UW Tacoma Alumna Justina Johnson: A Lifelong Learner

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Justina Johnson, '94, '00, reflects on the transformative experiences that "solidified my desire, my need, to become a teacher."

A Tacoma native and product of Tacoma Public Schools, Truman Middle School Principal Justina Johnson considers herself to be a lifelong learner whose interest in teaching and education stems from her “many transformative personal experiences within the school system.” After receiving her bachelor's from UW Seattle in 1994, Johnson became a UW Tacoma alumna several times over, joining one of the first cohorts in the UW Tacoma teacher certification program, before earning her master’s in education (with a focus on integrated curriculum) in 2000, and her principal certification in 2007. 

Johnson credits the flexible schedule at UW Tacoma for being able to continue her education on a teacher’s busy schedule, saying that, although the courses were rigorous, she was still able to work and raise her son, and that the high standards at UW Tacoma helped prepare her for a career in education.

Watch Justina Johnson, '94', 00, in a video on Tacoma Whole Child InitiativeIn particular, Johnson credits Associate Professor Richard Knuth with helping her realize her potential. “He would check in and connect with me periodically, to make sure I did not lose my focus,” Johnson says. “Eight years later, Richard is still encouraging me. His commitment to student success is an example of the type of quality leadership and compassion that allows candidates from UW Tacoma to move on to highly successful careers in their communities.”

Johnson’s teaching career ostensibly began when she volunteered at Remann Hall, Pierce County’s juvenile detention center. The experience exposed her to a wide variety of student types and, as she says, “solidified my desire, my need, to become a teacher.”

Because of what Johnson calls the “negative conditioning” students had been exposed to in the past, many of the brightest minds she encountered did not believe academic excellence was in their future. “They did not see graduation or post-high school education as a goal by any means,” Johnson says.

As a teacher, Johnson says, “I did my best to encourage academic rigor for all students.” She describes her classes as challenging, as she required not only a great deal of writing, discussion, and participation, but that she actively sought to get her students to think about and question what was being written and discussed, and not simply accept what was in front of them. “They had to formulate perspective from different points of view, and support their ideas with facts, not feelings,” which, according to Johnson, gave them “the ability to … articulate ideas with passion that created opportunities for students to be successful, not only in other classes, but in life.”

Even before her career as an educator began, Johnson says she was aware “how some students were systematically set up to fail – intentionally or unintentionally.” Throughout her many years as a teacher and administrator, Johnson says she “continued to observe the interactions of students, teachers, and families,” and to “think deeply about how simple interactions greatly impact a student’s success, or lack thereof, in the educational system. I learned that if you have low expectations for students, many will choose to live down to that expectation.”

That mindset led Johnson to take on a role with the Tacoma Whole Child Initiative, a unique collaboration between UW Tacoma’s Center for Strong Schools and Tacoma Public Schools that aims to provide support for students and teachers by changing the way they think about in-class behavior and academics.  

During her time teaching at Jason Lee Middle School, Johnson was introduced to the Positive Behavior Support System through UW Tacoma Professor Greg Benner, who is also the executive director of the university’s Center for Strong Schools. “We received a grant to assist in data collection to determine certain areas of focus for intervention at our school,” she says.

“I am pleased to be the principal at Truman Middle School. Our teacher leaders and support staff help cultivate an atmosphere that supports the whole child,” Johnson says of the system that encourages successful behavior among students through increased positive interactions with teachers and administrators. It is something Johnson believes helps build a culture of community that allows students to achieve their academic goals at a high level.

“One of the most important pieces of establishing a whole child approach to teaching and learning is building relationships,” Johnson says. And it is that kind of thinking that has led Johnson to use her career in education to continue to push for schools to ensure students – especially students who are struggling – see the classroom as a “safe, sane, positive, and nurturing place” that is available to them. After all, if students could have such a place, “it should at least be the classroom where they spend several hours per day.”

Written by: 
Kevin Yeoman / May 4, 2015
Media contact: 

John Burkhardt, UW Tacoma Communications, 253-692-4536 or johnbjr@uw.edu