WITN’S Teachers of the Week: Mrs. Austin Andrews and Mr. Blake Johnson of Washington Montessori Public Charter School

WASHINGTON, NC (WITN) - WITN's Teachers of the Week for May 23 is Mrs. Austin Andrews and Mr. Blake Johnson of Washington Montessori Public Charter School in Beaufort County.

Andrews and Johnson are co-teachers, meaning they split the lessons they give to their 28 fourth, fifth and sixth graders.

Andrews is in her sixth year teaching Upper Elementary at Washington Montessori. Prior to becoming a teacher, she worked as an event planner. Her favorite things about teaching are seeing the creativity children put forth and knowing that she will learn something each day from her students. She lives in Bath with her husband and two young boys.

Johnson is an Upper Elementary teacher at Washington Montessori. He has been teaching at WMPCS for 5 years. His favorite things about teaching are that no two days are the same, and teaching each child is unique with never just one way to accomplish learning. Originally from Lucama, NC, he credits everything he has learned about teaching from his former teachers, parents, and students each and every day.

A group of students nominated the two teachers together. They wrote a lengthy letter, which is shared in its entirety below. One highlight about Andrews that stood out was the following: “She gives us treats that are related to what we study. Like in science, we’ve made edible experiments like Jello cells and candy models of DNA and the respiratory system. For history, when we studied Easter Island, we made a Rice Krispie treat sculpture of the rock statues on the island.”

About Johnson, the students wrote: “When we were studying rockets, we made our own rockets out of water bottles and launched them using rubbing alcohol as fuel. When we were studying volcanoes, we made our own volcanoes by putting Mentos in bottles of soda and studied the building up of pressure by putting the cap back on the bottle and watching what happened. This lets us have fun and also helps us to further understand the subject we are studying.”

Congratulations Austin Andrews and Blake Johnson!

Every week during the school year WITN will recognize a Teacher of the Week on WITN News at Sunrise.

The winner receives a plaque and $100 Walmart gift card. To nominate your teacher, email TOTW@witn.com.

Full nomination letter for Andrews and Johnson

We would like to nominate Mrs. Austin Andrews and Mr. Blake Johnson, our teachers at Washington Montessori Public Charter School in Washington, NC, for Teacher of the Week. They are co-teachers, and they work so well together that we can’t imagine nominating one without the other. The two of them together teach our 4th, 5th, and 6th grade combination class, so the three of us, as 6th graders, have been lucky enough to be in this class with these amazing teachers for the last three years.

Mrs. Andrews, who has been our teacher since the 4th grade, is very hard working and inspirational. She is devoted to helping us get better at learning. She makes all of our lessons fun and makes learning easy. She loves and cares for all of her students. She can get along with anyone. She makes us all happy when we are down. She is very calm under pressure when we’ve done things wrong and messed things up. She’s patient while we learn new things, and she is patient through our mistakes.

She is good at teaching in different ways and in different perspectives in whichever ways make the best sense to the students who are learning. She doesn’t give up until each student knows and understands what they are doing. She has patience with students, and when they don’t “get it,” she helps them until they understand. Joel, a 6th grader now, remembers a time that he was down in 4th grade. He was really stressed out about his math work. Mrs. Andrews helped him with his fractions, and she made everything a lot easier by teaching him how to do things in a different way. Mrs. Tant, who has been substitute teaching in the class for the last three years and is the parent of a 6th grader in the class, remembers what happened when Mrs. Andrews was teaching this year’s group of 4th graders how to do long division. They just weren’t getting it, and Mrs. Andrews cares so much about each and every student and about doing her job well, that it brought tears to her eyes. So, she and Mr. Johnson looked up alternative ways to teach long division and found a Montessori strategy that was similar to an approach the students had used when learning the basics of division in the lower grades. It was very different than the traditional approach to division, but it made sense to the students when Mrs. Andrews taught it to them. They ALL understood it! It was a true breakthrough, and she actually cried for joy when they all understood. That is how much Mrs. Andrews takes her job to heart. She cares deeply about each and every one of her students.

