In this interview, Elementary MAT alum Josh Johnston, now teaching at the Learning Community Charter School in Central Falls, RI, describes how the MAT cohort, MAT faculty, and his mentor teachers supported, and continue to inform, his position as a teacher and learner. Read to the bottom for a program perk!
I was immediately attracted to the pragmatic benefits. Leaving with a Master’s and a teaching certificate in just one year was exciting because I was looking forward to getting into the work of running a classroom. When I visited, though, I was floored by the academic rigor of the environment. I’d only ever worked in a very practical, functional public school, so to spend time with people who were genuinely thoughtful about best practices in education, and their underlying pedagogy, was an awakening for me.
What was the highlight of the program?
There isn’t a doubt in my mind: it was the people. The directors of my program, Jeanette Epstein and Carla Shalaby, shaped the way I think. Carla taught me to look at the world through a lens of justice, which constantly informs who I am as a person both in and out of the classroom. Jeanette taught me the careful combination of purposeful instructional strategies and human connection that we all need when we practice this work.
My literacy professor, Maureen Nosal, opened my ideas to the joy of literacy instruction and to how empowering it can be in students. She taught us countless practical, thoughtful ways of teaching literacy and pushed us to live more literate lives, too. I consider myself deeply lucky to work with her today, as she teaches fifth grade at The Learning Community. Whenever I imagine good literacy instruction, I see Maureen doing it. Plus, I have a ton of binders of resources in my room from her class that I pull down any time I need a poem for read aloud or a suggestion for a text for guided reading.
I was lucky to have two incredibly skilled mentor teachers, too. Working with both Michelle Manning and Amy Lopes taught me how to live as a teacher in the world, and I still have their voices in my head. I use Michelle’s language when I talk to students every day. Even four years later, and I am constantly inspired to respond to students needs in the moment in a way Amy would.
Then there was my cohort, the other MATs going through the program with me. I treasure the friendships that I started there, as we were able to work together, grow together, and support each other through a fundamentally difficult and challenging year. I consider the people I met there some of my most treasured friends. I’m marrying one of them this summer.
How did the program meet your expectations?
When I came to the program I thought I was already ready for a classroom but I wasn’t at all. But it was after going through the program, and having inspiring role models like Amy, Michelle, Jeanette, or Maureen, I felt like I wasn’t at all ready! I looked at those inspiring teachers and wondered how I could do work like them.
It wasn’t until I’d been teaching for a bit during my first year that I really was ready – maybe not good yet, necessarily (what first year teacher is?) but having those rich experiences at Brown had taught me how to stand on my own, purposefully and reflectively. I had developed instructional instincts for how to be in a classroom, how to respond to students, and how to differentiate and respond to them that I never would have had in my first year without the program. I suppose I expected to become a teacher, but I didn’t really know what a teacher was until after I was done.
How did the program help you meet your personal goals?
I knew I wanted my own classroom, and I wanted to focus on literacy. As I worked during my MAT year, I realized that I wanted to work to empower young people through literacy.
This is my dream school, and it’s an honor to work here. We teach using reading and writing workshop, and, without going into the thousand reasons why that’s fulfilling to me and my pedagogy, it’s a way of approaching education that lets students have agency and engages them in a dialogue with the goal of making them smarter and more powerful. It’s a school where we continue that same academic sense of studying the practice of education to get smarter about our work that I learned to treasure during my time at Brown. It’s a miraculous school, and I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for the program.
What was the job search like after the program ended? What kind of support did you get from Brown in your search? Where did you first work?
I got a job in March. As I said, Brown is the reason I have this job; I don’t question that for a moment. I was able to follow through in the interview and the demo lesson because of the skills I’d learned from the program.
What do you like best about your work as a teacher?
If I’m being socially thoughtful, I’d name the ability to contribute to our society by working to make people more literate and empathetic. But there’s also the fact that sixth graders are just wonky, weird, and hilarious. It’s such a human profession that it can be so rich and fun and, yes, hard, too, but so much more worth it than so many other life choices I could imagine.
What would you tell someone considering the Brown MAT?
Do it. It will changed the way you work and think and live. I believe that when you sign up to be a teacher, you are morally obligated to do the best work you can for your students, for their families, and for society, and Brown made me able to do that.
Oh, and here’s something else – if you go to the Rhode Island Recycling Center, you can buy really cheap binders. (Seriously, there were a lot of binders.)