After 33 years, Carla Johnson, kindergarten teacher at Orrington Elementary School, heads out the “munchkin door” with her thematic outfits, zillions of books, and the hearts of hundreds of students and families for the last time.
There’s not much blank space on the walls of Carla Johnson’s classroom. No headroom either – hand-cut paper snowflakes twirl on strings, while 20 decorated Valentine’s Day t-shirts hang from pipes that crisscross the ceiling, dusting the floor with glitter. Luckily, the kids in this class aren’t in danger of bumping their heads as they zoom from one cheerful “learning center” to the next. I duck down and grab a tiny seat at a teeny table to meet Carla Johnson, kindergarten teacher extraordinaire.
This is Johnson’s twentieth classroom full of ebullient toddlers. That’s 20 years of ABCs, colors of the week, messy hands washed, and milk cartons opened. Hundreds of grateful parents and joyful children have passed through these doors and perched on these impossibly small chairs. She has made a lasting impression on countless kids, including two of my own. In the days when the TV show The Magic School Bus was a family favorite, my family decided that Johnson was the enthusiastic and inimitable Ms. Frizzle incarnate. And though no flying yellow vehicle waits at her beck and call, she still has the zany wardrobe and sunny disposition down pat.
Sadly, this is her last year at Orrington Elementary School in Evanston/Skokie School District 65. After 33 years of service – Johnson spent the first 13 as a special education teacher at Park School – she will finally hang up her teacher’s hat. But true to form for the woman with the watermelon-themed outfit, she won’t be leaving without style. A retirement party held in her honor is already scheduled for late spring. It’s shaping up to be some celebration – more than 300 former students and their families have already committed to attend.
“The thing about Carla is she was able to take the regimentation you need for special ed, and apply it to kindergarten in a way that works,” says Sandy Fochler, a classroom volunteer whose own children have passed through Johnson’s care. “The kids have fun, but learn in the process. She addresses every kid, and finds their strengths, and brings out the best in them.”
Teaching is second nature for Johnson. She comes from a family with deep roots in the education business. Her father was a coach, teacher, and elementary school principal in Naperville. Twin sister Karen Wuellner was once a high school home economics teacher, and now teaches pre-school in Oklahoma. Johnson herself graduated from Illinois State University’s teaching program in 1975, and went on to receive her Masters degree in Early Childhood and Special Education from Northeastern Illinois University.
Since then, sweeping changes from the No Child Left Behind laws have changed the face of public school education, and the paperwork is daunting. But education is in the irrepressible Johnson’s blood, and it’s a hard habit for her to break. “My passion for teaching has not diminished,” she says, “but I want to teach to the child – not to the test; not to the numbers. I just don’t philosophically agree with data-driven education for five-year-olds. I now spend as much time testing and entering data as I do teaching.”
It’s no mystery to Fochler and other parent helpers why Johnson favors her own, more individualized teaching methods. Part of the reason they succeed is her inclusion of parents as an integral part of the process. She strongly believes that the teacher must work hand-in-hand with the home to make the education process enjoyable and effective. “Kindergarten is the most important year,” says Johnson, “and my goal is that they want to come to school, and they [thrive].” She welcomes outside help and support in the classroom, save for the first month, when the kids are transitioning to their new environment. Sometimes she even plays the classroom piano – the only one outside the auditorium – and stages singalongs with her students.
“You just have to throw it all in – different places, different experiences – because everyone learns differently,” she says. “I’ve got 180 days to make a difference in these kids’ lives.” Amid the changing school system, the cycles of students, and the shifting of seasons, we can count on one thing: In June, we will wave a heartfelt goodbye to a magical teacher who made a difference, and whose earrings always matched what she wore.