When Kari Johnson was a child, she used to parade around her living room in her mother’s too-big high heels. But rather than pretend she was on a high-fashion catwalk, she handed out worksheets to her imaginary students.
“I would walk the line of make-believe desks and relish in the sound of the high heels because I remember my teachers walking down the hallway and hearing the click of their shoes,” she said. “So I would wear them, and I’d grade papers and pretend I was a teacher. It’s just all I’ve ever wanted to do.”
Her dream came true 15 years ago when she began her career as a kindergarten teacher at Fruitville Elementary. She has stayed with the school throughout her career, and in January, she was named the district’s Teacher of the Year.
Johnson said when she first heard she was nominated, she was shocked.
“There [are] so many wonderful educators in Sarasota County, and I feel like everybody deserves such recognition and honor, so I don’t feel like it should be just me,” Johnson said. “I’m in my own classroom all day, and the fact that people are noticing what I’m doing is just incredibly humbling.”
Johnson was first nominated by her peers in November to to be Fruitville’s Teacher of the Year before being recognized at the district level. Fruitville Elementary Principal Steven French said he couldn’t think of a better representation of the school.
“At Fruitville, we like to be recognized as a familylike atmosphere where families, staff and students work together, struggle together and celebrate together for a common goal,” French said. “She is a great example of how hard work, attitude and commitment equal success.”
Johnson said she felt called to become an elementary school teacher because of the influential educators she had as a student.
“I’m a big believer in how teachers make you feel,” she said. “Mine just made you feel like you’re safe and capable and able to do so much, which I think is more impactful than anything.”
Although she said kindergarten is a difficult age because students are just learning behavior management skills, it is rewarding because of the innocence the students have toward the subject matter and being in school itself.
“If you have trust and control, the students adore you, and they make everything happy,” Johnson said. “They love school because everything is exciting to them, and they truly want to learn and be there. It’s just a positive, happy place to be.”
Johnson sees her role as a kindergarten educator as a big responsibility. When students walk into school for the first time, she wants them to know they are welcome.
“She involves every family in the learning, instilling in each of them that we are in this together for the betterment of the child. She describes herself as the at-school mom and I think that description is perfect,” French said.
The first and most important lesson Johnson tries to instill in her students is kindness. She tries to provide opportunities for her students to show kindness to others in and out of the classroom.
She also strives to make her students confident in themselves, whether that be through their work, their different abilities or their personalities. The best way to do this, she said, is listening.
“They’re little people that have ideas and thoughts of their own and they just want to be heard like anyone else,” Johnson said. “Just providing that time for them to share their ideas and thoughts and let them be who they are is so important.”
In her 15 years of teaching, Johnson said the biggest lesson she’s learned is that it takes time to become a good teacher and it’s OK to ask for help.
“When I started teaching it was just so hard. I really struggled and it was overwhelming,” she said. “But when I learned that I can collaborate and that teaching is not just a one-person job, I became much more effective.”
She now strives to mentor younger teachers and help out in any way she can. Her biggest advice for new teachers? It’s OK not to be perfect.
Johnson is the first to admit that she’s not perfect, but she does strive for perfection in one area: a positive attitude.
“I want to everyday bring a positive, motivating and welcoming environment to my students,” she said. “I want them to know that I’m glad they’re with me, and that we are a team and we can do anything as long as we work together.”
As far as her peers are concerned, she’s succeeding.
“She has a genuine love that is seen every day with every student,” French said. “Her goal is to be her best. She teaches with a passion mixed with high standards and high expectations and the result is getting the best from her students.”
Johnson is now eligible to be the Florida Teacher of the Year. State finalists will be named in May and a winner will be announced in July.