When the world shut down in 2020, a Kalamazoo Public Schools teacher went door to door delivering care packages to his students on the morning of their AP test.
Fast forward nearly two years, James Johnson is back to teaching U.S. History in person but is one of many teachers taking on the extra workload of covering for colleagues amid a statewide shortage of substitute teachers.
Whatever the challenge, Johnson is up for it, Loy Norrix High School Principal Chris Aguinaga said of Johnson, the 2021-22 Michigan Teacher of the Year for the Southwest Michigan region that includes Kalamazoo.
“An incredibly personable teacher, I think, is what his major strength is,” Aguinaga said. “He goes really deep into building relationships with kids before he dives into his content area.”
Johnson struggled to connect to his students while teaching virtually for the entire 2021-22 school year, he said. Since being back in person, the job still has challenges, though they are different.
Although he can see his students’ faces in the classroom this year, Johnson said the district-wide shortage of substitute teachers has added a new challenge of the job of a high school history teacher.
“For me, personally, it’s been the amount of time that I’ve had to substitute teach on my planning periods,” he said.
Many weeks, Johnson is subbing during his non-teaching time two out of five days, he said. Subsequently, the work he needs to do for his own classes is affected.
“It means grading is slower,” he said. “I take more work home with me. It’s just tiring.”
When one teacher needs to be absent, whether it be for illness or otherwise, their colleagues sacrifice their own planning time to help, he said.
“We don’t really have much choice with that,” Johnson said. “But we all rotate and help each other out.
The shortage of substitute teachers is impacting districts across the state. KPS recently raised the wage for substitute teachers to help attract new employees.
Before the pandemic, and the subsequent worsening teacher shortage, Johnson said he would sub for a colleague a few times per trimester rather than a few times per week.
But teachers are empathetic to each other, he said.
“A lot of teachers are pretty conscious when they’re making a decision about when they have to be away from school for certain things,” Johnson said. “But a lot of it’s unavoidable; teachers get sick, families get sick.”
Aside from helping others, Johnson is also a mentor to new teachers and heads the school’s social studies department, the principal said. But most importantly, Aguinaga said Johnson cares about his students.
“It’s his dedication to students first,” Aguinaga said. “Not only looking at their academic performance, but also their social and emotional well-being.”
The principal said Johnson had rich and genuine discussions with students — despite the virtual format — about how they were feeling during the pandemic.
It was his work when classrooms first closed in March 2020 that got him nominated by a parent for the Michigan Department of Education award.
Last spring, Johnson was teaching an AP course. The annual AP test that allows his high school students to earn college credit for the course was quickly approaching.
“While we were waiting for the district and the whole country, really, to figure out where do we go from here with school, I said we got to keep moving,” Johnson said. “Let’s go online, I’ll meet with you, have some videos and post materials for them. Just trying to keep connected as much as possible in that uncertainty.
“It’s validating to have that recognition. But I’m not the only teacher that does that. Lots of teachers have gone above and beyond to try and make learning work and to connect with students this whole time.”
Students in Michigan took the AP course virtually that spring, Aguinaga said. Those last few months of the school year are a critical time for students to prepare.
“He was holding sessions regularly with the kids to study virtually,” Aguinaga said. “And then, on the morning of the test, he went and delivered care packages to the houses of all the kids who were going to take the test.
“That just speaks to his character. He went above and beyond to make sure that those kids would perform well on that test in the brand new format.”
Now back in his classroom with walls covered with maps and photos depicting historical images such as the Uncle Sam “I want you” poster, Johnson reflected on his seven years teaching at Loy Norrix.
“I got into this profession like most teachers, because either we like working with kids or we want to make some kind of impact in that way,” Johnson said. “I think it’s an important job. There’s lots of important jobs, this is one of them, and so I’m proud to do this work.
“That’s what keeps me going. It’s been hard. It’s always a hard job, but that also makes it rewarding a lot of the time too.”
By: Kayla Miller | MLive.com
Photo: Joel Bissell | MLive.com