What’s love got to do with it? When it comes to Salem’s 2019 Teacher of the Year – absolutely everything.
“My kids think I am a little bit cheesy, because from day one I tell them I love what I do and that I love them,” says Andrea Johnson, the recipient of this year’s honor. “It’s right about then that the jaded seniors give me the ‘Ok, Crazy Lady’ look.”
Those uncertain glances are only temporary because Johnson teaches senior English with such passion that her students cannot help but feel the love that she has for both her craft and for them, as young adults.
“I love teaching seniors because they are on the precipice of adulthood and there is this hope and optimism about them because their whole life is in front of them,” she says. “My job is to help them think about who they want to be and how they want to show-up in the world.”
She accomplishes that goal by using a variety of literary works and plain old unabashed enthusiasm. Her classes are exciting, upbeat and full of dramatic readings from the classics and beyond.
“So much of what we read is British literature and it’s a lot death and destruction showing that humans are awful and how they have damned themselves as a species, but we end the year with “Tuesdays with Morrie” which is about a man who is dying from ALS,” she says. “The book explores what a life well-lived really is, and I try to send these students out into the world encouraging them to think about what their story and their legacy will be.”
Along with her often emotional efforts to cultivate an appreciation for language arts, she also teaches these seniors life skills that they can use before and after graduation, like creating resumes and cover letters and participating in simulated job interviews.
“What I love is that some kids will tell me that they really do not love English, but they love my class,” she says. “I take that as a win because that means even though it isn’t their favorite subject, they realize it is important to read well, write well and communicate well.”
The communication piece of her instruction just might be the most valuable. Johnson understands the isolation that students feel these days due to the number of divided camps caused by social media.
“Occasionally, my students will tell me that it’s not even worth the discussion because no one listens, and that is the saddest part to me as a teacher,” she says. “The students recognize that the area of civil discourse is a problem, but they do not know how to fix it. I want them to be able to look people in the eyes, say what they think and still be able to disagree in a respectful manner.”
To counter the ill-mannered behaviors and mean-spirited comments that are often part of any teenager’s world, Johnson established the “Acts of Random Kindness” club at the high school earlier this year.
“Our goal is to change the culture by showing kindness, being positive and treating others the way we want to be treated,” she says. “These students care about what type of legacy they will be leaving in the halls and classrooms and they hope the underclassmen will embrace the club and make it grow.”
Making things grow is something Johnson has known a thing or two about her entire life.
She grew up in Smithfield, graduated from the University of Virginia and later earned her master’s degree from Virginia Commonwealth University before going to work for the Virginia Cooperative Extension Agency for several years.
“I was more of a 4-H Camp girl growing-up, instead of a farm girl, and that is where I met my husband, Jeremy,” she says. “4-H really saved both of us. It gave us purpose when we didn’t know what we were destined to do, and it was there that I realized working with kids was my calling.”
Johnson thought she had found that calling less than 20 miles from her hometown when she left the extension agency, switched careers and began teaching in Suffolk. But her husband was transferred to Virginia Tech to eventually become the State Director of 4-H programs, and that move turned into Salem’s gain. Johnson has taught English at both Andrew Lewis Middle School and Salem High School since she was hired here in 2014.
“Her students want to learn from the moment they come into her room, and she inspires them take their skills and knowledge to the next level each day,” says Bridget Nelson, Salem High School Assistant Principal. “But her presence reaches far beyond the students that she teaches in her classroom. Her work with various clubs and organizations has had a significant impact on school culture.”
“I am not much of a crying person, but when they announced this honor, my whole body started to shake,” says Johnson. “I was completely overwhelmed and very humbled to be recognized by my peers. This is a calling for me and I am so appreciative and grateful to be in a school division where I can fully realize what I am meant to do.”
The Salem School Board will honor all six teachers of the year during a special reception on March 26. The other Teachers of the Year representing the five remaining Salem schools are:
||Eighth Grade Science
||Andrew Lewis Middle School
||Fifth Grade Teacher
||East Salem Elementary
||Second Grade Teacher
||G.W. Carver Elementary
||Third Grade Teacher
||South Salem Elementary
||Third Grade Teacher
||West Salem Elementary