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Educators: What should the next governor of Illinois know about your school?

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In January, J.B. Pritzker, the billionaire philanthropist who has funded early childhood education efforts nationally and in Illinois, will become the next governor of the state. He has pledged to increase K-12 funding, pave a path to universal pre-K for 3- and 4-year-olds, and shore up the flagging university system. He supports an elected school board for Chicago and opposes the tax-credit scholarship program kickstarted by Gov. Bruce Rauner.

As the governor-elect assembles his transition team and builds out his early agenda, what education priorities do you think he should consider? We’re asking educators to write a brief letter for the new governor and spell out what they think should top his to-do list for schools. Responses will be published later in the month.

How I Teach

Why this Memphis educator wants students to know that scientists aren’t just ‘white men in white lab coats with crazy hair’

PHOTO: James Johnson
James Johnson teaches 6th-grade science at Chickasaw Middle School in the Memphis neighborhood of Westwood. He was one of five Memphis educators selected by nonprofit New Memphis for its first class of the Educators of Excellence Awards.

How do teachers captivate their students? Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask great educators how they approach their jobs. You can see other pieces in this series here.

Eight years ago, James Johnson was doing everything right to become an attorney.

He was interning for the United States Department of Justice, but said the experience actually shifted his ambition from the courtroom to the classroom.

“I witnessed firsthand how juveniles and young adults who committed non-violent crimes were doing so as a means to survive,” Johnson said. “Most of the defendants were from Southeast D.C. which has a high concentration of poverty, crime, and failing public schools. I often wondered to myself, would their future have been different if they had an excellent public school education.”

Now, Johnson teaches 6th-grade science at Chickasaw Middle School in the Memphis neighborhood of Westwood. He was one of five Memphis educators selected by nonprofit New Memphis for its first class of the Educators of Excellence Awards.

He said he wants his students, the majority of whom are students of color, to never limit themselves in what they can become. For example, he asks his students to draw a picture of what they think a scientist looks like.

“Overwhelmingly so each year, I get the same images of white men in white lab coats with crazy hair,” Johnson said. “I share this story to say when students don’t see role models that look like them, they don’t see a reality of endless possibilities and opportunities.”

Read what he has to say about the future of the schools, the best advice he’s received, and how teaching influenced him as a principal.

Responses have been edited for length and clarity.

Was there a moment when you decided to become a teacher?

I would definitely have to say that my experience interning for the United States Department of Justice threw me a complete career curveball. I had my sights set on becoming an attorney, but my experience in D.C. soon shifted from the courtroom to the classroom. I witnessed firsthand how juveniles and young adults who committed non-violent crimes were doing so as a means to survive. Most of the defendants were from Southeast D.C. which has a high concentration of poverty, crime, and failing public schools. I often wondered to myself, would their future have been different if they had an excellent public school education, access to high-quality jobs and career opportunities, adequate healthcare, or even affordable housing? We can’t expect for individuals to thrive and become productive citizens of society when there are high levels of inequality and social injustices concentrated in certain neighborhoods or among certain groups of people. I realized that the real crimes start when students are not properly educated or invested in by adults. I thought that if I became an educator that I could help interrupt the marginalization of our young people one child at a time. Eight years later, I’m doing just that.

How do you get to know your students?

I get to know my students by attending sports events, after-school activities, and church periodically in the neighborhood where I teach. This makes a world of a difference when you are trying to build relationships with students. The more that you can connect with your students outside of the classroom, the stronger your credibility and relationships will be with your students. I remember when I was a child, I was always shocked when I ran into my teachers in public, mainly because I was that problem child who gave everyone the blues and was afraid of what they would say to my parents. As an educator now, students shouldn’t feel a disconnect or separation from their teachers. They should be connected and excited to see us because we really are a part of their extended family and village.

Tell us about a favorite lesson to teach. Where did the idea come from?

I hope no one judges me for saying this, but to me, the best lessons to teach are outside of the textbook and about life. I think sometimes we get so caught up in teaching from the curriculum and focusing so much of our energy on standardized testing that we forget we have a whole child in front of us. As a science teacher, my job is to teach my students to observe the natural world around them, ask questions from their curiosities, think critically and ultimately solve problems. If I’m not teaching them things like why it’s important to be a team player or how to persevere in the midst of challenges or why they should care and want to give back to their community or even why it’s important to have integrity and self-respect, my curriculum means nothing. When I teach my students about life I’m essentially setting them up to actually apply their knowledge to future experiences that they will have and to me that’s the true goal of education.

What’s something happening in the community that affects what goes on inside your class?

The Westwood community is full of rich history and many of the community members that I know are dedicated to do whatever it takes to create a brighter future for our students. Unfortunately, it’s an aging community and a lot of the young professionals in the area have moved to different parts of Memphis. Every year, during the first week of school, I lead my students into an exercise where I give them one clean sheet of white copy paper along with some markers and crayons. They have to draw up a picture of what they believe a scientist looks like. Overwhelmingly so each year, I get the same images of white men in white lab coats with crazy hair. I share this story to say when students don’t see role models that look like them, they don’t see a reality of endless possibilities and opportunities. When I ask students what type of career they want, it’s always something around sports or entertainment. That is all they see. Not knocking those industries, but our students deserve to be exposed to more than just that.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.

I remember during my second year of teaching, I had a goal of reaching out to all of my parents by the end of the second week of school. I vividly remember calling one parent and she assumed that it was about something negative. I told her that I was actually calling to introduce myself and wanted to learn more about her child, what she wanted me to include in the curriculum, and ideas on how she could get involved in the school based on her schedule. The parent was shocked and kept reiterating the fact that no one had ever called her at the beginning of the school year with anything positive to say. She said, “every time I get a phone call from the school, it’s about something negative.” That really stuck with me and helped me realize that moving forward I would continue to make positive phone calls home to parents as much as I could. When a parent is working hard all day, it makes their day when we call them to share positive news about their child and exciting things taking place at school. No parent wants to hear something negative about their child every time a teacher calls home. We need to reach out to the parents not just when we are having issues, but to share good news as well.

