Photo: Karen in her classroom before initial school closures took place in March 2020.
Join us on the podcast for a new episode of our Teachers in America series.
Our guest today is Karen Johnston, an elementary school teacher at Harriet Tubman Montessori, part of Crescent City Charter in New Orleans, Louisiana.
A full transcript of the episode appears below; it has been edited for clarity.
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Lish Mitchell: Welcome to HMH Learning Moments, a production of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. I'm Lish Mitchell, and I work at HMH. Today's episode is a new installment of our Teachers in America series hosted by HMH’s Director of Community Engagement, Noelle Morris.
Karen Johnston is an elementary school teacher at Harriet Tubman Montessori, part of Crescent City Charter in New Orleans, Louisiana. Karen studied at The University of Southern Mississippi before she began her 14-year career in education. After working for Hattiesburg Public Schools, she relocated to New Orleans to join the founding staff at Harriet Tubman. Montessori schools utilize student-directed activities with mixed grade level classes and Karen currently teaches grades K through 2. She serves as the Chief of Staff for the Blue Campus at her school, where she helps build a comfortable and open learning environment for her students.
This episode was recorded before initial school closures took place in March 2020. Now, here are Noelle and Karen.
Noelle Morris: Today, I am with Ms. Karen Johnston at Harriet Tubman Montessori School in Algiers, Louisiana. Do you often find that you have to correct people on how to pronounce your name? My name's Noelle and I get called Nicole a lot, which I've never understood.
Karen Johnston: I think a lot of that comes with teaching. As you get new students from year to year, you want to make sure that you use the correct pronunciation of their names. At the beginning of the year, students call me “John-son” and I'm like, “No, there's a ‘t’ in there. It's ‘John-ston.’ So let's make sure we use it.”
NM: One of my favorite things that my students called me was “Miss.” I loved being called Miss. To me, it was a term of endearment. When I spent a couple years in Puerto Rico, students called me Missy. That just melts my heart.
Do students ever just call you “Miss?” Or, do they always call you “Miss Johnston?”
KJ: They definitely say “Miss” and the last name. But here in New Orleans, a lot of students say "teacher." So at the beginning of the year it’s, "Teacher, I need this" or "Teacher I need that." We have to talk about the correct way to address the teacher. I will say, “It's Ms. Johnston.” They'll eventually call me that. But they start with “teacher” first.
NM: That is interesting. I'm going to have to research why that would be. It wouldn’t work to say “teacher” because of the way the school is designed. There's at least two teachers in the room.
NM: When I walked in, I said, “Well, how is Ms. Johnston teaching class right now? The entire session is on a rug. It is on a rug because there are no desks. The desks are on the other side of the classroom in what's called “The Works.”
KJ: Correct. Here at Tubman Montessori we have a hybrid program where we're marrying the concept of Montessori and traditional direct instruction.
There's a time when one teacher has 20 students and they're working on Montessori principles; they're working on hands-on learning. And then there's the other teacher who is doing small-group instruction.
I love it so much because I actually get to see what's happening in a good way. I get to question a lot of students and check for understanding. Because it is K-1-2, students stay with us for three years. I really grow to have strong relationships with those students.
NM: There were kindergarten, first, and second graders in the room when I observed.
KJ: When you were observing, there were only first grade students in the room. As a K-1-2 teacher, I do have to learn a lot of material, but the progression is so cool because I get to see how it works in kindergarten. Then I can ask: “What can I do to push it for first grade, second grade?”
NM: I always admire kindergarten, first and second grade teachers simply because I feel like you're born an elementary or upper grade teacher. I knew early on that I was meant to be a middle school teacher. What drew you to this grade level? Did you always know that's where you belong?
KJ: I originally started teaching third grade and I saw the difference in the third to the lower grade levels. I just liked the smaller size. I liked that they're not yet independent. They're on their way to being independent. And I like helping them figure out how they can be independent.
I think that's what really brought me to the lower grades. And they're just so cute. I mean, they're just tiny and cute.
