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Families have moved their homes to Salisbury, North Carolina to live in the school district where Anthony Johnson teaches 4th and 5th grade on the slim chance that their children will be enrolled in his class.
But no one who knew him back when he was a student, including Anthony, predicted that he would rise to become a model of education leadership and innovation.
Anthony hated school as a child. He threw chairs in classrooms. He fought with students and teachers. He failed fourth grade, seventh grade, eighth grade and ninth grade before being kicked out during his second attempt at freshman year. While asking him to leave school, the principal told Anthony that he’d be better off getting his GED and learning a trade.
Today, Anthony is an award-winning educator. He is one of 30 international TED-Ed Innovative Educators of 2016. He is also a Lego Master Educator and an Apple Distinguished Educator. In 2016 he was named Teacher of the Year for Rowan Salisbury Schools, and in 2017 he was named North Carolina’s Southwest Teacher of the Year.
Anthony’s classroom is as much an invitation to his students to take ownership of their learning as it is a rebellion against the education system that failed him when he was a student. In his book, “High School Dropout to Teacher of the Year,” Anthony’s complicated relationship to education comes through as the fuel behind his work. In explaining his motivations behind reinventing classroom learning, he says that his focus as a teacher is to provide students with learning experiences that are “radically different” from the ones he remembers.
28-year-old Anthony Johnson posing for a photo in his Livingstone College marching band uniform. Photo credit: Anthony Johnson.
There are no desks in Anthony’s classroom. The class is run as a simulated city called Johnsonville, and although Anthony is known as the Mayor, the city is fully student-led. Every day, students earn play money, $100 a day, for showing up ready to engage in the day’s projects and experiments. Students use their income to rent seating space in the classroom with prime real estate (space on the futons costs a little extra). Students can also invest their money in starting classroom businesses to earn more money that they can spend on perks like buying the right to take home the class gecko.
The curriculum in Johnsonville is as stimulating and unconventional as the classroom environment. Anthony’s students use video to collaborate with other classes from around the world. They self-publish books. They launch weather balloons into space. And when Anthony wanted to teach his students about force and motion, he faced his fear of heights and live-streamed himself skydiving—with his students waiting at the landing, cheering him on.
Earlier this year I interviewed Anthony about his unexpected path to becoming the groundbreaking Mayor of Johnsonville after being kicked out of high school at sixteen. He shared with me about second chances and falling in love, the surprising parallels between his work as a correctional officer and his work as an educator and what it means to reinvent the system that failed him. It showed me just as much about possibilities for our schools as it did about the capacity of the human spirit. Listen to the highlights from our conversation here.