‘More fulfilling than I could have ever imagined’

 

Fellowship pays off for first-year teacher —and his students
Sometimes students make the best instructors. That’s one lesson David Johnson has learned in his first year as a full-time public school teacher. But Johnson also has imparted his share of wisdom to young teens at Lynhurst 7th and 8th Grade Center on Indianapolis’s west side—not only about pre-algebra mathematics but also about the value of going to college and settling disputes peacefully.

“This year has been more fulfilling than I could have ever imagined,” he says.

The former mortgage broker was among UIndy’s first cohort of Woodrow Wilson Indiana Teaching Fellows. The New Jersey-based Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation launched the program in Indiana in 2008 and has since expanded to other states.

Committing to high-need schools
The fellowships include $30,000 stipends to attract would-be teachers—ideally career-changers or recent grads from math, science, and technology fields—to an intensive one-year master’s degree program followed by at least three years of closely mentored teaching in high-need public schools. The University of Indianapolis, IUPUI, and Purdue and Ball State universities designed special curricula to prepare recruits for the rigors of the classroom. At UIndy, the fellows began observing and teaching in local schools from the very start. Johnson was placed at Lynhurst for his student teaching and, after completing his coursework, secured a full-time position at the Wayne Township school last fall.

“I was able to jump into it with both feet,” he says. “The program really prepared me for the challenges that we’re facing as first-year teachers.”

Lynhurst Principal Dan Wilson says Johnson is handling those challenges well.

“David has made a huge impact in the short time he’s been a part of our school family,” Wilson says. “He’s an outstanding math teacher, but he has also become a leader, mentor, and role model for our students.”

A key element of UIndy’s Woodrow Wilson program is its emphasis on project-based learning, a teaching method that replaces traditional classroom lectures with collaborative group assignments in which students apply their knowledge in multiple subjects to address real-world concerns. Johnson said instructors such as Deb Sachs, clinical/mentoring coordinator for the UIndy fellowship program, walked the talk by using PBL methods to teach the concept.

“We weren’t sitting in a lecture about how we’re not supposed to lecture,” he says. “She modeled everything perfectly, and it was effortless. She didn’t say, ‘I’m doing this because… .’”

One class project for Johnson’s students this year involved the surface area and volume of three-dimensional forms. They were asked to consider a standard band drum—a cylindrical prism—and redesign it for maximum storage efficiency with no change in pitch or volume. (Did you answer “hexagon”?) UIndy’s Woodrow Wilson curriculum also covers the non-academic aspects of teaching, such as the important influence of home life and socioeconomic issues on student success. Some students at Johnson’s school miss class regularly. Many come from low-income families that move frequently.

Keeping it real
Johnson, therefore, made an effort to build a rapport with each of his classes, using team-building and group exercises he learned. He takes time to talk with students honestly about the issues they and their friends face, which gives him a head start whenever a student seems distracted or troubled. And he has told them his own story, about why he took the plunge and became a teacher.

“Sharing that with them just made our relationship more authentic,” he says. “If you’re doing a dog-and-pony show, they know that. Now I can just ask them, ‘What’s going on?’ Usually it’s some type of family issue.”

Ultimately, however, the job is to teach math. Johnson’s year as a student was challenging, with long days spent juggling classes, student teaching, and observation, but he felt even more pressure upon getting his own classroom, with responsibility for 90 eighth-graders.

“The stakes were even higher. I’ve got these students here who are going to be tested, and I really want them to succeed,” he says. “I’m excited every time I come to work, just to see the growth in the students. I told them, ‘I can’t wait until you take ISTEP. I can’t wait until you prove everybody wrong.’”

David Johnson launched a new career through the Woodrow Wilson Indiana Teaching Fellowship at UIndy. He now teaches math at a Westside middle school, where he helps coordinate a multicultural student organization. The group’s success has sparked several speaking invitations for both students and teachers, including at the annual statewide education-reform conference sponsored by UIndy’s Center of Excellence in Leadership of Learning. Johnson is one of just 50 teachers nationwide selected to participate in the Siemens STEM Institute, a week of hands-on professional development this summer at the Discovery Communications world headquarters in Washington, D.C. Also, at the end of that week, the 50 fellows will serve as school and community leaders in advancing the cause of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education.