Johnstone feature

Lessons from LifeChangers: Crisis Becomes Rebirth

Today I sent emails to all of my students. Some of them have failing grades and multiple absences. I needed to give them a piece of my mind and set them straight. I pulled no punches and dropped a truth bomb. I wrote, in all caps: I BELIEVE IN YOU. I HAVE YOUR BACK! Let’s work together to get you back on track. 

Stacey Johnston

Not what you expected? Fifteen years ago, I probably would have written a completely different email. The teacher I am today has learned some hard and important lessons about showing kids grace and space. If I could go back in time, I would give my former teacher-self a swift kick and leave a stack of books on Culturally Responsive Teaching and Social Emotional Learning on her doorstep. This me, thankfully, leads her classroom with compassion and the understanding that in addition to school, kids are dealing with life. Many times, their lives outside of the school day are tumultuous, stressful, and even beyond experiences that most adults could cope with. This is why my email wasn’t about discipline or shame, it was about grace.

Why is this something that I have embraced and encourage others to embrace as well? It’s simple: I am only human and my students are, too. We too often set unrealistic expectations for ourselves and others. If Covid-19 and the shutdown of our regularly scheduled lives has taught me anything, it is that it is OK to step away from business as usual. Schools so often operate on this model, a factory mindset that expects the machines to run rain or shine. The problem with that idea is that students are not machines and neither are teachers.

I still believe in classroom management and running a tight, rigorous ship. But high expectations are in a different category than unrealistic expectations. As a working mother, I admit that when the school day ends, I often can’t muster the energy to do anything work related. I take off my teacher hat and put on my wife/mother/student/human being-who-has-other-responsibilities hat. I have to empathize that my students do the same thing.

Currently, I am teaching at Mission High School in Las Vegas. Mission just happens to be the first “Recovery” high school funded by public education dollars. Mission is a place where students struggling with the disease of addiction get a second chance at furthering their education at a school that supports recovery. If ever there was a school that owned “grace and space,” this is it. We teach people first and subjects second. We don’t cut corners, we just meet the kids where they are. We know that addiction doesn’t make a person less than or incapable. 

I previously taught AP English at a high achieving magnet school. After a few years there I realized that, though I had bright, motivated kids, they often just pushed through the classwork to get it done. I interviewed a few graduates for a paper I was writing and they admitted that learning wasn’t always the priority, it was all about earning the elusive “A”–by any means necessary. That’s when I had an existential crisis followed by a professional rebirth. I couldn’t be a teacher who left this as her legacy.

Fast forward to years of shifting my methods and points of view. PBL, workshop methods, process over product, people over papers began to dominate my teaching. Then, one day, I decided that where I was teaching was great, but my time there was done. Deep down I knew that my classroom was a space for kids to brush off the pressures of the outside world and to engage in a type of learning that wasn’t focused on solely producing scores. I began to wonder if there were entire schools like that.

So, here I am at Mission High School. I am proud and beyond grateful to have found a place where the school rules are “Be impeccable with your speech. Always do your best. Don’t take anything personally. Don’t make assumptions.” Philosophically, I have found a place where I truly belong. We are not immune from unruly teenagers and days where students and teachers alike are burnt out. But at the end of the day, we all know that we operate on the mission of “Recovery, Relationships, and Rigor.” My sternly written emails in all caps, tell the kids loud and clear that I know they are capable, I see that some of them are struggling, and that I love and respect them, nonetheless. 

This is part of a series of posts from nominees for our LifeChanger of the Year educator recognition program. We meet scores of fascinating LifeChangers every year who have interesting perspectives to share about children, education and life.

Text from LifeChanger of the Year nominee

Learn more about Stacey Dallas Johnston on her LifeChanger of the Year profile.