Erick Johnson’s journey into the field of education was anything but direct.
In 2007 he was in Detroit, working in the fast-paced world of product liability litigation support. He traveled often, worked many hours and had a nice paycheck.
He discovered, though, that something was missing in his life. He volunteered to help coach football at a high school just outside of Detroit that had an 80% graduation rate but only 48% of the school’s young black men were graduating. Erick saw an opportunity.
He and his fellow coaches started an Academic Success and Character Education program for the football team. Extra time with players, incentives, camaraderie and academic support were the key offerings of the program. Erick and the other coaches watched as the graduation rate for members of the football team soared to 100%, and you might say Erick found his calling.
Erick decided to pursue a teaching career. He picked up and moved some 500 miles to Marymount University in Northern Virginia. He has fond memories of his time in the master’s program. He recalls Dr. Johnson, now retired, holding him to higher levels of expectation than he might have placed on himself, and the authenticity of his first interview with Dr. Lisa Turissini. Still today Erick quotes Dr. Ana Lado.
During his internships and first years in the classroom, he always found a way to include coaching football, even if he had to negotiate it into his contract.
Dr. Turissini recommended Erick consider interviewing with an unusual high school in Alexandria, VA, called The Howard Gardner School (HGS). HGS is an intentionally small, independent school for bright, creative, non-traditional learners. The curriculum is experiential and progressive. At the end of a long day interviewing and observing he found himself in the main building, in the center of which is a round room. A student was alone, practicing her pirouettes, making turn after turn after turn. When she finished she asked Erick if he would teach there, and he said he would like to. She replied, “I think you should.”
Erick did teach there. He taught for two years, and he was then asked to become the new and only second Head of School. Fast forward nine years to 2022, and Erick is doing what he loves best and it hardly feels like work.
When the pandemic hit, HGS, like all schools, had to adjust to a remote learning environment whether they were ready to or not. HGS did this by primarily meeting outside. The high school student capacity is capped at 44, and with his reliable and experienced teachers, they were able to make in-person learning possible when many, if not most other schools, simply could not. Sometimes that meant open-sided tents and other times that meant class was held at the picnic tables or around a campfire.
Erick suspects that the next generation of teachers will have the experience of being called, as he did. However, to combat teacher burnout and turnover, which is faced by all schools, he says, “we need to support a balanced lifestyle, deploy a sustainable work model, and maintain gratitude for the opportunity.”
The team at HGS employs these strategies consistently and with Erick at the helm, they are sure to stay the course. Even if that means they negotiate time to do other things they love – like coach a little football.