Advocating for others: A daily boost to the endorphins
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Mentors make the difference
Rhonda R. Johnson’s grandmother was a teacher. So is her sister. In Tuscumbia, Alabama, Johnson joined Future Teachers of America at the first opportunity. “I guess it’s in our blood,” she said.
Following the same path, she attended the Alabama Agricultural and Mechanical University, an historically black college. Then she came to Columbus, Ohio, under the auspices of Ohio State’s legendary Frank W. Hale Jr., who recruited her with a minority graduate fellowship in 1977.
Another mentor, Professor Otto Santos, took her a step farther. When she graduated from EHE in 1978 with a master’s in business education, he told her Columbus City Schools was looking for a teacher for the banking and financial institutions program at the Northwest Career Center.
It was a perfect fit. So perfect, she enjoyed it for 16 years.
Now, it was Johnson’s turn to be a mentor. “To move to the next level, a child has to have an advocate.”
She added, “I was fortunate. If not for Ohio State and Dr. Hale, I wouldn’t be in Columbus.”
Taking a new path to advocacy
Her good fortune continued when she reached out to John Grossman, then president of the Columbus Education Association. Their relationship started early in her career when she asked, “What do I do to get a continuing contract as a teacher?”
Grossman told her it was as simple as completing an application and submitting it. “I hadn’t applied because I didn’t know I had already completed the requirements,” Johnson said. “It took having someone who knew the answer.”
After that, whenever Johnson saw something she thought needed correction, she called the CEA.
“You have to lead your profession. Demand professional development so teachers can do a great job with their students,” she said. “It doesn’t happen just because you want it to.”
She pointed out, “You get your endorphins from doing something to fix the problem.”
Johnson’s role with the union advanced through the years. In 1985, she was a teacher representative on the CEA bargaining team. Then she became a building representative and was active in the political action arm. She was elected as a delegate to the Ohio Education Association and the National Education Association.
Eventually, she became a vice president of the Columbus Education Association serving under Grossman. When he retired, the district’s union members elected her to take the position.
Johnson cherished her relationships with the 4,000 teachers working with 50,000 students in more than 100 schools.
As the president, “I got to do something I loved every single day. To me, that was making sure there was a quality teacher in every classroom, and they had top teaching and learning conditions. And I worked with some fabulous people to get that work done.”
She is most proud of CEA’s leadership in getting domestic partner benefits for school personnel. “The CEA was one of the first teachers’ unions in Ohio to bargain for these rights. It finally came through in 2009.”
CEA’s determined campaign “sent a strong message that everyone deserves to be treated fairly. It sent a message to our students as well—we care enough to take care of our members. And students know they can count on us to be there for them.”
Walking into the political arena
“Just because you’re not interested in politics doesn’t mean politics won’t take an interest in you,” Johnson said, paraphrasing Pericles, the Greek politician, general and statesman.
In June 2014, she accepted Mayor Michael Coleman’s invitation to join his team as director of education for the city of Columbus. It was an opportunity to be a mentor in an even bigger way, to the 190,000 children living in the city, including the 63,000 who are less than 5 years old.
Her first priority has been implementing the 55 recommendations of the Columbus Education Commission, which bring laser focus to ensuring that all students who enter CCS are ready for kindergarten. The goal is to have universal access to prekindergarten for 4-year-olds.
“For every $1 spent on pre-K, the return is $7to 10,” Johnson explained. “What business person wouldn’t say yes to that?”
Having knowledge of how the school system runs helps her explain why prekindergarten is vital, as do her positive relationships with the district administration.
She feels privileged to also advocate for children beyond the classroom. Now she addresses whether they have health care, adequate nutrition and more. She finds it exciting.
“To work for Mayor Coleman and to serve this great city is an honor and a privilege for me. It’s bigger than one person. It’s what I can do for kids in CCS.”