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LELAND — David Johnson, who won the North Carolina Science Teachers Association “Distinguished Service Award” at the annual ceremony last week in Goldsboro, always wanted to teach in a way that truly engaged students. The NCSTA Award recognized The Charter Day School teacher’s ability to put that desire into practice.
Johnson’s seventh-grade science class is academically challenging, but what sets him apart is a unique approach to managing the classroom. His strategy starts before the students even enter the class.
Assistant Headmaster Rosina Walton said that Johnson is known for lining his students up outside every day. The students must enter in a particular way – over or under a rope, in pairs, or on one foot – or they are told, with a friendly smile, “back of the line,” by Johnson. Students must perform a trial and error experiment to unlock that day’s “code.”
This combination of physical participation and intellectual challenge is the trademark of Johnson’s classroom. As class began, Johnson led students through a review for an upcoming test. In order to “earn” the chance to answer questions, students had to respond to Johnson’s cues. With a subtle hand gesture, or a soft-spoken word, Johnson sent the students jumping onto their desks or scrambling under them, waving their hands over their heads, or linking arms to form the first letter of an answer.
Johnson says brain-based theories of education influenced him heavily, but that he developed his unique style mostly in the classroom.
He began teaching 10 years ago at DC Virgo, in Wilmington’s Northside neighborhood, before the school was shuttered and he moved to the Charter Day School in Leland. Johnson said the school, which is a tuition-free, year-round charter school, was where he began innovating his style.
“It’s definitely been a developing process,” said Johnson. “I’ve been building up these techniques. I’ve always wanted to engage the students, and to do that, they have to stay active. I keep adding things, changing things, seeing what works.”
Rebecca Harris, a high school senior who was observing Johnson’s class for a class project, said she chose Johnson as her project’s official mentor because he had inspired her interest in genetics.
“I had [Johnson] his first year, and we didn’t have any of this, standing on the desks and all that. But he was still great,” Harris said. “It was the first time I was introduced to genetics, and ideas like hypothesis and experiment.”
Daniel Trout, Bacon Academy communications assistant, described Johnson as a “wunderkind,” and praised his classroom style.
“It looks chaotic, but David’s in total control of his students, and they’ll follow him through any kind of lesson,” Trout said.
Student Milan Patel compared Johnson’s classroom favorably to classes he’d taken in previous years.
“My teacher last year, he’d just let us go out of control,” Milan said. “Mr. Johnson won’t let us get away with anything. He is strict, but if we do something correct, then he rewards us. So we take it seriously. It’s something we want to do.”
Patel’s classmate Kevin Yates told a similar story.
“I had a different class than Milan last year. But it was the same thing,” Yates said. “Everyone just talked over each other and the teacher. Then they’d call Ms. Walton and we’d all get in trouble. I don’t think Ms. Walton has every had to come to Mr. Johnson’s class to yell at anyone. He’s strict. But in a good way.”
Although students described Johnson as strict, the classroom itself was full of laughter and activity. Johnson said of his choreographed chaos, “When they’re recalling this information – and I’m always amazed, at how much they recall, recall and understand – and they’re also doing these physical challenges, you get a whole new set of neuron growth. And that’s learning.”
Johnson credits his success in part to the charter school style.
“I have a little more autonomy here than I would at a public school,” he said. “Having taught before in public school, a failing public school, I’m aware of the challenges. I could still do this at a public school, but it would be harder. Even when you show them the data, the numbers, how much better students do, there’d be resistance in public school. Here, instead of resistance, there’s support.”
“I think it’s a good model, in general,” he added. “It challenges public schools to be better. Because parents can take their kids out of a public school and bring them here, where they’re getting this kind of education.”
Although Walton and Trout both emphasized what an extraordinary honor the NCSTA award is, Johnson remained humble.
“They actually have another award, an outstanding teacher award. I’m glad I didn’t win that one because I don’t know if I’m outstanding,” he said. “But Distinguished Service, well, I know how to serve.”
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