Spotlight Interview: Michelle Johnson (RI '18)November 28, 2018
Michelle Johnson (RI ’18) loves hearing her third-grade English language learners (ELLs) testing their new language skills, “whether it’s asking to use the bathroom or for a new pencil.” She won Rhode Island’s 2018-19 Milken Educator Award at Mary E. Fogarty Elementary School in Providence on October 17, 2018.
Milken Family Foundation: Your face in the photo above tells the story, but we have to ask: How did you feel at your Milken Educator Award notification?
Michelle Johnson (RI ’18): I was totally shocked when I realized I had won the Milken Educator Award. I remember walking up to the stage stunned. My hands were shaking. I kept thinking that I couldn’t believe this was happening to me.
MFF: How did your students respond?
Michelle: My students were so excited. They were cheering and clapping. I got a lot of hugs. Even today, some of my students will tell me how proud they are of me. It is truly touching.
MFF: How did you land in education?
Michelle: I knew from a very young age that I wanted to be a teacher. I always had a passion for teaching and had some terrific teachers when I was in elementary school. I knew I wanted to be the kind of teacher that students remembered and looked up to.
MFF: Why did you choose elementary school?
Michelle: I like how excited elementary students are to come to school and learn every day. I love watching them learn something for the first time and knowing that I was a part of their journey.
MFF: Who are your role models as an educator?
Michelle: Two of my elementary school teachers, Mrs. Sinel and Mrs. McElroy, as well as two of my college professors, Dr. Cloud and Professor Toncelli. They all had such a passion for teaching and made learning exciting and interesting. I knew that was the kind of teacher I wanted to become.
MFF: What memories stand out from your first year of teaching?
Michelle: I began as a substitute teacher and learned a lot about myself as an educator. I developed my “bag of tricks” as I worked in classrooms of all ages and taught different subjects every day. I learned how to handle many different situations. I remember talking to my friends who were teachers and sharing my challenges. One piece of advice I would give any new teacher is to seek out colleagues and share frustrations and concerns. Teaching can get overwhelming sometimes. Knowing you are not alone is so important!
MFF: Your students speak as many as eight different languages. How do you get everyone on the same page so you can move them forward?
Michelle: All of my 26 students are ELLs. I get asked a lot if I have to learn all of their languages. I don’t—we use lots of visuals and gestures, especially for my newcomers. Teaching ELLs is very exciting because I love when they start speaking in English, whether it’s asking to use the bathroom or for a new pencil. I always tell my students they are smarter than I am because they already know one more language than I do!
MFF: We hear you throw a great pizza party.
Michelle: My annual pizza party started my first year in Providence, five years ago. That year I was focusing on parent engagement, because without the support of parents, teaching is much harder. Parents and teachers need to work together! I try to stay in contact with my families throughout the year so we can build a partnership.
Every June, I host an end-of-year celebration. My mom and brother help me serve pizza, juice, water and snacks while the parents get to participate in a celebration for their child. I take a lot of pictures of the students throughout the year and create a slideshow set to music—that’s my favorite thing to do. At a parent-teacher conference a few years ago, a parent pulled out his phone and showed me the slideshow I’d created two years earlier when his older child was in my class. He still had it on his phone. It was truly touching to see that!
MFF: How do you think you’ll use the $25,000?
Michelle: I am buying a new car and paying off some bills. The rest will go into the bank. This money will be such a huge help!
MFF: How do you define “success” for yourself, and for your students?
Michelle: For me, success is celebrating everything! Whether it’s learning a new letter, regrouping in math without help, or reading a paragraph fluently, every achievement is important. When we celebrate everything, the students become more excited not only for themselves, but for each other.
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