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English teacher Melissa Johnson leaving after 6 years

Beloved AP Literature, creative writing teacher moving to Bishop Seabury Academy
Johnson+works+in+her+original+room+during+a+break+in+classes.
Lydia Folks
Johnson works in her original room during a break in classes.

At the end of this school year, beloved English teacher Melissa Johnson will be leaving USD 497 and joining the staff of Bishop Seabury Academy.

Johnson’s school year took a turn for the worse last winter when a ceiling leak materialized in her second floor classroom. Johnson was forced to relocate all of her belongings and transition to teaching classes in a vacant first floor classroom. 

“Probably the breaking point was the room switch,” Johnson said. “I don’t know if every teacher would feel so attached to their own space, but for whatever reason, I really did.”

While her move to the new room was somewhat sudden, she could see its necessity for months beforehand, which raised questions for Johnson about the decisions that allowed her situation to become so dire. 

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“Sometimes, I just wonder what they’re thinking about, planning and stuff,” Johnson said. “I get that I’m no expert but it is upsetting because there’s water damage all over the school and it should be just this brand new, beautiful place. And sometimes it just seems like, is this the most thoughtful plan?”

This ‘disruptor,’ as Johnson referred to it, brought her dissatisfaction with the district to a boiling point, but was not the sole factor in her decision to leave. 

“Once a person thinks ‘maybe I should see what else is out there,’ I think it’s almost too far gone,” Johnson said. “I think you just want to stop people from wanting to look elsewhere, you want people to be happy enough that they don’t look elsewhere.”

Johnson’s decision to venture outside of her current position–and the district as a whole–was by no means an impulsive one, and has elicited generally compassionate reactions. While the news sent its fair share of shock waves through the student body, most of Johnson’s students and fellow staff have been supportive of her decision. 

“I really do love my students and it’s been a hard thing to tell people, it’s been very emotional,” Johnson said. “I thought people would be mad at me, and no one has been mad. People have been disappointed and sad, yeah. But a lot of people have just been happy for me.”

Writer’s Club president Alyssa Watts has high hopes for the fate of the club under new sponsorship. Reminiscing over the encouraging environment Johnson established, she is optimistic that Johnson’s successor will be just as supportive, though she will have graduated by the time new leadership is in place. 

“We just won’t have that fun filled presence of Ms. Johnson with us anymore,” Watts said. 

Given the scourge of staff departures within and beyond LHS, as well as a seemingly constant stream of controversial district decisions as of late, a job with fewer students and twice the plan time had an undeniable appeal to Johnson, as well as her colleagues.

“I wasn’t surprised. You know, I’m disappointed,” English teacher Jonathan Harrison said. “But I’ve had so many friends leave the district over the years, great teachers, wonderful teachers. I’m just getting kind of inured to it.”

In Harrison’s eyes, the fatiguing nature of the career, paired with district issues, is more than enough ammunition to broaden one’s horizons beyond Lawrence High, but the post-pandemic classroom opens a whole new set of challenges. 

“I think it’s really hard for teachers to be passionate about teaching right now because I think we’re all in survival mode, and I don’t know what’s going to fix that,” Harrison said. “I’m sure that if people felt more appreciated via compensation, that would go a long way, but I think there’s more to it than just that.”

With doubled plan time and halved class sizes, Johnson hopes the new position at Bishop Seabury will allow her to spend more energy meeting the needs of each individual student, and ideally combat the lack of engagement observed by Harrison and herself. 

“I just always felt spread so thin,” Johnson said. “I don’t think we have a very good system in place here to deal with that, and I’m hoping at a smaller school, that’s not as much the case, because that’s really disheartening. I work really hard and I just want people to meet me halfway.”

While acknowledging the exhaustion she has experienced in her current position, Johnson is embracing the bittersweet sentiment that comes with relocating.

“When I first started teaching I really thought I’d be at my old high school my whole career,” Johnson said. “I assumed once I got hired there, I would retire from there. And then when I moved here, I assumed I would retire from here. So I think a lesson I’m learning is that maybe it’s okay to kind of have a collection of experiences.”

Johnson also sees this as an opportunity for professional growth. Reflecting on her six years at Lawrence High, she feels that having reached a state of accomplished comfort here at LHS, now might be just the time to move.

“When I went from my first job to LHS, I grew so much as a teacher, way more than if I’d stayed put. So I’m hoping that I’ll continue that,” Johnson said. “I really felt like this year for me was one of my best years teaching. So maybe that’s when you move on and learn something else and challenge yourself some more.”

Despite understanding from Johnson’s students, it’s been clear to her that she will be deeply missed at Lawrence High. Her impact as a teacher has not only had an unforgettable influence on the English department, but in her role as the sponsor of Writer’s Club and, as Harrison put it, ‘the department’s poet.’

“She’s always encouraged my own writing and always loved what I spoke about in my writings,” Watts said. “That really encouraged me to explore my writing skills, and open myself up more to different topics that I wouldn’t imagine writing about.”

This story was originally published on The Budget on May 7, 2024.