Local woman wins Presidential Academic Excellence honor
FARMINGTON—The science of math is black and white since equations have one correct answer.
But teacher Janee Johnson likes to engage all whom she meets about the value of learning math and the power of thinking about math. She believes math is greater than algebra or understanding geometry.
Johnson received the Presidential Academic Excellence in Teaching Math and Science Award in Washington, D.C., on June 26. This award is given to a kindergarten through sixth-grade math and science teacher one year, then a middle or high school math and science teacher the next.
Growing up Johnson had no doubts she wanted to become a teacher. Although learning to love to teach math was not part of the equation at first.
"It wasn't my strong suit," she said. But 12 years ago she had the opportunity to move and teach fifth-grade math and science. She learned to teach in a more departmentalized way and benefited from district professional development.
"That is when math started to make sense to me and I understood how math worked, and it wasn't just learning formulas and memorizing things — it was about developing a conceptualized understanding and flexible thinking and seeing how things are related to one another and patterns," Johnson said. "It changed my world. It made me very passionate about teaching math to students so they understood and could make sense of the problem/"
Since then, Johnson has been on a journey to spread the news about math.
"I take any opportunity I can get to have a conversation about math with anyone especially with adults who come from the generation of math is just something you memorize and learn," Johnson said.
Everyone can get better at math with practice. Johnson firmly believes every math mistake a student makes is progress.
"Math is something everyone can learn and any opportunity I get — whether it is on the soccer field, the coffee shop or anyone who will engage in that conversation — I would because I am so passionate about changing our beliefs about math," Johnson said.
How can parents influence their children to pursue an understanding and excellence in math?
"I think having that mindset that math is something we get better at and how we learn through our mistakes and failures and also that it is all about that persistence," she said.
"At the end of the day, there is one right answer in mathematics, but I think what we have missed for a time being on public education is there are all these ways to get to that answer with divergent thinking, and kids really learn best by having that conversation around math and by having conversations and discussion around math," she added.
The Farmington resident teaches fifth grade at Kenny Elementary in Minneapolis. In recent years she also has worked as an adjunct professor at University of St. Thomas and Augsburg University teaching upcoming teachers..
As a finalist in 2016, Johnson was nominated for the presidential teaching award by Mike Wallace, director of math for Minneapolis Public Schools. Two weeks ago, Johnson was informed she should travel to Washington, D.C., even though there was no formal announcement she won. She traveled with husband Mark and the two shared the celebration with a fancy meal and awards banquet dinner at the Smithsonian Art Portrait Gallery.
"The process is you choose a topic you are interested in or passionate about teaching about in terms of mathematics and you do some research about it, teach a lesson you videotape, and then you analyze that lesson and reflect upon it," Johnson said.
Further data, research and more reflection followed. This information was reviewed at the state level and will be shared at the national level.
Besides visiting national monuments and museums, she spent a day at the National Science Foundation alongside other math and science educators working on the next strategic, five-year plan for science, technology, engineering and math education; the plan under President Barack Obama's administration has expired.
"I was able to have some input at the education level about what we need to have for STEM, and it is going to connect, I believe, the resources that are out there with the front lines of teaching," Johnson said. "I met wonderful teachers from across the nation and we will use each other as a connection and resources.""I believe as teachers, we always focus on the students and families we serve, and our job is to ensure they feel safe, are learning and feel like they belong - and if they belong, than anything is possible."