By Aaron Huang
UW News Lab
LYNNWOOD — Alderwood Middle School students enrolled in first-year Spanish or French are not allowed to fade into the background.
“I have them up,” said Bothell resident Lynn Johnston, who teaches both classes. “I have them talking to each other. Not participating is not an option in my class.”
The American Council of Teaching Foreign Languages promotes a national guideline that classes should be conducted in the target language 90 percent of the time. And from Johnston’s experience, this isn’t an unrealistic goal for 12- and 13-year-olds just beginning to learn the first few phrases of a foreign language.
The lone middle school world language teacher in the Edmonds School District tries to meet this standard by being constantly animated. She will point at objects in the classroom, make multiple gestures as she speaks to her students and push them to reciprocate her enthusiasm.
Johnston has been setting this expectation at the middle school for 27 years. Her consistent example is one of the reasons she received this year’s Teacher of the Year award from the Washington Association for Foreign Language Teaching.
“She is dedicated and always has a place in her heart for getting kids to succeed no matter what their challenges are or home life is like,” said assistant principal Andrea Collins.
Whenever she observes one of Johnston’s classes, Collins said the first thing that jumps out is her energy and engagement with students.
Johnston started taking French as a seventh-grader and was placed into one of Joy Adams’ classes at what was then Madrona Junior High.
“She was fun; she made it fun,” Johnston said about Adams. “She kept speaking in the foreign language and drawing and jumping around. And afterward I just kept taking French.”
The effectiveness of what’s called “comprehensible input” in education circles stuck with Johnston at Central Washington University, where she was a French major and Spanish minor. It stuck with her when Johnston taught English in Guam for seven years following graduation.
After all, it made languages fun. In addition to realizing the benefits and opportunities that come from being bilingual, the joy of learning and knowing a foreign language is what Johnston wants her students to take away when they move on to high school and beyond.
Johnston serves as a mentor to other world language teachers around the state. For this academic year, she will be serving as the president of the organization.
At the annual fall conference and other workshops, she and other speakers focus on making it fun for the teachers to learn where and how they can improve.
“I remember the first time I attended one of her sessions,” said Alissa Farias, a Spanish teacher at Lincoln High School in Tacoma. “I was a first-year teacher trying to figure things out. She was this outgoing, joyous woman filled with great ideas that she gladly gave away to her packed audience. I couldn’t write fast enough to match her level of speed and enthusiasm.”
For the past several years, Johnston has been holding workshops at the University of Washington to explain the state’s eight criteria for evaluating teachers.
This level of involvement prompted Michele Aoki, the world languages program manager for Seattle Public Schools, to nominate Johnston for teacher of the year.
“She’s the teacher who is willing to go beyond what is going on in her classroom,” Aoki said. “She volunteers to present at workshops and to travel to other parts of the country to attend workshops so she can bring things back to share with other teachers.”
Johnston said she is looking to retire around five years from now and hopes to transition into a role directly involved with the professional development of world language teachers. This would allow her to continue to share the expertise coming from her years at Alderwood.
For now, in year 28, Johnston brings the same enthusiasm each day to creating relationships with the current crop of students. The award only encourages her and reinforces her own teaching beliefs, she said.
“It is really cool to be recognized by your peers for what you do,” Johnston said. “Sometimes teaching can feel like a thankless job.”
Aaron Huang is a student with the University of Washington News Lab.