Years in Education: 11-15
First in Family to Graduate From College
5th Grade Teacher
Q: What do you have in common with your students?
A: It’s rare to see a male teacher in an elementary classroom, and African-American men are even rarer. In my school of more than 60 employees, only five are male. I believe this has an impact on our male students – especially those without positive male role models in their homes.
But it also provides men like me with a unique opportunity to reach out to these students and inspire them to do great things both in the classroom and in the community. We have the power and responsibility to prevent an achievement gap before it begins.
While some kids dream of becoming a teacher as they grow up, I didn’t figure out my calling until I was in my 20s. As a student, I was every teacher’s worst nightmare. I was constantly in trouble and failed 4th, 7th, 8th and 9th grades before being forced out of school at the age of 16. It was December of my 2nd year in the 9th grade when the school counselor called me to the office to tell me it was best that I pursue a GED and learn a trade. I plead my case and asked for a second chance, but the decision was made, and my time as a student was over. Within a year, I received my G.E.D., and I spent the next decade bouncing from job to job and living paycheck to paycheck. In 1998, my mom passed away after a long bout with breast cancer, and I struggled with her loss for months. Just when things started to get better, my dad passed away as well.
Losing both parents within six months of each other was the toughest stretch in my life. I did a lot of self-reflecting and soul-searching during that period, and in the fall of 1999, I enrolled in Livingstone College to major in music with the mindset that I was going to make a difference. To fulfill my college community service requirements, I began volunteering at a local elementary school. Not much had changed since I was in school – students were given worksheets, the teacher sat at their desk, and students with behavior issues were allowed to sleep in class or were removed from the environment completely. I was disturbed by what I observed, and began volunteering and mentoring in that classroom. The next semester, I changed my major to elementary education. I received a full academic scholarship, and graduated with a bachelor’s degree. in Elementary Education in 2003.
As a teacher, my main goal is to give my students a learning experience radically different from my own – which is exactly what I’m doing today. My classroom, better known as Johnsonville, really isn’t a classroom at all. It’s a collaborative community – a real-world simulation of adulthood where kids come to work and play as they learn about personal finance, government, and global affairs. In Johnsonville, there are no lectures. I integrate technology and problem-based learning to capture the attention of even the most disengaged students. Just like in the real world, my students show what they can do through projects, teamwork, and research. Is it working? North Carolina state testing shows that my problem-based learning model improves student scores. My students consistently score higher than other science classes in my district. At the end of the 2016 school year, my fifth-grade students scored an average of 85 percent on the state science exam, while my school as a whole scored 58 percent.
Q: Does it matter that students and teachers have things in common?
Anthony is the 2016-2017 Rowan-Salisbury Teacher of the Year and is a TED-Ed Innovative Educator. To follow the adventures in learning happening in his real-world simulation classroom, visit johnsonvillelearningnetwork.com and follow Anthony on Twitter @a_p_johnson.
Humanizing the gaps separating teachers and students.