New England teacher retiring after 30 years
NEW ENGLAND — After a celebrated 30-year career, partially devoted to teaching children about the joys of the tropical rainforest, New England Elementary School teacher Judy Johnson is retiring — reluctantly.
“I could have retired several years ago, but I just didn’t want to,” the third-grade teacher said with a smile.
Johnson became known in New England for decorating her classroom to resemble a rainforest during the last quarter of the year. She resumed the practice after teacher Nancy Gussey retired four years ago.
Her students would choose animals to build, learning about topics like climates and taxonomy in the process.
The densely forested classroom “took on a life of its own,” Johnson said, becoming something of a town tourist attraction. This year, students gave about 250 classroom tours to schoolmates, family members and community members, Johnson said.
But, the rainforest encompasses a comparably small portion of a long career in the district.
Johnson grew up in the unincorporated, northeastern North Dakota town Kloten.
She wanted to be a teacher as far back as she can remember. In high school, if a teacher was absent, she was sometimes picked to serve as a substitute, doing just as well as the professionals.
Donna Rustan-Stang, secretary at Our Redeemer’s Lutheran Church and longtime friend of Johnson’s, said children seem to naturally look up to the school teacher.
“She’s excellent with children,” Rustan-Stang said. “She can get them to do most anything.”
Johnson graduated from Minnesota’s Concordia College with a teaching degree in the late 1960s. Her husband, Leland, became her reason for moving to New England, having roots in the area as a farmer and rancher.
Judy met Leland during a weekend trip to her roommate’s house. Leland was her roommate’s brother.
Johnson began working at New England Elementary School in 1970. She received a call on the second day of school because she was desperately needed to fill in for another teacher.
After being thrown into teaching, Johnson said she had a wonderful first year and hasn’t taught anywhere else since. Four years into her teaching career, she decided to stay at home to take care of her growing family, which she called “a joy.”
She returned to New England to work as a preschool special education teacher in 1988. She said she loved her job, often driving to the homes of children with special needs.
After a few years, she resumed teaching at the elementary level, where she has remained content “any time a student is engaged.”
Johnson and her husband, who will be retiring after several years as a school bus driver, plan to move to a house in Dickinson after the school year ends. They have four children and seven grandchildren.
Fourth-grade teacher Patti Schatz, who will also be retiring this year, said she got to see Johnson teach all four of the Schatz children.
“She works hard to make learning fun. She brings a lot of her own personality into the classroom,” Schatz said. “I’ll really miss her.”
Reflecting on a long career, Johnson said her overriding classroom philosophy has been one of mutual understanding.
“If you give the children some respect, they have to respect you,” she said.