In Mille Lacs Messenger April 2, 2008
Ready for a grand adventure
Jim Johnson retires after 33 years of teaching
by Diane Gibas
For 29 years, Jim Johnson has been going into room 116 from September through May.
It seems appropriate that Jim Johnson would quote a novelist. After all, he's been an English teacher for 33 years - 29 of them at Onamia High School.
"Aldous Huxley said in the 'Brave New World,' 'The secret of happiness is to like what you have to do,'" Johnson said.
From the looks of him, he's lived out that statement. He still has a big smile on his face and an easy laugh when he talks about his decades of teaching kids how to appreciate literature, construct a proper sentence and speak correct English.
After 29 years in room 116, teaching English to seventh graders and senior high students, Johnson is going to move on to a new phase in his life and retire at the end of the school year.
People ask him why he continues to teach seventh graders after all this time. "I like them," he said. "They've come up (from the elementary) with all their innocence."
Johnson's focus in teaching has been reading and writing. He likes composition and knows it can make or break a student in college. The ability to construct complete sentences and paragraphs is paramount in writing a paper.
"The beauty of my job is there's no established curriculum," he said. He has the freedom to choose the books his students will read and compositions are always a unique project.
Johnson told of his first teaching job where his boss told him his class could read one of several books. "The Outsiders" had a study guide with it so he chose that book. The study guide was also a teaching guide for him. During his first year of teaching it helped him become a better teacher. "That book saved my career," he said. On May 5, he will begin to lead his class through that book for the last time.
Johnson has heard plenty of improper language coming from his students over the years. "Me and my brother seen ..." is a popular one. He sometimes corrects his students and says, "My brother and I saw ..." but sometimes it's a losing battle, and it doesn't work to constantly correct everything. The students just start tuning him out.
"I tell my students, 'All good writing is correct, but not all correct writing is good,'" Johnson said. "Maybe we should say it's a living language."
He has seen many changes in education throughout the years. In the last few years, Onamia hasn't been able to hire replacement teachers for some who have left. "Education is in the crosshairs now," Johnson said. People say what's wrong, but they don't come up with a solution to the problems.
Enrollment is going down, but the number of staff is also going down. He misses the high school's full-time librarian, and now that the voters passed the referendum last November, he hopes the school board will be able to bring back a librarian and replace teachers who retire this year.
His career has been a good one, although he admits there are some down sides to teaching. "There's a lot of positives, but there's negatives too," Johnson said. "You have to look at the right side of the coin."
As a true educator at heart, he wants all of his students to be successful. But he said some kids require more than what he can give them - they are difficult to reach. And some don't value education as he would like them to. "But it's wonderful to be in a room with really bright kids," Johnson said.
He considers his years in room 116 a positive experience. "If I have any regrets, it would be I wish I wouldn't have lost my temper," he said.
Some of his students say to him, "Mr. Johnson, you can't retire until I graduate." But he said he knows not everyone will miss him. He recalled talking to one of his classes about his forthcoming retirement and a girl muttered, "He should have gone last year."
"Life is about making relationships. I've made so many friends - teachers and students." And he will have those relationships with him whether he is in room 119 or at home, having another cup of coffee in the morning.
Johnson said he won't have any trouble keeping busy after retirement. He and his wife, Kathy, are planning a train trip. He also plans on reading a lot of books, skiing, gardening and traveling. "I think it will be a grand adventure," Johnson said with his big smile and a hearty laugh.
Photo by Diane Gibas