08 Dec Meet our Team: Vynesha Johnson
In this blog series, we are interviewing members of the CT3 team about their background in education as well as the expertise that they each bring to their work with educators across the country.
Why did you want to become an educator?
This brings up a lot of emotions for me when I talk about it and I always mention it during my No-Nonsense Nurturer trainings. I had the opportunity to attend first grade in Seoul, Korea because my parents were in the military. I was one of two black children in an all Korean school. The other black child was biracial – Korean and black – and spoke Korean. Plus, she was lighter skinned, so I was dealing with the interracial racism at a very young age because I realized that my skin was much darker than everyone else in the building. I felt like an outsider, very un-relatable to the rest of the student and staff population. So, in my 6-year-old mind, I was the only black person in an all Korean environment. Now, everyone was very nice to me – I felt kindness and love from everyone with the exception of my teacher, a Caucasian woman from America. That was the first time in my life that I experienced the same emotions that evoked something in me when I watched Roots or Mandigo. In my six-year-old mind, my teacher made the same facial expressions and interacted with me the same way as the white people in the movies that I watched about slavery and the civil rights movement. At that young age, I knew with every fiber in my being that my teacher didn’t like me because of the color of my skin. It was such a challenging year for me that I decided at six years old that I wanted to become an educator so I could be sure that no child I interacted with was made to feel the way that I did.
Growing up in Alaska also afforded me the opportunity to experience uncomfortable situations in the school system because I was a minority. I watched how I, my siblings and my friends were treated differently than our white counterparts because adults were misguided in their thinking and we (students) were misunderstood. I talked about this experience in the November 2016 issue of ASCD Express. I quickly realized that I had a calling to be an advocate to help the white adults understand how to teach and interact with black children. It was because of those experiences that made me want to continue to advocate for justice and understanding in a system that most didn’t recognize as oppressed. I even used to walk around telling my high school principal that I would come back and take her job!
Tell us about your background in education.
I taught for six years as an upper elementary and middle school teacher. I knew when I started out that I wanted to experience every sector of education. So, I sought out working in one of the best school districts in the country – Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland – and I sought out working in what was considered the armpit of America – Gary, Indiana. I taught for four years at Gaithersburg Elementary in Maryland as a 5th-grade teacher. I also took on a lot of leadership roles early on in my career. I had a leader that a) knew I wanted to be a Principal before the age of 30 and b) saw greatness in me and pushed me into leadership roles. During this time, I was also heavy into spearheading things for kids like the step team and talent shows.
I then taught for three years in Gary, Indiana as a middle school teacher. There I gained charter school experience and became a Principal straight out of the classroom. After that, I spent five years as an administrator for district Behavior Intervention Program where I learned, grew and developed as a leader in the field of Special Education. I supported students who were in the most restrictive environments and advocated for inclusion.
What was your first teaching experience like? What did it teach you?
I was prepared to change the world through children. I learned quickly that I did not have the tools to manage my classrooms without putting stress on myself and students. I loved them, but I wished I knew about No-Nonsense Nurturer then! I also learned about equity of resources (or the lack their of). I taught in the gym for the first five weeks because there was no other place for me to teach. I literally had to teach my class while the gym teacher had to teach a class. Additionally, I immediately learned that I loved working with children. I loved their energy! I appreciated the influence that I had on them and respected it. I was very intentional about them experiencing a young, African-American woman as a professional and advocate for their needs – only because I knew many of them mirrored my school experience, as many didn’t have teachers who looked like me. I wanted to break any misconceptions and provide them with a new experience because on a larger scale – this is how I wanted to change the world – teaching children how to embrace humanity, shift mindsets, and be responsible for changing their world. Oh, the other challenge that I was super excited about was teaching them to be critically conscious. I enjoyed that the most.
Do you have any regrets from your first few years of teaching that you wish you could do over?
My biggest regrets were the students that I believed I failed because I didn’t have a strong relationship with them. There were really only two that stand out. I always wonder what their lives would be like if only my interactions with them were different. That and having to take three years to get comfortable managing the classroom. I went from one extreme to the next – my first year, I was what we call an Unintended Enabler, and my second year I was more of a Negative Controller. By my third year, I found the balance of becoming a No-Nonsense Nurturer. I wish I knew about brain research then and how my interactions with those two students impacted their brain.
What is your unique perspective when working with teachers, coaches, or principals?
I’m a huge believer in relationships. Relationships matter! When I’m able to relate to someone on a personal level, embracing their humanity and mindset, that’s when compassion enters the relationship and transformation is possible. It’s difficult to work with someone without having a relationship. So, I am intentional about building/having frequent touch points with teachers, coaches and principals.
What are you an ‘expert’ in besides CT3’s work?
Special Education Administration – mediation involvement, advocating for students with IEPs, helping parents understand their rights, supporting teachers in getting students adequate resources, helping educators understand when there is a need for an IEP vs. the lack of understanding/connection between teacher and student or school and student. So, addressing the overrepresentation of minorities (especially boys) in special education.
What in your opinion is the most important aspect of school in order to best serve students?
Structure and relationships! Clearly communicated expectations provide structure and implementing those through relationships! There are so many layers to this….
What is your best advice for a first-year teacher?
My best advice for a first-year teacher is to find the good in every single student, especially ones that present as challenges the most and build relationships with them.
If you could only tell educators ONE thing about Real Time Teacher Coaching, what would it be?
Be open-minded and just give it a chance. It WILL bring about shifts in your practice. Be open-minded – even if you think you have nothing left to learn and if all your students are passing the district and state assessments.
What’s been your proudest moment working with educators and students?
Hands down, my proudest moment was becoming a Principal before the age of 30 in Gary, Indiana! So many things that I wish I knew then, but having the opportunity was priceless.
Read more about Vynesha here.
Click here to read Vynesha’s post on our blog on the power of restorative conversations.
Vynesha’s article “Teaching Teachers to Change the Discourse” was featured in the November 2016 issue ASCD Express: Disrupting Inequity. In it, she shared her thoughts on growing up as an African-American in Alaska, and how that experience helped her shift mindsets – a skill she uses in her work at CT3.