Joel elaborates, “She makes us happy when we’re down. One time I dropped a computer, and I was afraid I was going to get in trouble, but she made me feel better. Every lesson that doesn’t make sense to me, she tells me an easier way to think of it until I understand it and encourages me that even if I don’t get it right away, I will get it if I keep trying. She never makes you feel bad or dumb if you don’t understand right away.”

Sometimes all of the teachers in our grade level get together and teach one big group lesson. Mrs. Andrews’s part is always better than all the other teachers. Her part is always the most fun and easiest to understand and pay attention to.

She is very creative! Her knowledge and enthusiasm for what she teaches us rubs off on us! She is great at making “foldables” for our history lessons. A foldable is a fun type of pop-up pamphlet that makes learning history fun. She teaches us tricks and easy ways to do things, and the tricks help us to understand things so much better so we can do our work quickly. She gives us treats that are related to what we study. Like in science, we’ve made edible experiments like Jello cells and candy models of DNA and the respiratory system. For history, when we studied Easter Island, we made a Rice Krispie treat sculpture of the rock statues on the island. She plays games with us, like when we were learning about the pioneers and westward expansion, she taught us how to play the card game “Oregon Trail” that she had played when she was our age. She tells us stories from her life and her childhood to help us learn things that we are learning. She celebrates our accomplishments and pushes us to “think outside the box.” All of the parents love her and love that we are learning so much and are learning it in a fun way.

Riley, the 6th grade student whose idea it was to nominate our wonderful teachers for this award, says that Mrs. Andrews is “the hippest teacher, and we all love her from students to parents.” He points out that Mrs. Andrews is a true “Montessori Guru,” as she would say. When we have Montessori experts visit our school to observe, she calls them “Montessori Gurus,” but we think she is the best of the best, so she definitely qualifies for “Guru” status.

Mr. Johnson, who joined Mrs. Andrews as our co-teacher last year when we were in 5th grade, is a fantastic teacher! He is probably the funniest teacher in the entire school! In every lesson he gives us, we always laugh at least once. He always thinks of fun ways to do our work. Every week he leads us through a fun and exciting science experiment. When we were studying rockets, we made our own rockets out of water bottles and launched them using rubbing alcohol as fuel. When we were studying volcanoes, we made our own volcanoes by putting Mentos in bottles of soda and studied the building up of pressure by putting the cap back on the bottle and watching what happened. This lets us have fun and also helps us to further understand the subject we are studying.

Science isn’t the only subject he helps bring to life. Often his history lessons are given while he is wearing a costume from that period in history. He dressed up as a pharaoh when we studied ancient Egypt, he wore a toga when we studied ancient Greece and Rome, and he even dressed up as a caveman when we studied primitive man! When we studied World War I last year, he took our class to a creek in the woods behind our school. He had us walk through it to experience what the soldiers would have felt like in the trenches. Then, he had us army crawl on our bellies under a bridge that was crossing a ditch. The entire time he was narrating the story of the battle with the enemy on our tails. He made it feel like we really were soldiers in battle, which gave us a whole new perspective when studying the war.

Mr. Johnson is so good at sparking our interest in learning new things. Last year we were going to go on a field trip to an art museum in Raleigh. The day before the trip, he gave us a lesson on the hidden meaning behind art. This made us much more interested in the field trip, and the next day, while walking through the museum, we all had fun looking for the hidden meanings and messages in each piece of art we saw. He turned what might have been a boring day into a fun day where we all got to use our imaginations.

Each year the classes at our school pick one country to study in-depth all year long. We learn everything about the country—the history, the culture, the food (we have cooked up some great recipes with our teachers, everyone taking a part in the cooking). At the end of the year, we have a school-wide KidsFest celebration where students and their parents can go from room to room to sample food from each class’s country, view all of the individual students’ projects about the country, and play games and do crafts related to the country. Then, we all gather together and each class presents a dance from the country performed to music from the country while the students are dressed in costumes native to their country. Last year, we studied The Philippines, and our class had the coolest dance ever! Mr. Johnson discovered a native dance called tinickling, which involved us doing a fancy footwork dance over sticks that our classmates were holding end to end and tapping on the floor while we danced over them. We practiced and practiced and practiced with Mr. Johnson! We worked so hard, but it was so fun! On the night of the performance, Ava, a 6th grader, remembers her father commenting about how much better our class’s dance was than all the others. Ava told her father it was because everyone in the class wanted to do well to please our teachers. They worked so hard with us and wanted so much for us to do well that we all wanted to do well for them but also to do well for ourselves because they took it so seriously that it made us want to strive to do our very best. Mrs. Tant, Ava’s mom, remembers Mrs. Andrews telling her that she and Mr. Johnson want their students to look back on their years with them and remember things like their tinickling dance with fondness, taking pride in having taken part in something so special.

