Dr. Tonjanita Johnson of ‘The University of Alabama System’ (UAS): “Poverty ”

Highly effective educators never stop learning and they seek to understand the unique learning styles of their students so that everyone finds a way to successfully engage in the learning experience. As a part of my interview series about “5 Things You Need To Know To Be A Highly Effective Educator”, I had the pleasure […]

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Highly effective educators never stop learning and they seek to understand the unique learning styles of their students so that everyone finds a way to successfully engage in the learning experience.

As a part of my interview series about “5 Things You Need To Know To Be A Highly Effective Educator”, I had the pleasure to interview Dr. Tonjanita Johnson.

Dr. Tonja Johnson serves as Senior Vice Chancellor for Academic and Student Affairs for the University of Alabama System (UAS) and is the primary system liaison to academic, student, institutional research and planning, and diversity and inclusion officials at UA, UAB, and UAH. She also advises the Chancellor on academic and student policy matters and provides primary leadership in program planning, implementation, and review. Additionally, she has a graduate faculty appointment within the University of Alabama College of Education and serves as the System’s liaison with the Alabama departments of Education and Postsecondary Education and the Alabama Commission on Higher Education.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share the “backstory”behind what brought you to this particular career path?

As a third-generation college student, I always knew that attending college was a given, but pursuing a career in higher education was never a part of my plan. I grew up in a small, rural community in west Alabama, where we could only get two stations on the television, one of which was ABC, where I adopted trailblazing anchor Carole Simpson as a role model. My plan was to attend Howard University in Washington D.C., and major in broadcast journalism so that I could eventually replace Ted Koppel as the anchor on ABC News Nightline.

That plan was short-lived as I ended up attending a minority journalism workshop at The University of Alabama (UA), where I earned a New York Times Scholar Award, which came with scholarship funds to attend UA but required me to pursue a degree in print journalism instead of broadcast. After graduating four years later with a degree in journalism, I immediately went to work at a daily newspaper in north Alabama, covering, of all things, local colleges and universities and the higher education beat. After a couple of years of being a reporter, my alma mater contacted me to gauge my interest in an entry-level position as a communication specialist in the news bureau, an area responsible for the communications and public relations efforts of the University. I got the job. It was an incredible learning experience, and I had exceptional mentors there as a young professional. Taking on that role sparked what is now a nearly 30-year career in the field of higher education.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your teaching career? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I learned to appreciate the old saying, “Never say never” on the front end of my career. Early in my marriage, I remember jokingly telling my husband, who is a native of Mississippi, that if he ever tried to move us to his home state, I would divorce him. As fate would have it, when he retired from the NFL as a professional athlete, he applied for a position at Mississippi Valley State University in Itta Bena, MS, to be closer to home. Wondering what I would do in Itta Bena all day if I didn’t have a job, I applied for a Director of Public Relations position at the University as well. I remember telling myself that we must be crazy to be thinking about moving ourselves and an eight-month-old from New Orleans, Louisiana — one of my favorite places in the world to eat I might add — to the Mississippi Delta.

When the President of the University called our home one afternoon to speak with me about the job for which I had applied, I remember frantically gesturing to my husband to say that I wasn’t home, but he handed me the phone anyway. During the call, the President began to share his vision and very detailed plan for taking this small, historically black university from “excellence to preeminence.” The rest is history. In just a few short years under that President’s leadership, we had taken an institution of a little more than 2,000 students to more than 4,000 and counting. Plus, after only a year, I had been promoted to my first cabinet-level position as the President’s Executive Assistant and Chief of Staff. That unexpected career transition and the extraordinary mentorship of that President created an entirely new world of opportunity for me in the higher education environment. Not only did he encourage my growth and development as an administrator, he encouraged me to pursue my doctorate and stay connected with students and the classroom through teaching.

I’m embarrassed to admit that I didn’t think that big things were going to come from my experiences at such a small institution. But, I’ll tell anyone that without my time at Mississippi Valley, there is no me in terms of the professional that I am today. What I learned from that experience is to never underestimate or despise small beginnings. I worked there for seven years, learning and gaining hands-on experience in high-level processes that would have taken years for me to work my way into at a larger, more complex institution.

