Meet Your Neighbor: PJ Johnson brings life lessons into the classroom

Palo Verde High School (PVHS) media and computer science teacher PJ Johnson helps her students find joy and purpose in their studies and classroom interactions. This includes welcoming them at the beginning of each period by singing the theme song from “Mister Rogers Neighborhood.” (Photo by Connie George/Palo Verde Valley Times)

Palo Verde High School (PVHS) media and computer science teacher PJ Johnson brings a wealth of life experience into her responsibilities as both an instructor and an example to her students of how to live life with purpose, joy and understanding. The Times reached out to her recently to share her story and her insights.

Q: What can you tell us about your personal background?

Johnson: I am one of four children and was born in Sacramento. I grew up between that large metropolitan area and the [San Francisco] bay area. My mother passed away from cancer during my sophomore year of high school when I was 14 years of age, which resulted in my bouncing between relatives and attending three different high schools. After graduating high school I married and started a family. We moved to Blythe on [April Fool’s Day] 1990, and I’ve lived here ever since.

Blythe has always had the appeal of a quiet, close-knit community and a good environment to raise children. While it doesn’t have the excitement and glamour of the big city – which, in my opinion, gets taken advantage of by those who live there -- going out of town became a treat and all that city life [I’d had before] got stripped away. In September 2004, after being a divorced single mom of four daughters, I remarried. Combining his three sons and daughter with my four girls, we topped the Brady Bunch! After 14 years [of marriage], the number of our children has doubled with marriage or engagement and we’re awaiting the arrival of our 14th grandchild.

Q: What is your professional background?

Johnson: Right out of high school, I started at Kelly Services, a temporary clerical agency, landing a job in a very prestigious agricultural bank called Farm Credit Banks. I was one of four ladies who typed up internal review reports. It was here I met my first mentor, Linda, who coined the phrase [that I still remember], “First, you have to care.” Once moving to Blythe, I started as a classified clerk for [the Palo Verde Unified School District (PVUSD] in what is now referred to as Nutritional Services, and I met my second influential mentor and dear friend, Susan.

Among many responsibilities, I helped roll out the point-of-sale system for all the school cafeterias, including training the staff on how to use it. Since high school, while a majority of my experience has been as an end-user, I have been involved in various technical training positions dealing with both software and hardware. [In one] I worked as both a tech support analyst and a trainer/installer for a software company based out of Anaheim. As it required me to travel around the U.S. for two or three weeks each month, it really wasn’t conducive for a mother with four small children at the time, so I returned to work for Susan [at PVUSD] until I transitioned to my current position.

Q: What is the nature of your work for PVHS?

Johnson: I am a Career Technical Education (CTE) instructor for two programs. The Business and Finance program incorporates the Media Publications classes that publish our annual Echo yearbook and monthly Stinger newspaper. We are planning to roll out our online newspaper this year as well, which has been a goal over the past several years. The other new program just beginning this year is our Information and Communication Technologies (ICT), incorporating an introductory cybersecurity course and an [Advanced Placement] Computer Science Principles class.

I am really excited about the potential of this new program. Students will be forming teams to compete in the CyberPatriot program, a premier national youth cyber education program created to inspire students toward careers in cybersecurity and other science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) disciplines. Research indicates there will be 3.5 million unfilled cybersecurity positions by the year 2021. That number is staggering and we cannot outsource this. My hope is to help create opportunities for our students to gain exposure and potential future employment within these two industries after graduation.

Q: What is your most memorable achievement or experience?

Johnson: This is a hard one. I certainly don’t do this for the glorified achievements, and while I can say I make more than what it takes to make ends meet, it’s a stated fact that most teachers don’t do it for the money. I guess I would have to say it’s each time a former student tells me that I made a difference in his or her life. On those days when I’m feeling less than adequate, I am reminded that if I can make a difference in the life of just ONE of my students each year, mission accomplished.

