Henrico’s Top Teachers – Sharon Johnson

Weinstein JCC, preschool
The hardest part of being a preschool teacher, says Sharon Johnson, is that the end of the day comes too soon.

After 25 years teaching at the Weinstein Jewish Community Center’s preschool (where she got her start as an intern from the VCU School of Social Work), Johnson still finds it hard to accomplish everything in three hours -- and disappointing when she has to call a halt to the day’s activities.

“I get so much joy from being a preschool teacher,” says Johnson, citing such favorite moments as seeing a child’s eyes light up, or bringing smiles to her students’ faces with something she said, did or taught them. “[But] there are times when the children are really engaged in exploring a lesson and we have to stop,” she says. “Sometimes I am able to revisit [the lesson] the next day, but sometimes the interest or level of excitement has gone by then.”

Short day or not, Johnson gets an amazing amount accomplished in those three hours, say her colleagues.

“Sharon has magical abilities,” wrote a nominator. “Through her enthusiasm and generosity of spirit she touches so many lives of staff, children and parents.”

An inclusive program, the JCC preschool has many students with special needs, ranging from developmental delays, Down syndrome, autism, speech and language delays, and medically fragile conditions. But preschoolers of all abilities, ages, and backgrounds “flourish” in Johnson’s care, wrote a colleague.

“Sharon creates a warm, engaging classroom . . . [and] meets every challenge with a warmth and sense of purpose that reaches into the inner being of each child,” said a nominator.

“She teaches them to ‘kiss their brain,’ and rejoices in their accomplishments.”

While working with special needs children might be challenging, says Johnson, it’s not nearly as hard as being the one who breaks the news to parents about a child’s learning issues. But as a teacher of two-to-four-year-olds, Johnson is on the front lines, and more than once has had the difficult task of presenting her concerns when she recognizes a problem.

“At times the parent may be hearing this information for the first time,” says Johnson. “I have to be sensitive to the parents’ needs while reassuring them that I will do everything that I can to support them and their child.”

But often, she adds, those newly-identified children turn out to be some of the most rewarding to teach. Not only can she watch them progress throughout the year, says Johnson, but their parents often return years later to thank her for making them aware of the delays and working with them on strategies – and to inform her of the child’s successes since.

Another group that frequently returns to the JCC to visit Johnson is made up of former students, who come as middle schoolers to volunteer in her class and as college students to work alongside her in the summer camp program. In many cases the college students are pursuing degrees in education, she says, and they remind Johnson of something positive she said or did as their teacher that helped lead to their decision to teach.

For Johnson herself, the decision to teach did not come at one defining moment, but it was definitely influenced by an elementary school teacher she had named Mrs. Cason.

“She made learning fun and showed a lot of genuine interest in each of her students,” Johnson recalls. “She made me feel special by always taking the time to listen and encourage me in all aspects of my learning.

“I did not know at that time that I would become a teacher one day,” she adds, “but I did know that whatever I did, it would involve caring for children and families.”

Her colleagues will tell you that Johnson takes care of both, serving as a role model for children and as a mentor to parents as well as fellow teachers.

“She is one of those rare teachers that can mesmerize children and their parents with her calm and gentle manner,” said a nominator.

“She deeply respects young children . . . [and] has left an indelible mark in thousands of children’s lives.”
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