I’ve worked from Tennessee to New York and taken on teaching and administrative roles at complex research institutions and overseen multiple divisions within complex higher education systems. Learning to be faithful and committed to your work in small-scale environments, where you know that few people are paying attention, is a powerful lesson. This is also the kind of proving ground that demonstrates your ability to be trusted with even greater roles and responsibilities.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

If the COVID-19 pandemic taught us anything in education that is that we shouldn’t take for granted our role in the holistic development of our students’ lives. We learned very quickly that, at the college level, our campuses were much more than just an educational site. Many of our students depend on our campuses as their primary source for housing, meals, medical services, mental health support, Internet and technology services, and general social engagement, among other forms of support.

As we sought to better understand the impact of the pandemic on our students and how we could help them stay engaged during the time of virtual/remote learning, social distancing and the temporary modification of many campus services, we got to know our students and their needs so much better. As a result, I, along with so many of my administrative and faculty colleagues, are now looking at new and more innovative ways that we can continue to meet the changing personal and social needs of our students and expand or enhance existing services and support structures that will allow students to have a more productive and successful academic experience.

Many of the academic, physical, emotional and social challenges of our students have been exacerbated by the pandemic, and I’m pleased to see that we are using the information that we have gathered from students to improve our campus environments and speak more directly to individual student needs in order to support their overall academic and personal success.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the main focus of our interview. From your point of view, how would you rate the results of the US education system?

As a person of color growing up in a small, rural community, I have not only had the direct opportunity to see how transformative it can be to have access to a quality education but also what it is like to witness the tragic result of living in communities where there are major disparities in the quality of educational opportunities available to its citizens. So, even as I acknowledge the exceptional accomplishments and vast improvements in our U.S. system of education, I can’t help but see those achievements through a lens of inequality.

Although I have spent my entire career working in academic environments where innovation and a commitment to educational excellence are foundational tenets for a successful community, I need only take a short drive to my beloved hometown, located in Alabama’s Black Belt region, to be reminded that there are so many communities across our country where individuals from a variety of social, racial, ethnic and economic backgrounds are still struggling as a result of many years of inequalities in the various systems that undergird our communities. Educationally, the U.S. has a countless number of very significant points of pride, which are worthy of recognition, but we still have a long way to go when it comes to ensuring that all — or even the majority — of our nation’s students have access to the quality of education that they so deeply deserve and need to improve our communities and their overall quality of life.

Can you identify 5 areas of the US education system that are going really great?

I hate to keep referencing this awful pandemic that has so negatively impacted the lives of so many individuals and families around the world, but if there is any silver lining in all of this for education, it is that we have learned to be more nimble and adaptable and to recognize that change is sometimes needed in order to remain relevant and viable. So, I’m really encouraged by the fact that, across the U.S., institutions are rethinking outdated educational models and looking more critically at individual student needs.

While it gives me pause to think about heaping praise on a national educational system that has the level of inequities that ours is currently experiencing in the U.S., I think we are doing a much better job at recognizing that there is not a one-size-fits-all method for teaching and learning. We are engaging in more productive national dialogue regarding the purpose and value of education, although this is still a topic of great debate. We are giving greater thought to how we connect educational experiences to real-life needs, whether they are related to workforce needs or a student’s practical needs for their personal aspirations and career goals. We are also becoming increasingly more creative in curriculum development as we seek to ensure the achievement of important student learning outcomes. We are packaging educational opportunities in a format that better speaks to the needs of non-traditional and working students and for those with unique educational needs.

Can you identify the 5 key areas of the US education system that should be prioritized for improvement? Can you explain why those are so critical?

I know it’s easy to debate important areas for improvement within our U.S. education system, but from where I sit, we could start with these.