I think the other most memorable achievement is that despite my rocky teenage years with the death of my mother, two teachers saw potential in me and made an impression on me to persevere; they were my computer and business teachers. Ironically, it took me a few years into my teaching career to realize I have now followed in their footsteps, recently [coming] full circle with the addition of our new ICT program.

Q: What sort of activities are you involved in here in Blythe?

Johnson: It’s no secret that my vehicle has been parked in the school lot at some pretty odd hours over the past 15 years. However, I try and find time to be involved in outside interests. Aside from spending time with family, until two summers ago I served alongside my husband on the worship team at Calvary Chapel Blythe where I have attended since 1996 and still occasionally play bass.

I have also found time to be involved in such community events as the [Blythe Cancer Resource Center] Steps for the Cure for about 10 or 11 years, where my husband and I provided the sound and our band occasionally played. Also, the Colorado River Bluegrass Festival is an event my husband and I have been involved in for about 20 [or so] years. Our band occasionally played there, too -- for the country dance, not as one of the bluegrass bands. I also like to do my best to attend sports and other extracurricular events at PVHS, especially the ones my students are involved in.

Q: What would you like your future to hold?

Johnson: When I interviewed for [my current position at PVHS], I told Barbara, a third mentor, that I would like to retire doing it. I often tell my students that I say what I mean and I mean what I say, which holds true for this goal as well. If I could live up to be half the mentor to my students [that] my three mentors were to me, THAT would be amazing.

Lord willing, after retirement, my husband and I want to travel. Not only to see the country but also to visit family who live back east. When he and I met, we talked about wanting to be snowbirds when we “grow up.” While our travels have not always been defined as those of a snowbird, such as travelling to Texas to visit one of our children who was stationed at Fort Bliss, we usually try to get to cooler climates over the summer to rest and recharge.

I also have a vision to someday be an author, possibly even a motivational speaker, and, in fact, I have a blog under the name The Seeder Chest. I would eventually like to see my grandchildren graduate, marry, have kids and live full lives. Is that too much to ask?

Q: What are some things you’d like to share with us that we haven’t asked you about?

Johnson: Shortly after my husband and I got married, he made the statement that I was solely created for his amusement. While an obvious statement of endearment, he has had to learn to share me with my students. Whether they laugh AT me or WITH me, the point is they laugh. Negativity, violence and hatred have all become so overwhelmingly prevalent, and life is far too short for us to not enjoy it, isn’t it? A recent near-tragedy in my family brought this point really close to home for me. It helped me find my “joy” and I never want to lose it.

Being an avid reader, one of my summer books was “The 4:8 Principle: The Secret to a Joy-Filled Life” by Tommy Newberry. The author says something to the effect of: joy is the key to emotional health that we must deliberately cultivate to live, love and influence others. He challenges us to set our minds on things that are true, noble, just, pure, lovely, of good report, and have any virtue or anything praiseworthy.

Because I had a pretty hard life to some extent, though maybe not as hard as some, I tend to exhibit a lot of “tough love.” In fact, I am almost positive that I have a reputation for it. Each day for the past several years, to drive this point home, I have ended every class with the words, “Actions speak louder than words,” as the class responds back, “Make good choices!”

But, in an effort to find balance as an educator, I am implementing some strategies from the “Time To Teach” program created by Rick Dahlgren, and I also recently began reading “Teach Like A Pirate” by Dave Burgess. This author challenges us to make our classes so extraordinarily interesting and engaging that students would actually be willing to purchase tickets to attend.

There is some real irony in my being chosen for the honor of the Times’ “Meet Your Neighbor” series. Just yesterday, a couple of my colleagues and I were singing the theme song to “Mister Rogers Neighborhood” in jest -- I can’t even remember why. But with my current search for new and exciting things to do to endear myself to my students, I thought, “Hey! I grew up watching Mister Rogers, so I’m going to incorporate this into how I greet all my students each day.” I looked up the song, and now each period every day I am committed to asking them to be my neighbor in song. It’s one more way to keep my joy and maybe even spread a little of it, too.

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