NM: They are cute, because I'm just looking at their hair by the end of the day. It's either well kept or you can tell, “I have had a good day.” Rolling out there in y'all's playground, which is not really a playground. It is a yard.
KJ: It’s a yard. They're calling it the park, which we love.
NM: Oh, the students have named it the park?
KJ: Because we're going to go to the park today and I'm like, “Yes, we're going to the park.” But it's so large. It's about two to three acres of land. It's really nice.
NM: It's pretty amazing. I asked Julie, your principal, “How do teachers manage this?” I mean, there's a lot of space. How, as a teacher, do you prepare yourself to go to the park?
KJ: My title is Director of Enrichment. I have a staff of about 46. For teachers who do physical education, we have a music section outside. We also have an art section and we have support staff there, too.
Students basically get choice. Teachers have units that they're focusing on. Right now, we're getting ready for Mardi Gras, so our music teacher is creating a drum line. Students are learning to read music and drum a little bit.
Our art teacher is creating masks and floats for our Mardi Gras parade. That's her focus right now. They're just prepping those materials. And then, uniquely, our PE coaches get out there and play. I mean, they play with the students themselves. We love a good game of Sharks and Minnows.
We strive to have strong relationships with our kids. Again, this is the place that we're engaged with students, having conversations with students, we're doing a lot of one-on-one time. And what we've seen this year with this new program is that our kids are really learning how to be more social, which is helping them in the classroom.
It's very special. With a K-1-2 program, you have kindergarten, first, and second grade in the same classroom. Sometimes you have a second grader who was kind of shy, but when they are with a kindergartener or a first grader, they get this confidence that they may not have had.
NM: Karen, I have heard that there's a term called "runner." That’s a kid who is new to kindergarten. Have you ever experienced that? A kid who just is like, “I'm outta here?”
KJ: Sometimes students struggle with the dynamics of a school setting.
And the idea of this “runner”—they're trying to learn their safety net within the building or who they trust as adults. They do tend to run from those situations where they're kind of like, “I don't know this person. I'm trying to feel my way.”
We're so lucky at the school to have a support staff and behavior specialists. We have people who can sit down and create plans for those students. And we include teachers and parents on those plans. I'm striving to make sure that what we do here mirrors the home. We try to give strategic and specific examples on what it looks like at school so it can be taken home.
NM: When I took my daughter Hettie to kindergarten, she was nervous. But she's always been a child [who’s] like, “Okay, if my mom has me in this situation, then I'm okay. I'm going to look back at her. I'm going to make sure I'm okay.” And then she goes, and she figures [things] out.
As a parent would I have even known that my child might react that way in the first days of school?
KJ: Most of the time, parents don't know. When we see it happen, of course, we like communication to be really strong with our families. We reach out right away and let them know we're concerned that the student may not feel safe.
We try to get some background information, like is this their first year at school? Of course, this can happen at different grade levels, when kids transfer from another campus, and maybe feel a little uncomfortable. But mostly we see it in pre-K and kindergarten.
And, of course, we bring the families in. We speak to the family and child. We like to let the child know that we're all on the same page. We're trying to build a team around that student.
NM: When I started in middle school, there were other things I was not prepared for. I've always wondered, is that something that you learned in some of your methodology?
KJ: As a staff here at Harriet Tubman, we try to make sure that we're all on the same page about how we handle certain situations.
We have this running joke; we call it “The More You Know.” As we experience things from year to year, we begin to know what works and what helps our environment. Before students arrive in the fall, we discuss “runners” and “criers” and how to help them.
Do we coddle the kid? Do we show that strict warmth is the best approach? We show that we care. We show that we're no nonsense nurturers. We're caring about the child, but here's what we're expecting from you.
NM: I liked the no nonsense nurturers.
Okay. I was completely shocked. All of a sudden, I look over and two students are sitting at a table, as if it's their café, and they are having Cheetos and water. Snack anytime I want?
