STAUNTON — Brandi Johnson taught her students in both first and seventh grade. At the time, she assumed that elementary school would be her calling, and to be honest, she was a little afraid of teaching high school.
Everything changed quickly. She realized that first grade was not for her, and actually fell in love with teaching seventh graders. Twenty years later, she is still teaching seventh grade.
“They’re just so funny and compassionate,” Johnson said. “They get a bad rap, but I don’t know, I just clicked on them.”
She taught in Norfolk for two years before moving to Staunton. She is in her 18th year teaching language at Shelburne High School. Johnson was named Staunton City Schools Teacher of the Year at Monday night’s school board meeting.
“Mrs. Johnson creates a safe learning community in her classroom and among the staff that is positivity contagious and a role model for others,” said Stephanie Haskins, Staunton’s Executive Director of Learning.
Johnson created a word wall in her classroom, which is exactly what it sounds like – a list of words on the wall for all to see. It begins with words that use the root “vert,” from extrovert to diverse to against. From there she added other roots. In one semester at school, Johnson has nearly 200 words on his wall.
“We learn two root words and then all the words associated with them,” she explained. “She’s just helping students recognize words they don’t know and maybe break them down if they have Latin roots or something.”
Reading is also a big part of her activities. Johnson didn’t start reading for pleasure until eighth grade, but once she discovered the joy of books, she’s been an avid reader ever since. She works to instill this sense of joy in her students as well.
Seventh graders read at least 600 pages per quarter, and honors students must read 1,000 pages every nine weeks. Tuesdays are library days when Johnson checks on her students’ progress. She said many read 2,000 to 4,000 pages, maybe more, a quarter. And they have a choice of what to read – fiction, non-fiction, graphic novels, audio books.
“We have a wonderful librarian and a wonderful library full of every kind of book they could ever want,” Johnson said. “And I try to talk about different books every day to try to introduce them to a lot of things. If they can read what they want, I think they’re more likely to read, so that’s really important to me.”
This week students are discussing historical literature. On Monday, Johnson introduced them to the film “Between Shades of Grey,” about a 15-year-old Lithuanian girl whose home was invaded by Soviet officers in 1941 and sent to a Siberian labor camp with her mother and brother. The book is about how a girl manages to survive the horrors she experiences through her love of art. Johnson said a few students checked it out Tuesday and she’s curious to see if they like it.
Johnson believes that if students find a love for reading, they will find a love for knowledge. This is so important to her.
Language was always a subject she wanted to teach.
“I’m fascinated by words,” Johnson said. “I’m not good at math at all, so yes, language, and especially reading, has always been where my heart is.”
Johnson has served as group leader, spelling bee coordinator, literacy book lead, SCS varsity lead, member of the Virginia Department of Education Subject and Test Review Committee, and has volunteered for school board elections, scholarship essays, mission dinners, and golf tournaments for support of local organizations.
While Johnson places great value on her students’ academics and achievement in the classroom, she just wants them to become good people. That’s why she works so hard to create a classroom culture that is inclusive and welcoming to everyone.
“Students need to be able to get along with people who are not exactly like them,” she said. “I think that’s evident in this generation. They’re, for the most part, incredibly accepting of differences and kind and, I said, compassionate, but they really are. It’s great to see. I feel like they’re pushing us in the right direction.”
— Patrick Hite is The News Leader’s education reporter. Story ideas and tips are always welcome. Contact Patrick (he/him/his) at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @Patrick_Hite. Subscribe to us at newsleader.com.