When Carpenter Elementary Principal Michael Johnson learned he’d been named Michigan Elementary and Middle School Principals Association (MEMSPA) Region 2 Principal of the Year, he immediately thought of a dozen or so Ann Arbor Public Schools principals he considers more deserving.
“But I’m reminded of my grandmother who helped raise me, and she said, `Be humble,’” says Johnson. “`Be humble, and when someone offers you something or sees something in you, say thank you, always be grateful, and keep doing the work you have to do.”
And that’s what Johnson knows he does, and does well.
“I just know how to work,” he says, sitting at his desk behind a nameplate engraved with the words: “Michael Johnson Chief Learner.”
Johnson still doesn’t know who nominated him for the honor, except that it happened last year when he was principal of Lakewood Elementary.
Each of Michigan’s 14 regions selects one principal to honor each year. MEMSPA’s Region 2 is made up of principals from Washtenaw, Monroe, and Livingston counties.
In a brochure distributed at the awards banquet last week, Johnson was honored for his “professional acumen that aligns with the Ann Arbor Public Schools Strategic Plan. Moreover, he is a connector and creates partnerships between the school and the business community. Mr. Johnson is culturally competent and uses his knowledge to promote multiculturalism and always uses data and the opinions of others to inform his decision-making.”
Dawn Linden, AAPS’s executive director of elementary education, admires the way Johnson worked to make Lakewood an ELL magnet school as a means of leveraging resources to help serve his students needs.
“This is just one example of Mr. Johnson’s creativity and passion to serve all of his students in better ways,” she says.
The Ypsilanti native is now in his 16th week as Carpenter principal, a job he went after with gusto last spring while in his fourth year as principal of Lakewood Elementary.
Although he loved his former job, Johnson was quick to apply for the top job at Carpenter largely because he lives just two blocks from the school and wanted to “be home.”
On the last day of the school year in June, and after four interviews, Dr. Jeanice Swift offered Johnson the job.
Did he jump for joy?
Only on the inside.
“I’m always cool under pressure,” he recalls with a laugh. “But I smiled. I was so happy. Sixteen weeks later: best move I’ve made professionally. It’s been a wonderful relationship so far … It’s 16 weeks in, and we’re rolling! We’re having a good time.”
Johnson, 34, attended Willow Run Public Schools, and was valedictorian of his high school class in 1998, around the time he was also named The Ann Arbor News’ first Young Citizen of the Year.
It was a communications class he took as a freshman, he says, that changed everything. That’s when he learned to be a great listener, and excellent speaker who conveys his message clearly and with conviction.
“She gave me my voice,” he says of teacher Rosanne Haselschwerdt. “She created in her classroom an attitude that allowed you to speak up, to be bold, and to command the attention of your audience.”
“I’ve taken those skills through the University of Michigan, through Eastern Michigan University, through the University of Phoenix, and has a husband and father.”
Haselschwerdt says Johnson gives her too much credit, and that he was a highly likable, focused, goal-oriented, “intellectual but not nerdy” student from the day she met him.
A big believer in building and maintaining relationships, Johnson has kept in touch with “Ms. H.” ever since. In fact, even after he graduated, Johnson would remember her birthday and walk into her classroom to surprise her with a kiss on the cheek.
Now Haselschwerdt is a Title One tutor at Carpenter, so they see each other often.
“I watched him the other day during a community meeting—which is what Carpenter calls their assemblies—and he looked over at me when he was giving a speech,” she says. “There I was, his speech teacher, in the audience. I gave him a thumbs up.”
After high school, Johnson enrolled at the University of Michigan with hopes of eventually becoming an orthodontist.
“I love teeth!” he says with a smile. “I absolutely love, love, love, love teeth.”
But his career path took an entirely new direction the day his French professor learned that he wanted to be a dentist.
“He said, `Oh, no, you don’t need to be a dentist. You need to be in a field where you’ll make the largest impact.’ I said, `Well, I’ll make a lot of money as a dentist.’ He said, `No, you want your legacy to be about helping people be who they’re supposed to be. You want to be a teacher … a classroom teacher.’”
So he went back to his own elementary school in Ypsilanti and became a substitute teacher while a junior at U-M.
“It changed my life,” he says.
After graduating from U-M with an English degree, he went on to Eastern Michigan University for his teaching certificate, and later earned his master’s degree from the University of Phoenix.
This is Johnson’s 10th year with the district. Before his four years at Lakewood, he was a fifth grade teacher at Thurston.
His older son, Lorenzo, was one of his students.
“At first, he called me Mr. Dad,” says Johnson, the father of three.
Johnson was also the Title One summer school principal at Mitchell for two summers.
But now it’s all about Carpenter, where Johnson’s focus is on commitment, communication, collaboration and community.
“I believe if you have a strong, well-balanced effort at all of those things pushed in at the same time, then what you get is truly a family,” he says.
Every morning when he steps through the front door (making sure he uses his right foot), Johnson says a prayer: “Thank you for this day, a day which I’ve never seen before, a day which I’ll never see again. Let this be the best day of my life. If there’s someone that I can help, let me help them. If there’s someone who can help me, then let them help me.”
“We have 391 students here,” he says. “Classroom instruction is one thing. But it’s the whole social dynamics of a learning community. Do you feel safe? Do you feel respected? Do you feel that you are being responsible in your school, because that is how you truly become part of the school.”
Another goal for the year is to bring as many families as possible into the school. Already, parents are in and out of the school every day, all day long.
Carpenter PTO Co-President Crystal Francis says that under Johnson’s leadership, the school is “like a family again.”
“He has brought stability back,” she said, comparing the last few months to the last two years of leadership flux. “It seems he’s brought the community back together. This school year has been doing really well under his leadership.”
Johnson’s wife, Joanna, is an instructional technology coach for the district.
She says one of her husband’s goals is to always make sure he knows all of his Cougars by name so they feel they can come and talk to him, knowing that the principal isn’t just there for discipline, but a cheerleader on their team and a resource for them.
“As crazy as it sounds, he loves to read each and every report card,” she said. “It gives him another snapshot of the progress his students are making and allows him to cheer them on to achieve their personal best. He wants them to know what they can always expect his 100 percent and he expects theirs.”
He also has high standards for the students, which means he’s no pushover.
“Mr. Johnson lets you have fun, but he has rules,” says fifth grader Alexis Clark. “Having rules is the way you can have fun. You can’t not have rules.”
“I’m very honored to have this opportunity. This is my neighborhood. My son is a fourth grader here. My niece is a third grader here.”
Another niece is an education major who volunteers in classrooms and helps out during the lunch hour.
And of course there’s no doubt that daughter Addison, who is just 15 months, will be a Cougar in a few years as well.
Johnson is a proud member of the Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc., a national service fraternity of African American men dedicated to developing community leaders. He says relationship-building is the foundation of virtually everything he does.
“That’s the only thing I know will sustain itself over time,” he says. “Everyone works hard. Everyone works smart. The goal is to collaborate and work together so we can build a community.”
“The secret is kids wanting to be at school because this is the consistency they have in their lives. This is where they are for seven hours of the day … That’s what makes Carpenter special. It’s the people.”