KJ: Snack is anytime you want here at our school. We have learned that for students to focus, they don't need to be hungry.
We have an open environment that allows students to recognize their needs. Just like we recognize when we need to go to the restroom. So maybe I'm hungry and this could affect the way I listen or affect the way I do my work. We do have a community where the snack table is there. We set restraints. We have timers at the snack table.
NM: I saw there was a sand glass, right? He flipped it and he was just kicking back, enjoying his apple. I was like, "That is so cool."
KJ: It is cool. And they've done well with it. In some classrooms, the teacher can manage. The students will go up to the teacher and say, "Can I go to the snack table?"
And then we have some homerooms where students invite their classmates to the snack table. They invite them and say, "Hey, do you want to go to the snack table?" And then they go on to the snack table.
NM: The word just came to me. It's an hourglass. Did you hear me originally? “The sand thing that you turn over?” Oh goodness.
KJ: I was at a loss for words myself, so it's fine.
NM: Alright, Karen, tell me, did you know you wanted to be a teacher when you were in college?
KJ: I knew I was going to be a teacher since I was a child. Every woman in my family was a teacher. That includes both my grandmothers and three aunts.
My mom was the only one who was not a teacher, interestingly enough. She’s a nutritionist. But I was around a lot of teachers. I would see them.
NM: She's still a no-nonsense nurturer.
KJ: Correct. She just was on the nutrition side. But I would come home and see my aunts grade papers and I visited their classrooms. I just loved school.
I was lucky to attend a good school. I went to the same school from kindergarten until 12th grade. I became really close with my classmates. I had so much fun at school and developed such great relationships with my teachers. I would want to go home and mimic what I had experienced from the day.
I knew for a long time that I wanted to be a teacher. When I got to college, I started elementary education, and things were going right. And then I got that itch that most college students get and I'm like, “I just want to graduate.” So I changed my major, mistakenly, to political science.
KJ: At the time, I was involved in student government.
NM: I’m saying uh-oh because I did the same thing. I'm just going to keep listening now.
KJ: I was involved in student government and I was in a sorority. I really got involved on campus. I was on this political science kick and I graduated, got into the real world and I said, “Oh, what do I do now?”
It just so happened that I overheard that a school was looking for tutors to work with students. I interviewed with the principal and she said, “I don't want to hire you for a tutoring position. I need a teacher. Can you get in here and teach?”
And I'm like, “Okay, I can try this. Let's do it.” Ever since I got in front of that classroom and taught, I just haven't looked back. It's been so rewarding and such a joy. I mean, I go to work because I'm so passionate about what I do. I love what I do every day.
NM: Oh, nice! I mean, you can tell. Your eyes just lit up when you said that. I was thinking, “She loves what she does.” I'm glad you overheard the person saying that someone was hiring.
KJ: This was back in Mississippi. In Mississippi, you have to have the certificate. You have to be a teacher. I went back and finished my elementary education that I had started.
Then I ended up in the great city of New Orleans at a wonderful school, Harriet Tubman. I've been so lucky and so grateful for this journey in education.
NM: I think you stay on course when you are passionate and you have a drive, but I can also tell that your principal has noticed leadership qualities in you. She's been able to give you opportunities and now you're looking at things from a broader perspective.
I'm surprised that you did not shout out what sorority.
KJ: Alpha Kappa Alpha. The First and the Finest.
NM: See, I needed to give you an opportunity to shout out because I was like, “I don't know if she thinks she can. And then I'm surprised that she didn't just come out and say it.”
KJ: Yes, my bad. But yes, the First and the Finest sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha.
NM: Okay. Which means pink. I mean, you see me in my pink.
KJ: I see you in your pink. You look great.
NM: We recognize it. So how much pink is in your wardrobe? And green? Because it has to be together.
KJ: Green is my favorite color. I'm more of a green person and it's a running joke in my classroom because they all know my favorite color. I say, “Well, what's my reason? Why do I love green so much?” And they were like, “You love money.”
NM: Oh, I love it.