  • Improving the salaries of qualified educators, especially our K-12 teachers. If you want to produce top-quality students, you have to start with high-quality teachers. It’s shameful when our teachers have to put in a full day’s work in the classroom and then head off to another job just to make ends meet. I read an article late last year that said teachers make 20 percent less than other professionals with similar educational backgrounds and credentials and some make even less than the current living wage. Given the complexities of today’s education environment, that’s pretty discouraging.
  • Poverty — Although an issue all its own, is another concern that we need to address in our country if we hope to improve education. I don’t know how we can be surprised by students who have extreme difficulty staying focused on classwork and staying in school when they are struggling day to day with food and housing insecurities and living in environments impacted by crime and violence.
  • Technology — While it’s cliche to say we live in a technological age, it’s true. And, improvements in technology are needed for both instructors and learners. Many of today’s faculty need additional training in modern classroom technology to not only help students keep pace with the technology that they will encounter in the outside world, but also to help improve teaching and learning outcomes. Students also need access to reliable Internet resources and modern technology so that they can engage with a broader and more diverse range of learning resources and develop a mastery of basic technologies that would be expected of today’s well-rounded student.
  • Addressing reading and math deficiencies — Too many of today’s students are struggling with reading and math deficiencies, and when these gaps occur early in their educational experiences, students quickly become discouraged, often making unfair judgments about their capacity to personally succeed academically.
  • Funding continues to be an ever-green issue, particularly in most public school environments at all levels. While I agree that simply throwing money at an issue is not going to make problems magically go away, there are some investments that need to be made in support of education to enhance teacher quality, reduce class sizes and provide better educational facilities and resources for students and faculty, which will go a long way in improving overall quality and reducing inequities in education.

Super. Here is the main question of our interview. Can you please share your “5 Things You Need To Know To Be A Highly Effective Educator?” Please share a story or example for each.

  • Highly effective educators never stop learning and they seek to understand the unique learning styles of their students so that everyone finds a way to successfully engage in the learning experience.
  • Effective educators make the learning content relevant to the learners and seek feedback on how to improve the learning process.
  • Highly effective educators have some pre-established ground rules for the learning environment and work with students to add others to help ensure shared ownership of what takes place in the learning space.
  • I believe that highly effective educators are creative and not paralyzed by having to do things the same way every time because “that’s just how we’ve always done it.” I truly dislike those words.
  • The best educators, in my opinion, understand the importance of passion and compassion as it relates to their work — they are passionate about their role as an educator in a way that makes the learning process exciting, and they care enough about those who are experiencing challenges in the learning environment to explore ways to ensure that they succeed as well.

As you know, teachers play such a huge role in shaping young lives. What would you suggest needs to be done to attract top talent to the education field?

As I suggested earlier, I think it is important for us as a society to bring value back to the teaching profession because teachers are an important foundational element to progressive, well-educated communities. Regardless of our profession, most of us can clearly pinpoint a teacher, mentor or some other individual whose instruction or guidance taught us something important about our chosen profession or our lives in general. It’s difficult to attract excellent educators if we don’t demonstrate that we believe in the significance of their work by paying them a respectable wage, investing in the facilities where they have to teach and supporting efforts that help make their work easier and more effective.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Einstein is credited as saying, “Once you stop learning, you start dying.” So, I’m constantly looking for opportunities to learn something new. Being a life-long learner not only reminds me that I don’t know everything, but it also keeps my mind young and constantly open to new ideas and fresh ways of doing things. I don’t ever want to think of a day where there is nothing new to learn or encounter someone who can’t teach me something new about life or the world we live in.

We are blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

I’m sorry for being greedy, but there are three individuals thatI would genuinely enjoy having an opportunity to spend a few private moments with — Dr. Condoleeza Rice at Stanford, Dr. Michael Crow at Arizona State University, and Dr. Larry Bacow at Harvard University. While I recognize that they are all truly elite leaders in the higher education space, I’m more impressed with their history of working in complex environments with a sensitivity to finding ways of bringing everyone along. In spite of having enjoyed a career filled with immense responsibility and complexity, Dr Rice, who is an exceptional scholar, has always seemed to find value in simplicity and humble beginnings. Plus, she has Alabama connections and continues to support efforts to help the state build capacity and reduce critical inequities. I’m just fascinated by Dr. Crow’s work as a higher education visionary and his never-ending commitment to finding ways to support the needs of all learners within his university community. And, finally, when I was a much younger professional, I had the privilege of meeting Dr. Bacow when he was at Tufts University. He made such a powerful impression on me, and that encounter convinced me that I was in the right field and that I had the capacity to impact the world wherever I was planted. Sometimes, people never know the impact they have on others, and I would love to thank him for that.

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