who you are and be OK with that. You don't have to do things that other people have done. And one of the great parts is that there aren't a lot of things that you have to do this thing, like, there's a lot of, I guess, flexibility in the things that you choose to do. So find things that you're passionate about and go after your passions. And it's OK if it doesn't align with what other people's passions are, or what other people's passions have been. So just be OK with it. And it's like I said, that's easier said than done. But it is a it is, I think, a worthy thing to hopefully try to attain. 

Johnson:
And then, I guess the other piece of that is just to get some sleep. It's very, it's a very busy thing like I think some people are surprised when they asked like, "How has it been?" And I'm like, "I'm hanging in there. I'm like hanging on." Because I mean, and again, some of this I've done to myself, I still go into work occasionally, I'm still doing a bunch of other stuff, but I mean, it's just very busy. And again, you're taking a person who's not used to necessarily having to manage a speaking schedule and an event schedule and all of these other things and writing op eds and being a member of think tanks and affinity groups and advisory boards, and having meetings and pre-work and all of these other things. And being thrust into that for a year and or in my case, almost two years, being thrust into that and having to kind of learn how to manage those things, all the speaking engagements, like, there's a learning curve there. Like, unless you have been on a circuit of speaking, it's new, the preparation is new. And I'm still learning, there's still so much to learn. And there's just not enough time to really learn all those things previously, and then be ready to go.