KJ: I say, “You should love money and we're going to get smart enough so we can make as much money as we can.” So yeah. That was my joke.
NM: I love that they think you love money. They're not seeing that you’re a teacher, right? Because the two do not normally go together. They're like, “Ms. Johnston, we see you. You like green. That means you like money, but stay here. Stay here with us.”
KJ: Stay here with us. That's right. So yeah, green is my thing here.
NM: It's Friday. How are you about to relax and enjoy your weekend and refresh for Monday?
KJ: This weekend, I'm having some time with my family. They're coming to town. Over the years, I've just learned to have a good balance.
I try to maximize the time during the day. We're such a collaborative school here. Once a week we have professional development for two hours. One hour of that time is spent collaborating. We share ideas about lessons. We share student samples. We talk about the next few lessons that are about to happen.
That time really helps me focus on work so that when I leave, I'm able to have personal time. I'm a big CrossFitter. I like to do CrossFit.
NM: Do you do the obstacles where you swing on a tire and push a tire up a hill?
KJ: I’ve flipped some tires in my lifetime.
NM: You don't mind mud, obviously. Do you put on makeup?
KJ: I do.
NM: Oh, see, I hardly wear makeup on a regular day, and you're telling me you CrossFit and you wear makeup?
KJ: I CrossFit in my makeup; I do. I like to be around friends and family, too. I just think that's very important. If I have time to myself, I’ll go for a run. I might cook something. I'm trying to get into cooking. That is my little resolution: being more prepared with my meal prepping.
NM: Does your family bring that up, that you don't contribute to the cooking?
KJ: My mom has me spoiled, I believe. She really loves to cook, you know. Since she’s a nutritionist, that's something she likes to do.
Growing up, I was really spoiled. I got to play more than work in the kitchen with her. I went to college in the same city I was from, so I went to University of Southern Mississippi, in Hattiesburg. I was from Hattiesburg, so I didn't have to go far for those home-cooked meals. I was very spoiled.
NM: Yes, you are spoiled. So why cook? You don’t need to.
KJ: Right. That's where I am today.
NM: I still do not cook that much. My daughter has taken that on. She likes it. I've never liked it.
KJ: Most of the time when I cook, I don't want to eat it.
NM: I'm the same way. We'll have to explore that concept.
What's on your TV playlist, whether it's Netflix or Hulu or traditional cable?
KJ: I'm not a big TV person. I like all kinds of sports. I'm big on basketball and football fan. Most of the time, that's what's on the TV. It's really high energy and keeps my attention. I'm also a big news person. I watch the news every morning.
NM: What’s your favorite basketball team?
KJ: I follow talent, so LeBron James is my favorite.
NM: High five! Mine, too. LeBron, we're talking to you. This is Noelle and Karen. We want to talk to you.
KJ: He opened a school. That was just so awesome.
NM: Do you feel the same about college sports?
KJ: I get into college sports. Around March Madness time, you just can't deny that time, it's just a good competitive game.
NM: I love seeing that energy and drive. How, as a teacher, do you leverage that competitive spirit in your classroom?
KJ: I think it starts from building a child's confidence.
Here at Harriet Tubman we push our values: excellence, responsibility, courage, and unity. We talk to our students about these values a lot. Adults here also use those values. We highlight when we see them, and we give each other shout outs to show our appreciation.
We also focus on habits of mind. Do you have grit? Do you finish what you start? Do you use metacognition? Are you thinking about your thinking? We try to embed those things in our teaching. I'm constantly saying, “Did you really mean to bump that person? Was that an accident? Let's understand that our bodies do things sometimes and we don't mean to, so let's go ahead and apologize. We have to communicate that to the other person.”
NM: Teachers need to know how awesome they are, that they are doing a great job. We're making a difference, we're impacting. I believe every teacher needs to have a walkup song. So what song is playing in your head as you're ready to walk into your classroom?
