She created a “lunch bunch” where Rochester seniors give up their lunch hours to hang out with students who have special needs.
“I created it because I had two students with autism who struggled socially,” Johnson said. “They don’t get to hang out with other people.”
Because of her commitment to bettering Rochester’s community and promoting inclusion, Johnson won the 2013 Top Teacher Award, given by The Voice and The State Journal-Register.
Working with students who have special needs is Johnson’s passion.
“I always wanted to be a teacher,” Johnson said. “I just wanted to help kids who struggle.”
Johnson launched the lunch program during the 2010-11 school year. The group continues to grow each year. Six senior mentors now spend one of their lunch periods each week playing cards and interacting with Johnson’s students.
“It adds to the rapport of the school,” said principal Dennis Canny. “It’s kids helping other kids, which is about as good as it gets. She’s really found an innovative way (to help her students).”
During lunch, many high school students seek out their friends. It can be a tough time for students with special needs.
“It makes people more comfortable,” Johnson said about the lunch group. “(It has the students) feeling like they’re actually a part of the class … their communication skills have grown.”
At the end of each year, the lunch bunch students take a field trip. This year, they visited the Henson Robinson Zoo.
Rochester senior Adam Carrier enjoys interacting with other students during lunch bunch.
He said Johnson is fun, helpful and caring.
“She’s just plain awesome,” Carrier said.
Rochester senior Blake Pasley joined the group as a mentor at the beginning of the school year. Blake is a track and football athlete.
“I’ve made a bunch of new friends,” he said. “It’s fun for everyone … everyone starts to talk with everyone.”
Football player Drew Szabados heard friends talk about their involvement as mentors and wanted to do it his senior year. Mentors must be seniors.
“I always like helping people,” Drew said. “I think it should definitely be spread to other schools because it’s a great program.”
‘The complete package’
The program benefits both Johnson’s students and the senior mentors. As a result of the connection, Johnson’s students find themselves being greeted in the hallways. It’s helped them become more sociable.
Sarah Ryan works as an individual student aide at Rochester. The lunch program allows students to open up, she said.
“I think it is extremely beneficial,” Ryan said about the lunch bunch. “It’s just fun to watch the kids interact. She (Johnson) cares so much for the students.”
While teaching, Johnson is patient and calm.
“She’s always smiling, always looking for ways that she can help the kids and just very creative in the things that she does,” Canny said. “That really is the complete package as far as a teacher goes.”
Because she’s empathetic, Johnson adjusts her viewpoint to reach her students.
“She’s able to look at things from the learner’s standpoint and really see what they need and then she goes out and tries to find ways to teach to that need,” Canny explained.
Chatham’s Grant Holloway discovered Johnson in the classroom during a visit to Rochester. He knew very little about Asperger’s syndrome, autism or ADHD (attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder) before watching Johnson with her students.
“I’ve seen her interact with these students and it’s amazing to see how she tailors her instructional style to conform to each students’ learning disability,” said Holloway, who nominated Johnson for the award because he was so impressed. His sister attends Rochester High but is not a student of Johnson’s. He frequently attends Rochester events.
“I have seen parents request their special needs child to be placed with Ms. Johnson’s caseload during their high school careers because she has a reputation within the district as being very caring and committed to her students to which she is responsible for, as well as students she is not,” Holloway said.