Auburn Junior High School’s Kim Johnson, who was named Alabama Teacher of the Year on Aug. 11, sat down for an interview with the Opelika-Auburn News in June to discuss her time at Auburn City Schools.
How long have you been an educator? How many of those years have been spent at Auburn City Schools?
I started in 1998, so I just completed year 23. I started at Auburn City Schools in 2004, so 17 years.
And have all 17 of those years been at Auburn Junior High School?
It’s funny I was talking just about how your path unfolds in front of you even if that’s not your plan. We were moving to Auburn, and I interviewed for a position at Auburn High School. Initially, I was supposed to be teaching an 11th grade graduation exam class, a couple of 11th grade English classes and several preps. I had been teaching eighth grade in Decatur – I was moving with two toddlers, getting ready to come – and at the end of July the principal of Auburn Junior High School at the time, Jason Wright, called and said, “I just had a teacher resign, I really need an eighth-grade position; I talked to the principal of AHS and can you come here since you already have the experience with eighth grade language arts?”
It was heaven-sent because moving with kids, trying to sell a house, trying to find somewhere to live – I already had my arsenal of content (to teach the eighth-grade class). I started teaching, and it was pretty much my dream job. It was all the things I wish I could have done there that they had in place: the block schedule, the reading and the writing, the support you get from the board office, just being able to try new things. I was on Year 6 of teaching, so I was still a little green. I was supported in my ability to do that, and I feel that’s part of how I got to where I am now.
What responsibilities come with your role of Response to Intervention Coordinator?
I work with teachers and at-risk students that are not as successful as they can be, which could be for several reasons: It could be just ability-wise and they’re struggling; it could be reasons that are mental health or counseling; it could because of the lack of support they may have at home. RTI, the teachers will identify issues or even parents will let us know and we’ll go in and we’re collecting data. Our team heads up helping teachers help kids.
I have a study skills class with a smaller number of the most at-risk students who come to my room every other day as an elective and I work with them on math, English, finding homework assignments. … The role of school mom is me being able to advocate. I can pick up the phone or get on the computer and email someone.
It’s keeping up with everybody, what they need and doing whatever we can to make them successful. I feel like we do a really good job of knowing who our kids are, what they need, what’s wrong and trying to figure out how to figure it out.
How have you seen Auburn Junior High School grow over the years?
I’ve been here long enough that when I first started, we were in interdisciplinary teams, and we outgrew it because there was so many students who needed different things and a lot of cross-team (work) started happening and we had to go to departments. After that I was head of the English department, and we were teaching kids and they were coming through.
In my biography for my application I even mentioned in my second year working I was asked to do an at-risk reading class, and it scared me because the kids would say, “Why are we in here, why do we have this class?” and kids want to feel important, special and they don’t want you to tell them that they are below a level. It was then when I figured out relationships were the most important because students will not listen or respond to you unless they get you or know you care.
After that, I started reading a lot of professional development, and student-centered learning was a buzzword. Students need options; students need choices. They should have ownership over what they do. And that drove my teaching philosophy. I found that it’s easier when you listen to kids and what they want and what they need – that’s when you can let them have the ownership and that’s when they start trusting you because you’re letting them know that they can lead their learning.
... Conversations are really important when you’re trying to figure out what people need. I always gravitated to the at-risk kids because I feel like some kids come in and they’re so smart, so ready to go, and it doesn’t matter – not to talk about other teachers – but it doesn’t matter who’s in the front of the room, they’re going to get it and learn because they have that inner drive to do it.
There are some kids that don’t like school and they don’t feel successful at school, and I’ve always gravitated to them – I grew up in an environment like that. I’m a first-generation college student, my peers were those people. I always just kind of connected with the people who struggle, the kids who were sad. I’m like, “What’s going on?” because that’s where the mom kicks in and I talk to them and figure out, “OK, what do you need to be successful? What can I do? How can I make this easier?” Then they start opening up and they start trusting you. Once they trust you, and they get a little bit of success, they come back to you.
I fell into the position just because a person left, and I loved my RTI kids. I started doing a hybrid—I was doing a creative writing class, a study skills class and then I just kind of jumped over with Mr. Reed’s influence working with the study skills kids, and that was my place. I feel like all of the other stuff was preparing me to work with kids who had... different needs. It’s not even an economic thing that separates them often – it is a lot of times, just the support you have growing up and in your formative years – but a lot of the kids it’s just that they struggle, and they are embarrassed that they struggle. And they need someone in their corner saying, “it’s OK, I struggle too. ... Let’s help each other.”
I think a community is what you have to build in a classroom, and again, the trust with the students. And so, I just kind of ended up here with RTI and I’m very down to earth and can go to the teachers and say, “Are they getting on your nerves because they are getting on my nerves too,” and, “What we do we need to do because the kid is first?” It’s always what’s in the best interest of the school. I will fight tooth and nail with adults and other people when I think that it’s going to help a kid end up in a better place than where they started.
You’ve been an educator for 23 years. Can you describe being an educator during COVID-19?
It was hard. It was scary. I was nervous because I have children and I have older parents – and knowing that you didn’t know what you didn’t know, especially coming back to school in August. But I had trust in the people who said they would take care of us and make sure we had everything we needed.
It is almost hard to describe. Every day got easier. It was hard to come back and think, “Are we going to be OK? Is my family going to be OK?” But once the school year got rolling, I was like, “I am so glad I am here.” Some people feel unseen, and you have to let them know, “I see you.” It was a hard year, it was a stressful year, but I wouldn’t change it. ...
Your husband, Jeff Johnson, is the principal of Richland Elementary School. What does that mean for you to both be at Auburn City Schools?
He always tells Mr. Reed that I’m the smart one of the family, and he knows he better say it.
He’s always supported me, and education is important for us and our family and our kids. We’re a close family. Family is important and I’m blessed that I have the support of Jeff and the support of the family. I think what I understand is all families don’t look like mine. Sometimes what you see is important and what you do is important, so I talk about my family, my kids, my husband all the time to my students because I’m like, “You can do this.”