Desire for real-life experience drives Whitman alum Sophie Johnson to Teach for America

helenjenne

When recent alumna Sophie Johnson ’08 administered a standardized test in her first month of teaching, it did not go as planned.

During one of the breaks during the test, a fight broke out and Johnson didn’t know what to do.

“I stood in the middle,” she said. “Never do that.”

Johnson ended up getting punched in the nose and blood got all over the tests she was holding.

Johnson, who majored in English with an emphasis in race and ethnic studies, was teaching over-age high school students with moderate to severe learning disabilities at Rabouin High School in New Orleans, a job that she got through Teach For America.

She said that over the course of that first year, some of her students were killed and guns came into her school rather often. At the Homecoming football game, there was a shooting.

“It should have been a place where people felt safe,” she said. “That was really hard for me to deal with when I first got here.”

This year, in Johnson’s second year of teaching, she teaches second graders with special needs at Langston Hughes Academy Charter School, also in New Orleans. In Louisiana, students with special needs are included in a general classroom but there are two teachers, so that the students with special needs can be given specific  accommodations.

“The idea is that everyone is really equal but some of us need different things,” she said.

Next year, Johnson plans to continue teaching at Langston Hughes.

“You can’t be a good teacher in two years,” she said.

Johnson said she was surprised at how many Teach For America teachers teach for fewer than five years, and doesn’t want to be part of that statistic.

Johnson, who was the editor-in-chief of The Pioneer for three years during her time at Whitman, wants to eventually continue on to journalism school or another graduate program. She intends to write about race in America, which is partly what led her to Teach for America in the first place.

While at Whitman, Johnson spent a semester off-campus in Chicago through the Associated Colleges of the Midwest Urban Studies Program. She said that she learned a lot about race and discrimination that semester and when she came back she talked to Teach for America representatives.

“They made a really convincing argument about the importance of education,” Johnson said.

And she knew she wanted to move to New Orleans. Johnson said she had worked during the summer at The Nation magazine, where people talked about things they had no experience doing. Instead she wanted to have more experience before she started writing.

“No wonder people hate journalists,” Johnson said jokingly.  “Teach for America gave me this perfect path.”

She was offered a job at The Nation after graduation, but turned it down. Instead,  Johnson says that Teach for America is the best thing she has ever done.

“It’s really hard, almost too hard for me,” Johnson said. But she says she’s the happiest she’s ever been.

“It’s really smart not to go to straight to grad school,” she said. “You realize how much you miss college when you’re not there.”

Johnson points out that the college years are often geared towards the individual. Her advice for after graduating is simple.

“You’re sort of only responsible for yourself,” she said.  “Do something, get out of Walla Walla . . . don’t be freaked out. Get outside of your comfort zone.”

She emphasized that you don’t have to have your life planned out when you graduate.

“You don’t have to know what you want to do with your life when you graduate college, you just have to know what you want to do next,” Johnson said.