As a young single mom raising twin boys, Michelle Johnson started working for a before- and after-school program to help pay the bills. She quickly discovered a passion for teaching and now inspires students at an alternative high school in Kennewick, Washington to believe in themselves and the power of education.
Johnson, who recently earned a Master’s of Education degree in Learning and Technology from WGU’s Teachers College, serves not only as Legacy High School’s English teacher, but also as the leadership and yearbook advisor, test proctor and staff development coordinator. She also advises other teachers at both her school and the district level about teaching at-risk youth.
“The hardest part of my job is that it matters—every single day,” she says. “The best part of my job is that I matter—every single day.”
An edited conversation with Johnson follows.
Talk about your school.
All of our students are referred to our programs for a series of things. Sometimes it’s anxiety; sometimes it’s homelessness, teen pregnancy, drug use, alcohol, gang violence. They’re just kids who are not working in the traditional high school for one reason or another and are still trying to go to school and graduate. We work with them on whatever behavior intervention they need help on.
Did you always know you wanted to be a teacher?
No. In high school, I took a survey and it said I should be a teacher. I was like, “Teaching? That’s not cool enough.” So, I got my two-year degree in marketing, and then I learned I was not going to sell someone something that they did not need. There were some months when I’d make $3,000 and some months when I’d make $300. I did not have the skills at 19 to manage money.
So, I started working for a before- and after-school program and I was blessed to interact with some amazing women who said, “Why don’t you come work for the schools? You could be a paraeducator in the middle of the day.” I started doing that and then a couple of those amazing women pushed me to be a teacher.
What drew you to that alternative student experience?
My little brother was this kind of kid. He was plenty smart enough, but the boy wouldn’t do a lick of homework, made some poor choices in high school and came to school drunk one day. He was sort of pushed out of high school and there was no place for him to go; no one was really willing to work with him. It was frustrating. The only option he had was a six-month, half-day program you’re sent to for misbehaving that was nothing about him learning the way he needed to.
This was the kind of school Legacy used to be before it became an alternative program and a school where we graduate students, not just a place where they go for six months and then go back to their regular high school. I really wanted to help kids like my little brother. I can’t change what happened to him or his educational experience, but he had two teachers he looks back on and says they were the good ones, they were the ones that matter, and he still keeps in contact with them. I wanted to be that teacher for some other kid.
How did Western Governors University help get you to where you are today?
I wanted to get my master’s degree, and, as someone who’s been in education for 20 years, I was looking for a school that would recognize the fact that I came in with skills.
I was able to use the expertise and experience that I already had and move through coursework at a faster pace. I did my master’s degree in about seven months. It was important to me that I could set my own timelines because there are weeks that I am stupid busy and then there are other weeks when I can work four to five hours a night.
You started a library at Legacy. How did that come about?
When I started here, there was one 2-by-3 shelf of books and no library. So, I started doing some grant writing, worked on a curriculum committee and a few other things and we ended up with about $3,500 to buy books with—which is not a lot of books, actually. But I worked with local businesses, like used book stores, and companies who were willing to give us discounts. I was able to purchase every single book in our library at a discount or used price, and was able to bring in almost 3,000 titles. We now have about 3,400 books in our library.
You started a program that supplies students with clothes and food?
The Nest program started through our ASB (associated student body) and leadership kids. We had an ASB president who was homeless—damn smart girl—she went to college on scholarship because she’s that talented. But she was struggling for basic things like clothing and accessories—just trying to look like a normal kid and not homeless and not dirty. We had bins of clothes and stuff shoved in some file cabinets and she said, “No, I’m good.” But she wasn’t good. We asked her, “What do you need? What can we do?” And she basically said, “My pride is worth more than digging through that bin for that shirt. My pride is the last thing I have to hold on to.”
She said if the items were hanging up and shoppable—more like a store—it wouldn’t hurt her pride so much to accept help. So, I found this storage room from the 1970s, and my leadership kids and I went in, scrubbed that thing down, cleaned it out, surplussed a lot of stuff, and then we put together a store and created community partnerships.
My leadership kids run a homeless teen clothing drive where teenagers can donate to other teenagers. We have about 700 items of clothing, about 200 pairs of shoes, and we even have a section for teen moms where they can come and get free diapers, baby clothes, wipes and assorted stuff they need. We turned what was a pride-reducing experience into a normal thing.
What or who inspires you?
My students. So many of them have overcome so many of life’s challenges. I tell people all the time, my students have a PhD in life—they’re just working on getting their high school diploma. We have kids who are homeless and sleeping in the park across the street and as soon as we open the doors in the morning, they’re coming in to get warm.
What lessons have you learned along the way?
You need to have the ability to roll with the punches, especially in an alternative education setting. You really don’t know what you’re going to get from day to day and you have to be able to run with it and still laugh and joke and have a great time and be able to love that kid even while they’re making mistakes. I’ve had attempted murderers in my program. You know what? I’m still gonna love that kid. There’s always something you can find that is teachable in a child.
My students are the ones who do amazing things, I just do the paperwork to make it possible.