homepage logo


A teacher at the top of his class

By Staff | Apr 19, 2011

There’s the love of teaching.

And then there’s living to teach.

And then there’s greatness in teaching.

And Phil Johnson of Estherville embodies all three.

Johnson, 2011 Buena Vista University Graduate & Professional Studies Lakes & Prairies Outstanding Adjunct Faculty of the Year, has been a fixture in education at Estherville and Estherville Lincoln Central for most of his teaching career. Most recently, he has taken his desire to teach others how to teach to BVU Lakes & Prairies.

Johnson was born in Moorhead, Iowa and received his bachelor’s in mathematics from Augustana College in Sioux Falls, S.D. and later his master’s degree in guidance and counseling from Iowa State University.

His first teaching assignment in Belmond included three years teaching math full-time and coaching, with the next four years teaching math half-time and counseling half-time as well as coaching.

From there it was on to Estherville where he was full-time guidance counselor at the middle school for three years before he moved to the high school where he was a full-time guidance counselor in addition to his coaching duties.

Despite his heavy counseling schedule, Johnson never found himself outside the classroom. He continued to teach basic math, geometry, the careers course and psychology.

“I was never not in the classroom,” Johnson said. “I had some type of classroom assignment every day.”

Johnson was still teaching at the high school when he started teaching for BVU 10-11 years ago. His motivation for teaching college had actually started earlier than that. He realized that he had never learned a lot of the hard realities about teaching in his own teacher prep courses, so he inquired about teaching education at Augustana, his first alma mater. They took him up on it, and he taught education classes at Augustana before coming to BVU. He has also continued to compile graduate credits at the University of Iowa in education and counseling, and now chalks up a master’s plus 20 on his vitae.

Since his entry into education, Johnson has seen education change remarkably, most notably a shift from “teaching to the middle” to teaching each and every student.

“The students are different,” Johnson said. “There’s a lot more awareness of special needs issues than there was 20 years ago.”

Among the challenges Johnson sees for teachers would be teacher burnout when new strategies are added without taking anything away.

Fortunately, parent support for teachers remains strong in Iowa. And technology brings opportunities to classroom teachers that they would have never dreamt of years ago.

“I think the opportunities there are so wide open,” Johnson said, noting that, if necessary, he could teach class at his home.

While technology offers new opportunities, it could also be a double-edged sword in that it may have dulled student-to-student and teacher-to-student interaction. “We’re shutting off that parent-to-child and some of that child-to-child interaction with that,” Johnson said.

Another challenge – and perhaps a perennial one – is budgeting and how school districts cope with shrinking budgets.

Johnson would also like to see a shift away from the “comparing apples and oranges” approach in using test scores to compare different student populations from year to year. He would prefer tracking the same group of students over time to get a true picture of student learning.

If there’s a learning strategy Johnson strongly believes in, it’s keeping students involved and engaged.

“If you can keep the students involved and engaged, the students will get more out of it,” he said.

Toward that end, Johnson observes a shift from teachers being information-givers to being learning facilitators.

He also sees modern education as taking more of a team learning approach. He believes if teachers follow a model in which students are more like workers and their curriculum is their product, the classroom will be successful.

“If you can do that with more teachers, education, and the classroom, will evolve naturally,” Johnson said. “Wherever you are, you’re working as a team members.”

Johnson will be honored with his award May 20 at Buena Vista University in Storm Lake. He and his wife, Ellen, have five grown children.