In a school year filled with change and uncertainty, music teacher, Teach Plus Illinois Policy Fellowship alum, and 2021 Illinois State Teacher of the Year Justin Johnson has found ways to connect his students to each other and their instruments. Justin, now in his ninth year of teaching, teaches instrumental music classes including jazz band, marching band, and concert band.
This year, Justin is taking a yearlong sabbatical to share his teacher of the year platform with policymakers, stakeholders, and teachers across the state. For Justin, these conversations will largely center on recruitment and retention of teachers of color, with an emphasis on retention.
“Schools and districts have talked about recruitment and retention for a while, but not a lot of people address what happens when you recruit a diverse staff and then put them in buildings where they’re one of one and there’s not really the understanding of what’s going to make those educators feel welcome,” he says. “So it’s important to figure out a way to make those school buildings feel more inclusive, and the educators of color to feel more valuable.”
As a student, Justin loved playing his saxophone and helping his classmates with their instruments, but he never saw teaching as a career path until his music teacher suggested it to him. He initially went into a career in business until he realized he felt called to teach music.
“When I teach students how to be excellent at playing and performing music, I teach them to use some of those same skills in everyday life. No matter what profession they pursue, they are going to do it as best as they can because that’s what they’ve been accustomed to doing in my program,” he says.
Teaching music remotely through the pandemic has been a challenge for Justin. “There’s really no way to make music without other people,” he says. When students come to one of Justin’s music classes, they are not usually learning to play an instrument, they’re learning to become more skilled and to combine their instrument with the dozens of others in the room. This type of learning became especially challenging when students were practicing solely at home with no one to give them feedback, or were unable to play in a crowded home where others in their family were learning and working.
“My freshmen have not had an adult listening to them play and giving feedback for an entire year,” Justin says. “Even things as simple as playing on your own, they’re afraid to do that away from the actual environment of sitting in the band line [with other musicians].”
In a typical school year, Justin’s students perform in five concerts and have opportunities to showcase their talent at special events like performing in New Orleans or at Disney Springs in Orlando. In 2020, it was heartbreaking for them to have been preparing for a concert performance only to see it canceled five days before they were scheduled to perform.
The cancellation reinforced what Justin has always believed in: You can’t take music for granted.
“I think music is one of the most important subjects because I know it gives kids an avenue to be expressive and emote, and it does so many things from a social emotional lens,” he says. “Compared to a city school that would have the music programs defunded, we’re fortunate that we’re not taking music away, but it could happen. This year, we had a pandemic that took music performances away.”
Removing the performance aspect has allowed Justin to reimagine what he wants his students to learn each year. For example, they’ve been able to learn more mechanics and use more social emotional learning skills during music lessons.
“I’ve been more thoughtful about how the program works, so I’ve given my students extended periods of time to work on assignments.”
Reframing Learning Loss
Justin is one of a growing number of educators who take umbrage with the idea of “learning loss.” “I think people are really missing the mark with that because there are so many examples not of learning loss, but of students learning different skills,” he says.
“When people focus on ‘learning loss,’ they’re devaluing the students. I think the message some of my students are getting is that something’s wrong with them. I just wish people would acknowledge the things that the students are actually learning right now, and the resilience that a lot of them have shown during this pandemic.”
“I think one of the things that the pandemic shed light on was some of the inequities in education,” Justin says. “And it’s been happening to some demographics for a long time, and no one’s really been concerned with it. I’m hoping that when we do come back, we take a hard look at some of the systemic challenges.”
A salient example of that for Justin is the demographic makeup of his classrooms, which he says mirrors those in AP courses. When a student of color is deemed behind in a subject, they’re placed in a supplemental course that would usually take the place of an elective like music. Because of that, Justin has had to work with students outside of class periods to keep them engaged and playing music.
Justin said he’s learned to be more empathetic and understanding during the past year, and has focused on encouraging more communications with his students.
“I think we benefit from using an empathy lens with students when they have challenging things going on,” he says. “Instead of associating a student not turning in an assignment with them not being engaged or not caring, having a conversation with them to figure out what’s going on and seeing if you can help them is important.”
At the end of the school year, Justin’s students came together to perform a concert. The vast majority of students opted to perform, with 100 performers and more than 20 instruments represented at the show. That day, Justin saw many of his students in person for the first time.
As Justin looks to the fall semester, he is focused both on getting his students ready to perform and continue learning and making a difference in the education system overall, specifically by creating better environments for teachers of color.
“As a Black male teacher of the year, I feel like I can offer a unique perspective. I’m hoping to use my sabbatical to continue working on the policies I started developing as a Teach Plus Fellow and meeting with legislators and other stakeholders in order to support teachers of color in feeling more safe, welcomed, and respected in their school buildings.”
Kathy Pierre is Senior National Coordinator of Communications and Media at Teach Plus.