KJ: Oh goodness, it could be all kinds of things. Beyonce. Sasha Fierce. Transition. Hey, I'm in my zone about to get in front of kids. I find myself having to stay in tune with what they like, so some days it might be a current song that is a little different from my upbringing. That might be some Future or some Drake. They like anything current. Sometimes, I've had a co-teacher and we've had the vibe that we wanted music on, and we listened to Mariah Carey. It was so random, but it was just something she and I both liked listening to.
NM: So you like those power women? You have Beyonce, Mariah Carey. Okay. Are you reading anything right now?
KJ: I've gotten used to teaching small kids, so my time span is 15-minute intervals. I do like magazines. I do a lot of online reading, of course. I'll get curious about a certain topic. I'm like, “Oh, let's research this and let's go on here and do this.” I think as I get older, I’m more interested in understanding how to be healthy. We're really pushing mindfulness here. I've caught myself downloading apps and reading more about being mindful. I feel like that's something that was modeled for me growing up, and not more deliberate about learning.
NM: So your mom modeled that?
KJ: It was more like a model. You saw someone be more cognizant about something, instead of them saying, “No, I'm going to stop. I'm going to meditate on this and think about how I'm going to do this.”
Of course, you go to church and you see this and that. But I think it's always been modeled instead of like, “This is how you do this.”
NM: You’re right. We weren't told meditate, relax, reflect, get in your space or have statements of affirmation. I could tell today that your students know they belong.
You said every one of their names at some point during the read-alouds. And you do it, whether you're praising or you're redirecting. Take that one student who just started singing, “I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas.” You were like, “Okay, we're going to do this.” You said his name.
He was like, “I'm going to continue singing one more line.” And then he stopped himself. You only had to redirect him one more time, but you didn't let it affect your flow.
KJ: I just knew he had a little moment. He needed a little moment to get that out.
NM: And that did not distract anyone else.
KJ: We try to use the Behavior Management Cycle. We've put this into practice for at least five years and it's really helped me as a teacher. It's a way for me to take my emotions away from the situation and bring it back towards the end. Basically, I just highlight what I see.
I set my expectation. I highlight what I see. I narrate those positives that I have in the audience. Sometimes we have to give the consequence to the student that may not be meeting the expectation, but do it in a way that’s framed positively.
NM: What's a consequence, because I never saw any consequences given?
KJ: There were some consequences.
NM: Interesting. I never even saw them.
KJ: It’s called a mark. Marks are the way to remind you that there's a need for you to meet the expectation. I set the expectation. For instance, “We're writing. Braylin’s writing. Cherri’s writing. Adam.”
That's a mark: “We're writing.” There’s no emotion tied to it. Just like, “Adam, you had a choice. I'm expecting you to do this. And when you didn't, you get a consequence.” Our marks translate into positive rewards that you can get. We have celebrations. We have special rewards that you can get, like a dress-down day.
NM: I saw the ribbons. I saw the students coming, and literally they're wearing this button.
KJ: And they get to make that.
NM: They made it?
KJ: They made those. How cool, huh?
NM: It's like, “I got this. I earned it. I'm wearing it.”
KJ: And you probably didn't notice one student was having a tough time.
Not only do we have the snack table in the classroom, we have what's called the peace table. The peace table is when you basically self-regulate and you feel like, “Hey, I'm not feeling well right now. I'm sleepy or I'm tired or I'm frustrated. I'm upset.” So we're really pushing kids to understand the way their body feels.
If I see your face is looking like you may be frustrated or tired, I'm just going to go up to you and say, “Noelle, I think you might want to go to the peace table.” Kids have learned that it's not a bad place to go. We're all human. We all need that break. One student during my lesson had to go take a break because they were tired.
There's self-timers there too, so they know that they can't just hang out forever. We've got to really hone in, fix it, and then come back to the carpet.
NM: Now that I’ve talked with you, I think you fit so well in this environment because you are so comfortable and confident with who you are. And because of that, you're able to see all of your students' potential. I'm so glad that it worked out, that I was able to meet you.
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