What Do You Want To Be?
Shelley Johnson, a teacher in Dallas Independent School District, shares what empathy looks like in her classroom.
Jul. 18, 2017

So, you're at that crossroads moment where you answer “teacher” to the once-simple childhood question: "What do you want to be when you grow up?" It has you feeling excited, overwhelmed and truthfully a little queasy.  Or at least, that's how I felt eight years ago when I decided to leave a successful business career to pursue what I felt was a “calling” to teach.  

Of course, perhaps like you, I had a zillion questions all running through my head at the same time. Which teacher prep program to choose? Which subjects and grades to teach?

And, one of the most challenging questions of all--one that still keeps me up at night: how can I teach in a way that makes learning relevant, addicting, and action-inspiring for both me and my students?

Well, settle in because this is where my real story starts and yours can begin, too.

As I thought about my unique talents and experience, I was convinced that I could “raise the stakes” for all of us in Room 116. And this is what the role of a “teacher” is! Demanding more of yourself and your students than what either of you thinks you’re capable of, and then supporting each other through all of the successes and failures.

So what do I do?  How do I continuously raise the stakes each year?

I do what I believe those of us charged with leading others (young or old) must  do:  I gather my students together right away the first day of school, and we set our learning community’s “moral compass” for the year.

We brainstorm to come up with one realistic action that we can practice throughout the year to promote peace and a sense of community for ourselves and those we interact with.  This is some of the hardest work that many students have ever done, and it requires a series of well-thought out, planned lessons and group activities that promote positive communication, active listening, and a willingness to put “we” before “I.”

Talk about critical thinking & problem solving in action!


Recently, the students created a moral compass that was called “Hands of Tolerance” because it represented our commitment to work together and join our hands with peace and respect for one another.  That work hung on our classroom door as a symbol to others of our class commitment. 

And so, my story is really a story of us; my students and I developing trust, empathy and a mutual respect for one another that only grows deeper throughout the year.  And having that bond enables us all to take risks with our learning, make messes, and guide one another to our highest point of success each day.  

I must ask you, then: what will your story be?

Shelley Johnson is a fourth- and fifth-grade teacher at Dealey Montessori in Dallas, Texas. 

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