Tenino Parkside Elementary School special education teacher Holly Johnson always wanted to be a teacher when she was growing up and now works with special education students in kindergarten through second grade. In recognition of her work, she was named as the 2024 Regional Teacher of the Year by Capital Region Educational Service District (ESD)113. In her role, she is encouraged to cultivate opportunities connected to her passions, and for Johnson that means giving hope to her students’ families by providing resources and removing barriers.
Tenino Special Education Teacher Holly Johnson Wears Many Hats
Johnson pursued a degree in elementary education from Central Washington University and chose a special education endorsement. She began teaching in Tenino right after college as an integrated kindergarten teacher working with students who needed extra support. Nine years of kindergarten followed and then special education, all at Parkside Elementary.
While larger districts compartmentalize their student support services, Johnson covers them all at Parkside. She works with students on their reading and math goals, social-emotional goals and adaptive goals such as learning to self-advocate. For students who are nonverbal and students who use few words and sentences, Johnson made menus with school breakfast and lunch items to help build students’ visual and spoken vocabulary. Teachers share their success strategies with other teachers, and that includes Johnson as she collaborates with her colleagues about what might help their students too.
“We are working toward more inclusion in grade level classrooms,” Johnson says. “The kids have always had some inclusion, but we are trying to get them into their gen-ed classes, more second graders being connected with the second-grade classrooms, more first graders being connected with first-grade classrooms and so on. It’s benefiting my students because right now there are not really peer models in our classroom to see, ‘Oh, this is how you ask for help.’ Just to see, ‘Oh, this is how you do things,’ learning from another child, but then also with the students in the grade level classrooms, is teaching them to be more tolerant of differences.”
Building Relationships with Parkside Elementary Students and Families in Tenino
Relationship building is key in Johnson’s line of work. She is leading students and families through the new territory of primary school, guiding her para-educator team and creating engaging activities and lessons for her students with accommodations.
“I think the biggest thing is relationship building and honestly, not just with the kids, but with their families and especially families who have students that have disabilities,” Johnson says. “Their parents go through a lot. There’s grieving and appointments where they’re always told deficits that their children have. I feel like I’m kind of the cheerleader to point out the things that their children can do and to be a resource for them.”
Johnson brings parents into the know and removes barriers by communicating and explaining things with parents who often feel isolated or singled out by having a child with accommodations or who is medically fragile. As a parent herself, she empathizes with what a big step it is to send one’s child off to school and aims to give the peace of mind that comes with being informed. She lets parents know they are on the same page about doing what is best for the student.
“Even though the students I work with are kindergarten, first and second grade, what I do now is going to lay the foundation for if the student is going to be living at home their whole life, in a group home or living independently,” Johnson says. “Just the difference it would make if the child is potty trained, even if it takes five years, starts here. I’m showing parents that we are looking to the future and what we can do to help make the future easier for their child and the family.”
Johnson meets the students where they are, acknowledging the skills students have and what they need to pursue their goals. Her efforts also extend homeward. During COVID-19 school closures she made video tutorials for school parents that explained different ways to use the sensory material bags she delivered to their front porches.
Tenino Teacher Holly Johnson’s Outreach Projects
Teacher, soccer mom, author, podcast creator and community educator…they are all Holly Johnson. She is reaching out to local agencies about providing parenteducation on topics such as understanding Individualized Education Programs. Additionally, she is starting Johnson Advocacy & Consulting LLC to coach and consult parents as well as a podcast titled The Heart of Advocacy.
After attending a Ready! for Kindergarten workshop in Rochester, she pitched the family preparation program to her director and superintendent. They supported the initiative, which is geared toward 0- to 5-year-old students entering kindergarten, and brought it to Parkside Elementary. Johnson’s proactiveness also includes grant writing to the Squaxin Island Tribe One Percent Charity Commission fund for classroom sensory items.
As one of the ESD regional teachers of the year, Johnson is considered for state teacher of the year recognition. She is certainly doing great things for her students and families at Parkside and has great ambitions and projects in the works to benefit more in the future.