Allison Johnson grew up in Smithfield, attending South Smithfield Elementary, Smithfield Middle and Smithfield-Selma High School before going off to college.
Now she’s a first-year teacher at Johnston County’s newest school, Micro Elementary, where she will teach third-graders.
This past week, Johnson was busy setting up her first-ever classroom, adding posters, bulletin boards, books on shelves and decorations in pastel shades of green, blue and gray.
Johnson, who earned her bachelor’s degree from the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, is a third-generation teacher, following her mom and grandmother. She and her husband recently bought a house not too far from the school.
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Johnson could have let her teaching certificate take her anywhere, but Johnston County is where she’s needed, she said.
“You feel more needed here,” she said. “Not that other schools and students don’t need good, enthusiastic teachers, but this is home too.”
Johnson, 22, and her husband are both Johnston County natives and are close to their families here. They plan to raise a family of their own here one day.
“I know that one day when I have kids, they’re going to be part of this community, so I wanted to make it our home,” Johnson said. “And to have a chance to shape a school when it’s just starting out, I have a chance to really impact the students here and have input on how things will be maybe when I have kids.”
Having grown up Johnston County, Johnson knows the schools here often get a bad rap. And while she doesn’t blame parents and students who think that way, she said Johnston schools are working hard to combat that impression.
“I don’t blame people for leaving sometimes,” she said. “There was a time when I couldn’t wait to get out of Johnston County. But I don’t really think it’s that much better anywhere else … And that doesn’t mean it can’t change if the community gets involved to help.”
“A lot of our Johnston County Schools are Title I, so yes, that brings problems,” she said, referring to the federal designation for impoverished schools. “But at the same time, it brings a whole other level of funding.” The federal government funnels extra dollars to the county’s poorest schools.
Johnson’s classroom, for instance, has a Chromebook for every student. More affluent schools don’t get those, at least not with federal dollars.
Johnson said she’s looking forward to a new year in a new school not tainted by negative perception but surrounded by a supportive community.
“We’re here and we’re part of this community now, and people have been so nice and so supportive,” Johnson said. “I think that’s the biggest thing – there’s going to be so much community involvement.”
For its mascot, the elementary school has chosen the Black Widow, a nod to the old Micro High School Black Widows.
“People are so excited for us to be the Widows again,” Johnson said. “It’s exciting to be part of a school that the community is behind and wants to help out.”
At the moment, though, it’s all about making her classroom a home, Johnson said. In advance of students arriving on Monday, she’s outfitted it with a chevron rug, bunting and other decorations to make her third-graders fell welcome.
“This is everyone’s first year here,” Johnson said. “We have to remember, it’s not just the kindergarteners. It’s every single student, and all of the staff. We’re all new kids this year, and so we have to work hard to make this feel like home and make people comfortable and happy to be here. We’re going to spend a lot of time here, so I wanted it to feel comfortable for my students and for me.”
Getting used to a new school can be intimidating, even for staff, Johnson said.
“Even us teachers are getting lost,” she said, laughing. “We’re all learning.”
Johnson said Micro Elementary has a great team of teachers, and Principal Carla Withrow is supportive.
“She’s so great,” Johnson said of Withrow, who taught Johnson years ago. “She’s always there for us, whatever we need, and she really cares.”
Johnson said she didn’t come naturally or easily to teaching. “What you hear about teaching, how much you get paid, how you feel underappreciated, how much you pull from your own pocket, all of that can turn you off of teaching,” she said.
Now Johnson can’t imagine doing anything else.
“I never ever thought I would be a teacher,” she said. “But I’ve always loved kids, and second and third grade is such a great age. It was like a light switch. I knew. I know I’m where I need to be.”
As a third-grade teacher, Johnson knows the state expects a lot of her, but she’s ready for the challenge.
“We’re going to really focus on a lot of hands-on learning and using technology to teach those core concepts,” she said. “But this is third grade, the first year (they) have to take the (end-of-grade test), so we have to make sure we’re preparing them for that.”
Johnson has high expectations of herself and her students. She hopes parents will step up too.
“I don’t need anything from them,” Johnson said of parents. “But the students do. They need their parents to be there for them as much as they can, to help with homework, make sure they have supplies, or just to be supportive. That’s what I want. I just want my students to know we’re all here for them.”
As a new teacher in a new school with all new students, Johnson has a lot to process. But it’s easier, she said, when she thinks first and foremost about her students.
“You feel like you make a difference,” she said. “These kids need us. They need their parents, and they need us to help them become good, educated, successful people. But you also want them to be happy, safe and comfortable. That’s what we’re all working toward. And this is home.”
Abbie Bennett: 910-849-2827; @AbbieRBennett
A new year
The 2016-17 school year starts Monday for Johnston County students. More information about Johnston schools is online at johnston.k12.nc.us.