As the academic school year ended for students this Thursday, Connie Johnson, General Myer Elementary principal, walked through school hallways one last time as she retired after 53 years as an educator.
“Mrs. Johnson has had a monumental impact on students, our staff and me over the years,” said Jan Camps, General Myer School counselor. “I have worked with her for 25 years and no one compares to her in terms of dedicating their life to children and education.”
While Johnson’s position as General Myer Elementary principal spans 20 years, her career in education began decades before, in 1961, as a sixth grade teacher in Chipley, Florida. During the 1960s, Johnson also taught fourth grade at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, and second grade one year in Yuba City, California, before teaching almost three years in the Panama Canal Zone in Panama.
“It was a wonderful experience,” Johnson said reminiscing about her time in Panama. “[The schools] had some excellent programs. I taught a fourth grade class, but they had a program there that was making sure that their students were promoted to the next grade level and had the skills necessary,” she continued.
In 1969 Johnson relocated to Fort Huachuca and taught fourth grade at General Myer Elementary School until 1994, when she became principal. During her time with the Fort Huachuca Accommodation School District, or FHASD, she’s seen an evolution into what the schools have become today with the building of new facilities and the discussion how to best divide up the grades between each school to better serve the post’s students.
Her career even spans through several superintendents. Johnson explained one former Cochise county school superintendent who used to govern FHSAD, Tom Campbell, first influenced the technology-supported curriculum pushing for computer labs and technology programs for students.
“He really got Fort Huachuca schools started with the technology and it has been a blessing because so many school districts can’t afford the funds to update and upgrade and we’ve been fortunate enough to be able to do that,” she said.
While the retired principal has seen changes and transitions in the district and her own career over the years, one thing has always remained the same for Johnson — her teaching philosophy.
“Failure for students just isn’t an option,” she explained. “Even when I was in the classroom, I always kept close records of who needed the extra help and who needed to be referred for special programs and I always felt it was just as important to make sure every child in my class would get the help they needed if they were struggling even if it meant extra time, keeping them after school and making sure they were able to do what they needed to do.”
In 1994 Johnson was working on her administrative degree and was the designee of General Myer Elementary School’s long-time former principal, Ron Swackhamer. When he suddenly passed away from a heart attack, Johnson stepped in as interim principal the rest of the year under the supervision of former FHSAD superintendent Clark Stevens to finish her degree and started the next year as principal.
“It wasn’t hard for me to go from role of teacher to becoming principal at the same school,” she explained. “I was highly supported; usually that doesn’t happen. We were also sad about the passing of the principal and I think by me being there, somebody staff members knew, made it easier.”
Over the years, she’s built long-lasting relationships with many of the faculty members. Beth Searls, the principal’s secretary, who also retired this year, worked with Johnson for 35 years.
“It has been a joy to work with her. She can start something and then I can finish her sentence, or she can do the same with me — we’ve worked together so long,” Searls said.
Johnson also came into the role of principal with more than just teaching experience. In the early 1980s she was very active with the Arizona Education Association and decided to run for Sierra Vista Unified School District Governing Board with the hopes to improve communication between the board and teachers at that time.
“I had never thought about [running for school board] because here I am, a little town teacher and that was before I became principal and so I did; I did run for the board and of course I’ve been a board member in Sierra Vista for 30 years,” she said.
Johnson currently serves as Sierra Vista Unified School District Governing Board president and plans to continue her term until it ends in 2016. Aside from her position as school board president, she’s one of the co-founders of The Greater Huachuca Area Branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, NAACP, and former president of the Greater Huachuca Area Democratic Club.
While the retired principal takes pride in many organizations she leads or establishes, she’s also implemented programs at General Myer Elementary School that have helped students to thrive. One of those programs which fits her philosophy is the after-school program.
“Our after-school program is one of the things I am most proud of because without that program, a lot of our kids would be receiving bad grades and not doing the best they could do,” she explained.
Johnson also takes great pride in the school-wide Accelerated Reading Program, which gives points to students who read books and pass tests demonstrating what they have read. Twice a year, students can then turn these points into prizes during a school auction.
“[The reading program] motivates the kids to read, and what I have found is that some of the kids that never enjoyed reading and started reading for the points, they learned that it isn’t bad,” she said. “If so many kids can read and interpret what they’ve read … they’re going to do better with their school work.”
Johnson leaves behind a legacy but hopes younger generations of educators will follow in her footsteps viewing the education of a child as a rewarding experience.
“She is admired, respected and loved by so many people and is extremely knowledgeable in terms of education,” Camps explained. “She is truly an icon in the community, and in my opinion, business will not be the same in our school and district without her presence.”