What part of your job is most difficult?

I think the most difficult part of teaching is the emotional rollercoaster that you will experience throughout the year. This work is heart work and if you don’t love children then you will not last long in this field. Several of my students go through things that you would never imagine and the trauma that they face has to be addressed in order for me to teach them. Although I have no control over what occurs outside of the school building, what I can control is the type of support and encouragement I give my students to persevere through some of the obstacles and challenges they face on a daily basis.

What was your biggest misconception that you initially brought to teaching?

That parents of students in underserved communities don’t care about their child’s education. That is definitely not true. I serve in a neighborhood that has its fair share of social and economic challenges, but my parents are always concerned, involved and willing to do whatever it takes to ensure their child is successful in school. Some parents did not have a great experience when they were in school so they’re definitely not going to get involved if they feel like they are being judged or looked down upon. As educators, we must always remember that the parent is the first teacher in a child’s life. In order to truly serve the student, we must create welcoming environments in our school and build relationships with our parents. An engaged parent translates into an engaged student and positive academic outcomes.

What are you reading for enjoyment?

Right now I’m reading this book called The University of Success by OG Mandino. It’s an awesome collection of stories from folks who share their wisdom from challenging life experiences. I have always been fascinated with learning from my elders, especially my grandparents, and this book reminds me so much of them and other influential role models in my life growing up.

Scared of robots? Here’s how one Detroit science teacher helps students deal with complex machines and instability at home.

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Maxine Kennebrew, science and robotics teacher at Denby High School in Detroit, previously worked with robots at auto plants in the city.

Before she became a teacher, Maxine Kennebrew’s days were measured in hard numbers.

I could say, ‘Okay this was a good day, we ran 1,000 engines today,” said Kennebrew, who formerly was a systems engineer for a Detroit automaker. “It was very tangible what I was accomplishing. In teaching, you can’t always measure what you accomplish, but you can feel it. The end of my day usually feels a lot better than it did.”

Now she’s combining her skill sets as Denby’s new robotics teacher, guiding students through a certification program that the district sees  as a step toward training students for careers. Last month, FANUC, a manufacturer that supplies robots to the Detroit auto industry, donated eight robots to high schools in the Detroit district, including Denby High School, where she teaches science.

The armed-shaped devices delivered to Denby two weeks ago can be programmed to automatically carry out a huge array of tasks like handling food or sorting pills.

“These were everywhere” at the manufacturing facilities where she used to work, Kennebrew said, adding that she hopes the class will help students find jobs with good pay.


“The cool thing about this robot is that it can record your motion and do it again,” said Alantis Clayton, a junior at Denby. “It’s like training a pet to do something.”

Kennebrew started at Denby as a long-term substitute teacher six years ago, when the school was part of a state-run recovery district. She went on to become a certified chemistry, physics, and now robotics teacher.

Our conversation with her started with robots, then branched off into forensic science and the challenges her students face at home. The interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Alantis Clayton, a junior at Denby High School in Detroit, practices picking up sections of pipe with a recently donated industrial-grade robot.

What’s the hardest thing about basic robotics?

At Chrysler, I trained older autoworkers to use new robots. They were scared of the machines, they were scared to touch them. They had to learn to interact with them, to do cooperative work with the robots. My first day with the students in class felt very similar. They would all point to what they needed the robot to do, but no one wanted to press the button.

Tell us about a favorite lesson to teach. Talk about chemistry if you’d like — you’ve been teaching robotics for less than a month!

My students have not had consistent science instruction. I don’t think they had a science teacher last year. My entire goal is to make them understand what science is and to make it fun, so they want to come to class. So I’ve arranged for lectures for them from people who use chemistry in their daily lives

The first one was with the state police forensics department, and they were amazing.

I was so proud of these students. The detective said it was his favorite class. He had 54 slides, and he never left the first one because they asked so many questions.

What’s something happening in the community that affects what goes on inside your class?

Stability. I don’t think adults realize how much instability affects the students. When you hear talks of school closures, talks of a business closure if their parents work there.

I feel like there’s always worry in their brains, and it’s hard to get them to be normal students, because you want to acknowledge what they’re going through but you don’t want it to stop them from growing and learning.

It’s hard to say for the next 90 minutes, ‘Ignore what’s going on outside of here, ignore the worries you have.’ It’s hard to place such a high importance on being in class when you know what they’re going through.

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Cheyanne Robinson, a junior at Denby High School, practices with a robotic arm donated by the manufacturer FANUC.

What part of your job is most difficult?

I always went to really good schools, and it’s hard to stand in front of the students and put on a happy face when you know things aren’t fair. It’s hard to do.

I try to be as real with them as possible. Things aren’t fair, but we’re not going to let it stop us from achieving what we can achieve.

I’ve borrowed materials from anyone who will loan them — the Detroit Children’s Museum, the Science Center.

I don’t want them to think that because it’s not here in front of you there’s not a way to get it done.

Do the new robots help that feeling at all?

The new robots did make me feel better. I want my students to feel special but I also want them to feel normal, that they go to school and that is what’s there because it is supposed to be there. They should have an AutoCAD  lab and a coding lab and a robotics lab. They should have electives to choose from. It makes me feel better because there are kids on a waiting list to get into the class, who come by my room and ask if I have space for them. But I’m still angry because it is not the normal — yet.

What’s the best advice you’ve received about teaching?

That I can only control what’s inside of my classroom and make sure my classroom is an amazing place.