Reflecting back with Johnson

Superintendent shares passion for education, looks forward to retirement

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Reflecting back with Johnson

Superintendent Christine Johnson reflects on her career in education.

Superintendent Christine Johnson reflects on her career in education.

Connor Lawless

Superintendent Christine Johnson reflects on her career in education.

Connor Lawless

Connor Lawless

Superintendent Christine Johnson reflects on her career in education.

Maggie Del Re and Elissa Gorman

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After 32 years in public education and with retirement approaching at the end of the year, Superintendent Christine Johnson is still brimming with a deep-rooted passion for education and a genuine curiosity for the world around her.

She speaks of her time serving public education with excitement and joy, bouncing from topic to topic and continuing to look forward to continuing her own education in the future.

“I am so excited about taking classes for the joy of learning,” Johnson said. “I’ve been doing a lot of research on universities around this area that offer experiences for professionals that are retiring and just want to experience the love of learning.”

Now, Johnson is looking into classes on topics ranging from Boston architecture, to memoir writing to history. However, as a young adult, education at the university level was not as accessible to Johnson because of the cost.

After graduating high school in 1975, Johnson immediately entered the workforce. Her dream was to be a teacher, so for 10 years she attended night classes after her day job.

“It was an interesting pathway, which I probably wouldn’t actually recommend for folks,” Johnson said. “But I think what it says is that if you have a dream, and you have a goal, you are committed to that goal and you’re committed to the dream and you do what it takes to make that happen.”

While taking night classes, Johnson said her “professional career really took off.” Some of the positions she remembers most fondly include being the original coordinator for Seagate Technology and working for a start-up company called DragonSoft.

“We would travel to New York a couple times a year to have Dim Sum and meet with the Chinese who were funding our startup organization [DragonSoft], and that was a hoot,” Johnson said. “But then, I finally said, ‘I just really want to finish my bachelor’s degree. I really want to teach; I think I have something to offer.’”

Johnson inherited her passion for education from her father, who enlisted in the Navy at 15 years old.

“After everything he went through, he went back [to school],” Johnson said.  “When he came out of the war he was completely emaciated because he was seasick every day, but he went back and graduated, and back then that was huge, you know, in the 40s… He always told me was ‘It doesn’t matter what else you do. Education is the most important.’ So I took that to heart and learned that it doesn’t matter how long it takes, you stay the course.”

Johnson quit her job and started taking classes full-time at a Seventh-Day Adventist school which is no longer in operation, Framingham State University and Salem State University to complete her business education certification. She got her masters degree from Northeastern shortly after.

[Algonquin] was and is just the most amazing opportunity for students to explore their areas of interest, to be in a community of learners who are supported by a wider community who believes in education.”

— Superintendent Christine Johnson

With her own education finally complete, Johnson first began her teaching career at Nipmuc Regional High School when she was 30. She filled in for a teacher who was on maternity leave, and one of her co-workers let her know about an opening at Algonquin.  

“[Algonquin] was and is just the most amazing opportunity for students to explore their areas of interest, to be in a community of learners who are supported by a wider community who believes in education,” Johnson said.

Johnson quickly became involved with expanding opportunities to students through creating Freshman Orientation and helping to implement the Extracurricular Extravaganza. One of her proudest accomplishments was inspired by a club she first learned about at Nipmuc.

“I started DECA [at Algonquin] immediately,” Johnson said. “We went from zero to, when I finished as adviser, I think we were taking about 60 kids to nationals, and our enrollment at the time was only 800 so that was a good percentage of the population.”

Applied Arts and Technology teacher George Clarke, who worked with Johnson when she was a teacher, attributes the students’ success at DECA competitions, in great part, to Johnson’s passionate mentoring.

“Her dedication to that DECA group back in the day was incredible,” Clarke said. ”She got those kids to do well.”

Courtesy Algonquin Yearbook
In 1991, Superintendent Christine Johnson was a business teacher, where she started the school’s DECA club. “Her dedication to that DECA group back in the day was incredible,” applied arts and technology teacher George Clarke said. “She got those kids to do well.”

Johnson also created and taught a marketing course, along with law and keyboarding.  Noticing that at the time, the Fine and Applied Arts courses were just a “smattering of all kinds of courses,” without a department to unify them, Johnson also made strides towards instituting the Fine and Applied Arts department.

“We had to have some identity; everyone else had an identity,” Johnson said.  “We came together and made an application to the principal and said we would like to form a department. That’s how Applied Arts came about.”

Johnson, who was the first chairperson of the Fine and Performing Arts department, also worked with Clarke to bring the TV studio to Algonquin. Clarke found Johnson to be helpful and approachable as department chair.

“When I first learned how to become a teacher, she was a big part of that piece of my life,” Clarke said. “I know that she really helped me become the teacher I am.”

After demonstrating her leadership strength and love of improving students’ educational experiences, Johnson was promoted to be one of the assistant principals of Algonquin.

“I was the first, I think, female assistant principal they had, or leader or administrator here, and that was interesting, but a wonderful experience,” Johnson said.

Social studies teacher Christina Smith first met Johnson as department chair, but really got to know her as an assistant principal.

