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The Middle Matters: Sharing Memories And Insights On Teaching The Middle Grades

While one-room schools are today all but non-existent, for over one hundred fifty years they were the model for American education and stressed teamwork, community and a celebration of local and national history. Linda Taylor Johnson attended one similar to this pictured one in Ira, Vermont and began to dream then of what was possible.
photo provided
While one-room schools are today all but non-existent, for over one hundred fifty years they were the model for American education and stressed teamwork, community and a celebration of local and national history. Linda Taylor Johnson attended one similar to this pictured one in Ira, Vermont and began to dream then of what was possible.

Tuesday January 8, 2013

By Cookie Steponaitis

   Linda Taylor Johnson started her educational experience like so many of her generation in a one room school in rural Ira, Vermont with no running water, a wood stove, windows with cracks and a strong breeze and only twenty kids in grades K-8. Yet, in that basic structure Linda learned several lessons about people and education that she would carry into a forty-three year career in education herself, teaching the adolescent age lovingly referred to as the “Middle Years.”

    “Harriet Kenyon was our teacher for years,” shared Linda Johnson. “In that one room school I learned that there was no difference in kids by ability. Everyone helped each other and we cherished time as a community to celebrate events including holidays, Memorial Day, Christmas and Veterans Day. I also learned that I loved mathematics and science and that I wanted to teach,” and from that start in Ira, Vermont, Linda Johnson grew up knowing that she was headed into difficult times. At this time in education women were highly sought after as elementary school teachers and as teachers in the traditional areas of Home Economics and art. “Not only did I want to teach mathematics and science,” shared Linda, “I wanted to be a part of what was then called Junior High. My father took me over to college and had to be forceful before they would even let me sign up as a secondary education major. ‘You don’t belong in mathematics and science’ they told me, ‘for that age group that is a man’s job.’ ”

    Undaunted by the rules of the time, Linda stuck to her resolve and graduated from Castleton, a Vermont college in 1966 with her vision of being a middle grades teacher in her sights. When she was in high school Linda had been greatly encouraged by English teacher Mr. O’Neill and Science teacher Mr. O’Leary.  Mentored to pursue dreams and not what was conventional, Linda Johnson choose the middle grades because of the unique characteristics of the age. With one foot in adolescence and another in adulthood, the emotional, learning and developmental needs of this group are not elementary or high school but in the middle of both. Linda arrived on the educational scene at the beginning of a time of reflection, research and work around the best way to teach this age group.

    “For me this age is special because the students are curious, willing to take chances in their own learning, and willing to laugh at themselves if they make a mistake,” shared Linda Johnson. “They believe in the impossible and are even willing to reach for it. I simply loved it and them.”  Indeed she does. Linda Johnson spent 43 years in the classroom  from 1966 until her retirement in 2008 with grades 6-8 and to this day cannot visit the local store without having prior students come up to her to share memories of the science experiments, special projects or time she spent listening to them about plans, dreams and goals.

    Linda Taylor Johnson shared not only stories of her classroom, her treasured students, but a lot of helpful advice for those entering the field of education in the near future. “I can’t rightly tell you the exact number I taught,” remarked Mrs. Johnson, “but suffice it to say it was in the thousands. However, there are some fundamental beliefs about education that I feel have not changed no matter the decade or the newest configuration of middle school that I think would help new teachers. First, don’t go into education for the money. It is never a career that will equate to you in money received for the number of hours. Second, don’t feel you need to know everything. Many middle schools use a team model and you are able to share with other professionals. Seek their advice and collaborate together. Third, involve your parents. Talk with them, involve them in the education of their children and be honest with them. Fourth, you have got to listen. These kids are at a critical age where they need people to not only talk with them, not at them, but to listen to them. When you talk to them and not down at them, they respond to the model.  Lastly, draw a line in the relationship. You are their teacher and not their best friend. Keep that clearly defined in your relationship.”
It is evident even to this day in talking with Linda Johnson that her heart is still linked with her past students and  although she has not been in a classroom since 2008, her experiences helped shape the direction of education for the middle grades in the state of Vermont. “When I first started it really was a fight,” recollected Mrs. Johnson. “The belief was that math and science were for male teachers and male students and women really didn’t belong in the middle grades. My first years were in Vermont and in Arizona where the realities of the classroom were 176 students a day and six classes a day. My principal was afraid that because I was from the east I would push my students too much and expect too much from them. The kids and I had a partnership. We worked together and anything was possible.”

And, to this day Linda lights up when she shares memories of her students, her times in the classroom and her passion for the unique realm known as the middle grades. “While I always let them see me as human,” shared Mrs. Johnson, “I also learned early on not to show fear, whether it was a dead flying squirrel carcass they brought in to share, or a snake, frog or other of God’s creatures because to them it was the hands on aspect of science that opened their eyes and started many on their lifelong interest with it.”

Just before ending the interview Mrs. Johnson went back in her mind once again to that long ago time in Ira at the one room school when she was sent to the neighbor’s farm on her own to get a jug of water for the students. Being allowed to try herself and being trusted to accomplish the goal was the beginning of what she instilled in her students for over forty years. “Everything is still possible,” concluded Mrs. Johnson, “for the middle grades to matter and be a special time in the lives of our kids.”

The Valley Voice salutes all who are a part of the education of our children for they are America’s next generation and how they see themselves will reflect in how they shape the world they grow into.

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