Mrs. Tant also remembers an incident this year that perfectly illustrates exactly how amazing these two teachers are and why she feels so blessed that her daughter is in their class. Recently, Ava was very nervous about a physical fitness test that was coming up in their PE class. Each quarter they have to do something called “The Pacer Test,” and Ava dreads it. The goal of the test is to show improvement each quarter, and Ava is so competitive that she pushes herself to go above and beyond to do her best. The previous quarter she had pushed herself to do so many laps that she felt that the goal she had to surpass was insurmountable. She had actually gotten physically ill after running it the last time, and she was filled with anxiety about running it again. She asked her mom, Mrs. Tant, to talk to her teachers about it, so she did and told them she trusted them to handle it however they saw fit. The morning of the test, Mrs. Andrews talked with Ava privately about how sometimes in life we do have to do things we don’t want to do because they are required of us, but that is part of life. She also talked to Ava about the things she personally does to calm herself down when she is nervous, and that helped Ava to know that Mrs. Andrews could relate. She also talked to the class, as a whole, about not comparing their results with each other as the goal was not to beat each other but just to show improvement on their own individual past performances, which helped relieve some of Ava’s pressure. Then, Mr. Johnson, approaching the issue in his own unique way, told Ava that he would run the test with her to see what it felt like! And, much to the PE teacher’s surprise, he did! The comic relief of him running the test too helped to ease all of her tensions. Ava’s mother just can’t imagine another pair of teachers that would handle this situation so beautifully. Not only did they not make a molehill out of what seemed a mountain to Ava, because it really did seem a huge deal to her and they never once belittled her feelings, but they provided her a way to get through something that was hard for her with grace and dignity. Ava’s mom feels that she and the other parents could not ask for better teachers to give their children the life lessons that they want them to have as they enter their adolescent years, and she is so grateful to them both.

Another incident that Mrs. Tant remembers occurred earlier this year when there had been some arguing during a soccer game at recess. Some of the students had become annoyed with each other, and it came back into the classroom after recess. To address the issue, Mr. Johnson and Mrs. Andrews spoke with the class about the importance of getting along with each other and settling arguments. Rather than just telling them to work on getting along better, to help actually show them how to get along with and appreciate each other, they organized what they call a “shower of love.” Each student was asked to think of one kind word to say about every other student in the class. The next day, they all sat in circle and one-by-one, each student in the class, in turn, received a “shower of love” from their classmates as each student one-by-one said all of the kind words they had for every individual child in the class. They took the time out of their regular class schedule to do this to show the children how important getting along with their peers is for the class to be harmonious and healthy. It was an innovative way to teach the children to think of the good in everyone, even in children who they had not gotten along with the day prior, and it helped the children to learn that in the large scheme of life, little squabbles are minor. What is truly important in life is looking for the good in every person they encounter. It was a truly beautiful life lesson that had every single child in the class feeling better about him or herself afterwards.

And that really sums up why these teachers are so special. They want their students to have the best experience possible during their time with them. When there is a problem and they have to call the students together to discuss it, they call it a “family meeting.” They treat their students like excellent teachers should but also with the love that a parent would and should treat the children. They teach in a way that they show that they care that the students learn, they discipline kindly but firmly, letting the children know what their expectations of them are and being consistent to the high standard they expect to be upheld, and the children rise to those expectations. There is mutual respect and love in the classroom. Their classroom is how all classrooms should be, a model to everyone, an example of how this world could be a better place if all students had the care, nurturing, and concern from teachers like these, who care about the whole child and who care about giving them a sense of love and security in the learning environment to help encourage them to grow not just as students but also as people.