“I always admired Ms. Johnson,” Smith said. “She is a strong and compassionate leader. She has very high expectations, and I always appreciated that because I always wanted to do my best for her and for the school. But just knowing that she had high expectations helps push those people who are working alongside her to do their very best. That was true then, and it’s true now.”

After 13 years at Algonquin, Johnson heard of an opening for the principal of Northbridge high school in her hometown, Northbridge.

“I thought, ‘I’m gonna give it a try,’” Johnson said. “I was told by the interim, ‘You know, I don’t know, you’re still new here…just don’t be upset if you don’t get it.’ And I got the job!”

Soon after, the superintendent of Leicester Public Schools district asked Johnson to help them with their financial situation. She became the director of finances there.

“That was probably the most difficult job,” Johnson said. “It was in this room with numbers, papers, no students, not a lot of activity except myself, the books and the computer screen.”

While working as director of finances, Johnson got a call about an opening for assistant superintendent of the Northborough Southborough school district.

“I said, ‘I’ve got to finish my work here [as director of finances],” Johnson said. “‘I don’t like it, but I’ve got to finish it.’ I said, ‘If something happens and you repost, let me know.’ And something happened, and the applicant that they had selected withdrew, so they reposted, went through the whole interview process again, and I became assistant superintendent.”

After five years of working as assistant superintendent to Dr. Charles Gobron, Gobron retired, and Johnson was chosen to replace him.

Clarke was happy and proud to see her get the position.

“It’s been nice knowing that she was the superintendent just because that’s like the biggest boss, and you always want to try to impress your boss, but I haven’t really felt a lot of pressure to do that because she knows me,” Clarke said. “Now when I see her, it’s just nice; it’s just nice to see her.”

Smith is grateful Johnson’s career led her back to Algonquin.

“She has such a high regard for this high school and has been such a part of its development,” Smith said. “To be able to begin your career at a school as a teacher and then find your way back as superintendent: that’s very admirable. I’m glad that our district has been able to benefit from her experience and her leadership along the way in different capacities. And I’m definitely a better person and teacher for having the opportunity to work with her.”

Johnson agrees that Algonquin was the perfect place for her to retire.

“I can’t think of a better place to have begun my career and ended it, and really just have gained some tremendous experiences in between,” Johnson said.

Beyond furthering her own education simply for the joy of learning, Johnson looks forward to exploring interests, both new and old, in her retirement.

“People keep asking me, ‘What is it that you’re going to do?’” Johnson said. “Well, since I’ve never done it, I’m not sure! I have written a lot of job descriptions over these years, so my goal is to live an unwritten job description for retirement…I’m very interested in giving back, and I’m not quite sure what that means yet, but I think I still have the essence of that entrepreneurial spirit I think I’ve had all through my public education career. I like to start new programs and identify problems and solve them.”

Although Johnson still isn’t entirely sure what retirement will look like for her, there are a few things she is sure of.

“I really have been kind of busy with work and my career so I’m looking forward to catching up with family, which is something I want to do and I need to do at this point in my life,” Johnson said. “I have seven grandchildren and they are off doing all kinds of wonderful things.”

Johnson’s even looking forward to adding a four-legged friend to her family.

“[I’m going to] get a dog,” Johnson said. “They’re better than the best. They’re just so happy to see you, they don’t know how to log on to social media, they keep their opinions to themselves, usually, and they like to go out. What would you not like about a dog? Nothing.”

She’s also planning on becoming an “expert at gardening.”

“I’m not sure what that’s going to mean, because I do very little of it now, but I definitely want to,” Johnson said. “I’m starting to become very familiar with the whole notion of the importance of compost, which was never on my radar, so that’s new.”

Even through her long career in education, Johnson is proud to know that she’s stayed true to her core. Early in her career, the Community Advocate ran a profile about her and her educational values.

“I still have the profile, and I re-read it,” Johnson said. “I wanted to see if it still held true because you have so many experiences in your career, and you hope that your core is solid to sustain and to hold true to who you think you are as a professional despite the ups and downs and the challenges and everyone’s opinion and thoughts on what you should do or should not do. It was refreshing to just sort of revisit what I said 30 years ago and to see what has changed, besides the fact that my hair is incredibly different.”

At her core, Johnson hopes to inspire students and instill in them the same deep-rooted love of education that she has.

“Even after all this time nothing gives me greater joy than to know that something happened in that classroom, some day that was inspirational,” Johnson said.

Along the way, Johnson picked up a philosophy around education based on the characters from “The Wizard of Oz.”

“Our job is to instill in all of our students the belief that they can travel about the world and have the confidence to know that they will be successful, and that this place is always home that they are welcome to come back to,” Johnson said.

Like the scarecrow, students clearly need brains. But like the tin man, they also need “the opportunities to do the work that develops the heart and the soul through the work that you do,” according to Johnson.

Like the lion, students need “the courage to go forward in a direction.”

“I just look at that movie in a very different way and say if we can bring all that from Oz to a school district, we’ve mastered what we should do,” Johnson said. “There is no magical person called the Wizard. There are occasionally wicked witches, but you can deal with those too. But we are so blessed to have a community that supports us, families who care, parents that are engaged and present in their children’s lives and communities that support the work and all of what we do.”

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