Highly effective teachers are crucial to our work at transformation schools. They inspire students to achieve, build solid and long-lasting community and culture, and help unlock the full academic potential of their schools. However, teaching at a transformation school has unique challenges. But for one South Los Angeles educator, serving at a transformation school has helped her develop into an empathetic educator.
Heather Johnson, an English teacher embarking on her sixth year at Ánimo Legacy Charter Middle School, has created a classroom environment where students have found joy in learning English Language Arts through literature, conversation, and connection. Johnson currently serves as the English Language Arts department chair, and formerly as the eighth-grade lead English teacher.
After a brief stint in the fashion industry, Johnson returned to school to study English Education at California State University, Long Beach. Yearning to teach, she applied to become an English teacher through Teach For America and was placed at Ánimo Legacy, formerly Henry Clay Middle School, a former Los Angeles Unified School District campus that Green Dot began leading in 2011. Since taking the helm, enrollment has increased by 30% and students are growing more than their peers across the state.
Since 2015, Johnson has supported Ánimo Legacy’s transformation, and believes that this experience has led to growth in her own abilities. “I think, at first, teaching is scary. No matter what, there's no way to sugarcoat it. It's frightening. You are responsible for the learning of so many different students,” Johnson said. But, she believes, working with the students is more than just teaching them English Language Arts. It's about building bridges of commonality.
Growing up in South Los Angeles as a first-generation American in her maternal family, and a first-generation college student, Johnson often finds herself sharing similar life paths with her students. “I share a lot about what I've experienced, what my family looks like, what foods I eat, and my culture, and my students share the same. It really makes my classroom a home away from home,” she said. “I do so much of what I do, because it was not done for me, because I know what it’s like to feel the sadness of being ignored,” she added. “I know what it’s like for my mother to be driven across the border—and knowing that there were lots of sacrifices for me to even have the bit that I do have. So, it just feels like it's my calling to make as many young students feel validated in their identity.”
Working at Ánimo Legacy is not just a job or even a career, Johnson said, “It’s a commitment. Even when things become difficult—I just connect with students so much,” she said. “For a school like this, it takes emotional investment. You're here because you want to make a difference. And I came here for the very same reason I'm here now: To be able to see change.”
Johnson’s impact has been felt by both students and staff across the campus. Ánimo Legacy Principal Jasmia Newman is thankful for teachers like Johnson. “We don’t have enough words to share how Ms. Johnson has impacted our school community,” Newman said. “From contributing to a fun and positive staff and student culture, to truly unpacking, implementing and understating equitable and rigorous instruction, Legacy is fortunate to have such a gem. She lives out ‘education for liberation’ at Animo Legacy.”
At Green Dot Public Schools, we prepare our teachers with the skills they need to be successful in the classroom. Each of our schools is staffed with knowledgeable school leaders who help coach teachers in best practices to get the most out of their experiences. Through our partnership with organizations like Teach For America and Project Real, we’re preparing more teachers to help transform public education every day. In collaboration with our teachers and leaders, we can help prepare students with the tools necessary to be successful in college, leadership, and life.