July 27, 2016

Meet Dr. Sue Johnson: Champion of the unexpected

In another few weeks, students and teachers will be heading back to school to begin another academic year. But for Dr. Sue Johnson, heading back to school is more of a homecoming than a job requirement. Since she was a little girl, the classroom has always been home to Johnson. 

“I knew the first day of kindergarten that I wanted to be a teacher,” Johnson said. 

She was one of the lucky ones who not only found her passion as a 5 year old, but has flourished in her profession for over 30 years. As a lifelong educator, Johnson has built her career in the classroom, being both a leader to students and teachers alike as the superintendent of Savanna School District (SSD) in Anaheim, California. 

From her degrees alone, Johnson shows her commitment to education has been unwavering over the years. She holds a doctor of education degree in educational leadership from the University of Southern California, a master of arts degree in school administration from Cal State University, San Bernardino and a bachelor of arts degree in liberal studies from Cal Poly University, Pomona. As if her academic achievements weren’t impressive enough, Johnson, a California native, has worn many hats throughout the years, before taking her place in school administration. 

As a student at Cal Poly University, Pomona, she worked as an instructional assistant and soon after receiving her credentials, began teaching third and fifth grades for 10 years. In addition to being a classroom teacher, over the years she’s served as an elementary principal and vice principal. On top of educating children, Johnson has dedicated much of her career to the professional development of teachers as well. She’s taught courses in classroom management skills, method classes in language arts and math, and for 20 years taught a course for substitute teachers. Whether she is teaching young minds or the minds of our teachers, Johnson is passionate either way. 

“They are all learners; they all want to learn,” she shared. “I love teaching. You are impacting the next generation. And if you go into school administration, you have an influence on even more students than just the classroom setting.” 

Her expansive career brought Johnson to SSD, an elementary school district with approximately 2,400 students in West Anaheim in 1990 as a curriculum coordinator. She quickly moved up the ranks from curriculum coordinator to director of curriculum and personnel, assistant superintendent and finally to superintendent. While Johnson is no longer in front of a classroom day to day, she’s tasked with the larger job of running her district from top to bottom, which includes many projects, two of which being the recent modernization of all her school sites and overseeing the hiring of certified staff within the four elementary schools: Cerritos (Tiger’s elementary school!), Hansen, Holder and Twila. However, while limited, it’s her interaction with the students that is truly still the most rewarding part of the job. 

“I love seeing what they are learning, and I try to go out and watch, visit classrooms, interact with kids, see projects if I can,” Johnson explained. “You know the meetings you have to do, but the fun part is going out and seeing the kids and interacting with them.”  

It’s this genuine passion for her students that drove Johnson to become involved with the Tiger Woods Foundation nearly five years ago. She enlisted SSD’s elementary schools to be part of the Tiger Woods Learning Center’s Career Orientation Program (COP). COP brings in fifth graders to the learning center for a week-long field trip focused on marine or forensic science. While students are immersed in STEM-based, hands-on workshops, their teachers receive professional development training. 

“The project-based learning is really great,” Johnson commented. “At TWLC they learn the why, not just the how.” 

On their bus ride back to school after a full day at the TWLC, Johnson can hear the excitement in the voices of her students. From her perspective, the kids leave the TWLC truly excited about what they’ve learned. But Johnson also sees the value her teachers gain from the experience as well — and making sure her teachers are continually learning and growing is equally important to Johnson. 

“What I really like about the Tiger Woods Learning Center is not just the kids get taught and the teachers sit in the background. The kids get taught skills that they would otherwise not learn while the teachers learn the next step and other kinds of things to take back into their classroom. And every year teachers have come back and put that learning into use immediately. And it’s different every year, it’s not the same; it’s never been the same.”

Dr. Kathy Bihr, Tiger Woods Foundation’s vice president of programs and education, lauds Johnson not only for her support of the learning center, but of teachers and students across the board. 

“She attends every event at the TWLC where her students and school district are represented,” Bihr said. “Sue was excited with the programs offered for students and impressed by our teacher technology training, so much so that she asked us to train all of their summer teacher interns who work with students. Her enthusiasm for students and teachers is contagious, and we are so fortunate to have her as a supporter of the TWLC and all it has to offer. If you are looking for a champion for ensuring quality education for students, look no further than Sue Johnson.”

Gyla Bell, TWLC’s senior director of programs, echoes Bihr’s enthusiastic support of Johnson and praises her support of the learning center. 

“Sue Johnson truly believes in the Tiger Woods Learning Center and the impact it has on her community. In 2013, she nominated the TWLC for the Golden Bell Award for our partnership with her district and programming we provide her students and teachers. Sue is an avid supporter of the work we do and knows we are making a difference in her community.”

“They have document cameras and sound systems in every classroom. They have a set of computers for students to use in each classroom. Each teacher has a laptop that they use for instructional purposes. We are a Mac district. And beyond those types of technology there’s other technology enhancements that really make the school a better place,” Johnson explained. “We have put security cameras throughout the school. We’ve put emergency buttons in each classroom to notify the front office. Our busses have a chip in them where the kids can scan their bus passes and they tell us where the kids get on and off.” 

With all the modernization and upgrades happening throughout the buildings, Johnson is probably most excited about the technology learning centers. But don’t make the mistake of calling them computer labs; she is vigilant that they are much more than that. Her plan is to eventually morph the technology learning centers into STEM labs, modeled after some of the programming at the Tiger Woods Learning Center. 

“Technology should be integrated into kindergarten,” Johnson declared. “Today’s kids are digital natives; we are all digital immigrants, those of us that didn’t grow up with technology.” 

While many of the students at SSD’s elementary schools come from homes that can’t afford personal computers, nonetheless, Johnson is astonished at how technologically savvy the children are and she believes the role of the school is to encourage that zeal. 

“Even as young as kindergarten they created their book reports on iPads,” Johnson said. “And in fifth and sixth grades the kids were creating the QR codes. I saw so many QR codes at open house this year it was just absolutely amazing. And it wasn’t just creating the QR codes, it was what was behind that QR code. So their mission reports, their state reports, their ancient Egypt reports were all done technologically as some kind of a video presentation.” 

Teresa Lennox, the management information systems supervisor at SSD, has known and worked for Johnson for over six years. The pair worked closely during the modernization projects, and Lennox saw first-hand how much of a hands-on leader Johnson truly is. 

“There is nothing she isn’t willing to do even if it isn’t in her ‘job description,'” Lennox said. “She is willing to give a hand no matter what the task is if it will allow someone else’s load to be lightened or for the end product to be better. She is a great example of being a lifelong learner and has encouraged me to do the same.”

Whether she is visiting playgrounds and interacting with students or taking the SSD board to on-site visits of the TWLC or her elementary schools, Dr. Sue Johnson is truly engaged and committed to giving her children and staff the best learning experience available. 

“I’d like to think I am teaching every single day, no matter what I am doing,” Johnson said.

And for all who know and love Dr. Sue Johnson, her role as a teacher never ends, not even when the bell rings. 

Champions of the unexpected for 20 years.