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Third-graders don’t always have to raise their hand to answer.
In fact, it’s rare when they do in Scott Johnson’s third-grade class, thanks to his somewhat unconventional approach to teaching.
Johnson, a teacher at Barranca Mesa Elementary, was honored late last month by being named the Los Alamos Public Schools teacher of the year.
“I have to be humble a little bit, there’s so many other great teachers,” Johnson said.
But not many other teachers foster the type of hands-on learning environment that promotes open communication that Johnson does.
He frequently encourages his third-grade students to get out of their seat, suggest their own topics of study and vocalize their questions or concerns about anything being discussed in the classroom.
“My classroom is probably a little bit noisier than other classrooms,” he said. “I always try to keep an active environment. I know they’re not always talking about what they’re learning about, but I try to create that atmosphere so they feel comfortable talking in the classroom.”
Johnson said the constant communication leads students to taking more risks and asking more questions because they already feel comfortable talking. Students frequently call out answers, as opposed to raising their hands or being called on.
“I just try to mix it up,” he said.
Johnson also said that he has been influenced by material he has read about the gender-specific approaches to learning, and that he tries to apply some of those concepts in his own classroom.
“There is no doubt he is unconventional,” said Paula Dean, principal at Barranca Mesa Elementary School. “Scott’s methods are fluid and always involve technology, hands-on learning and special approaches to involve children in their own learning.”
Aside from fostering a communicative environment, Johnson believes that learning is sometimes best done through teaching. He often partners his students with a first-grade companion, to pass on the lessons they receive in his class.
“I like to read with my first-grade buddy because I can help him with words,” said a third-grade student in Johnson’s class. “Sometimes Mr. Johnson sits with me and has me read a chapter in a book to him. My reading and vocabulary have improved a lot.”
Johnson, from Ashtabula, Ohio, originally moved to New Mexico for its picturesque scenery, he worked at Taos as a waiter for several years before finding his true calling.
He said he was considering teaching high school English, but after he substituted at a local elementary school he felt like that was the right place for him. He has been teaching at Barranca for 11 years.
Local youth advocacy organizations have also benefited from Johnson’s desire to shape young minds, such as the Barranca Student Assistance Team, the Los Alamos Restorative Justice Team, and, more recently, Envision Your Future, a program that helps young men be successful adults and accomplish their goals.
“For students who stray off the right path, Scott works tirelessly to provide high school students with consequences that improve behavior and good character,” said one of Johnson’s co-workers in a letter of recommendation to the school board. “His work with Envision Your Future is an edgy program that provides an alternative to the traditional probation.”
Johnson received several letters of recommendation from various staff and faculty members at Barranca, as well as some from community members and even his own students.
During the summer, he will be acting as chaperone to eight high school students from around the country to guide them through a Los Alamos National Laboratory-sponsored program titled “Earth Watch,” designed to teach students about astrophysics. He will be staying in the hotel with them, driving them around and taking them to Fenton Hill to conduct experiments.
Runner-ups for teacher of the year were Karyl Ann Armbruster, Sue Bloss, Marilyn Clayton, Shirley Edmonson, Becky Sims, Cheryl Smith-Ecke and Eileen Trujillo.
Johnson said he was quite happy to receive several gifts from local sponsors, and was pleased that the community supported his educational efforts.
“All the gifts from the community were a really nice surprise,” he said. “It’s a good sign of how community-oriented the businesses here are.”
Johnson graduated with a bachelor’s degree in English in 1994 from Ohio Wesleyan University, and received his K-8 teaching license in 1997 from New Mexico Highlands University in Las Vegas, N.M.