SPOONER, Wis. -- DrydenWire.com recently sat down with Spooner High School Principal Sarah Johnson at our favorite coffeehouse, The Dock Coffee, for a coffee and chat. Principal Johnson spoke about her upcoming book, returning teachers, this year compared to last year with new Superintendent, 1,138 straight days of running, and much more.  So grab a cup of coffee and enjoy our 9th Dock Talk.

What kind of coffee are you drinking today?

A blend of the dark and medium roast with cream and sugar warm my cup today. As I have gotten older, I like more coffee with my cream and sugar than I used to drink. I actually started drinking coffee when I was nine with my grandma.

What is your favorite kind of coffee?

Medium roast with vanilla Coffee Mate creamer is my go to every day.

Is liking coffee mandatory to work in Education?

I have known enough truly amazing educators that are not coffee drinkers to invalidate that claim, but I will say that the bountiful beans give me a jolly jolt on days when needed.

When did you decide to get into Education?  

This is a very personal story for me that I love to share widely because my decision to go into education was intentional and tied to honoring the memory of a very dear friend. Between my freshman and sophomore years in college, my brother’s best friend and my first crush ended his life. It was through the struggle and pain of that loss that I did a ton of reflecting and came up with the two aspects of myself that had connected us, which included writing and love for kids. I switched from Broadcast Journalism to an English major that first semester and worked hard to get into UW-Eau Claire’s School of Education the following spring.  For some reason, I had resisted education until coming through that storm, and I have been so grateful for that positive outcome from a personal devastation.  I purposely remind his parents often about the lives I have been able to touch through that choice which was a result of my own grief. It is important for me to remember this origin because there is a purpose in this calling, and I know that in my heart.   

When did you decide you wanted to be a principal?

When I was still completing my undergraduate degree, I had a vision for a wider impact eventually. At my husband’s commencement at UW-Eau Claire in 2002, they featured Wisconsin’s youngest female principal as an honored guest, and that was when I felt even more inspired to pursue administration. I worked on my Master’s in Educational Administration prior to having children and completed the degree and certification in 2007 from UW-Superior.

How many new teachers will there be at the High School this year?  

All of our classroom teachers are returning to Spooner High this fall, including Larry Flynn, an esteemed veteran who is returning for another year to teach Chemistry and Biology to our lucky students. We are excited to welcome a few new faces in our Reading Interventionist (Heather Isackson), which is basically new this year as it was a new position mid-year last year and a media center paraprofessional (Andrea Burton). We are excited to have our awesome team together and looking to make a big impact in our year.

Having everyone coming back sounds like a good thing.

Going into the year with our staff coming back is a great thing! We are able to know where we left off last year with all our good work, and keep moving forward with plans. In addition, there is a level of comfort it brings to students to have familiar faces and expectations with which they are familiar. I am incredibly proud of the team we have at Spooner High and excited to be a part of it.

You are going into your 4th year as Spooner Principal and 3rd straight year with a different Superintendent.  What’s different about this year compared to last year or past years?

To speak to what is most recent, this year starting is very different compared to last year because Dr. Aslyn has been working alongside us for the whole summer, whereas Mr. Burnett joined us late August last year. We also had eight new staff members at the high school. To be very transparent, there was a lot of uncertainty regarding what to expect for the year at this time last year. There is no such feeling this year. We are clear on our priorities for the year with plans in place that staff knew about last spring, and we are continuing the good work of last year. This summer has been very balanced with more time available to prepare for the year and spend time with my young daughters.

What changes have been made at the High School in during your time there?

Our team has worked diligently on providing reading support for our students who struggle to read at grade level and to provide choice and supports for all students with reading in the content areas. One structure we implemented last year was a flexible scheduling system during Rails Time. What this does is provide the students choice for where they go during that time period at the end of the day each week. If teachers know that students need particular support, they are able to work with students during that time. Previously, the time was static, where students would report to an advisory period and maybe get a pass if necessary, but teachers were still responsible for supervision of their group. We are continuing to improve this system this year and working hard on providing targeted supports for learners in reading and math as well as structured support for students struggling in multiple classes. We love that students can choose a quiet learning environment if that is what they need or an enriching learning opportunity if they don’t need a study hall setting. We are excited to continue refining this system of support and choice for our students.

We also now have a building level benchmark assessment (STAR Reading and Math) to help determine a picture and trends for student learning. Without such a measurement, we either had to rely on state testing results, which are a year old, or best guesses. Now, we can see where students are performing compared to students at their grade level nationally. This information has helped us to determine needs for incorporating reading in the content areas as well as implementing a new course called Reading Essentials, which provides targeted support for students at the high school level who will benefit from explicit reading instruction.

Also, I don’t know if other principals sang to students and staff, but if not, that is new too. :)

What are you most excited about this year?

One of the trends we identified last year was that our incoming students need more support in transition. Our solution is “On Track Day”, which is the first day with the freshman only. During this day, we are going to spend time on all sorts of topics that will assist freshman with a smoother transition. After all, going from shorter periods to 85-minute blocks with nine weeks for classes in addition to a new building, new staff with different expectations, and higher stakes assessments is a lot to handle. One of the best parts about this day is that it is being planned by staff and led alongside student leadership groups. As the principal, I am so incredibly proud of what this day will start for the year of supporting all students. When our staff and students work together to create these experiences, it will certainly build and improve every year, and I am excited to see us carry the plans forward.

What has been your biggest challenge at SASD?

Honestly, one of the best parts of education is that we work with people who are dynamic with personalities that don’t always agree. With that can come challenge, and most people assume working here in the past few years has been a challenge. I boldly say that there are challenges in every district, and it has been an absolute pleasure to lead and learn here at Spooner High School.  To answer the question, my biggest challenge came in my first year here when my brother ended his life in December. The biggest challenge was maintaining my leadership during a personal trial, but I am reminded very often about my purpose here, and I am thankful for the great people with whom I work every day at Spooner High, not the least of whom are the incredible students.

Our 1st ever Dock Talk was with SMS Principal Brad Larrabee.  We asked him about Broadband and he stated, "The expansion of Broadband to northern Wisconsin is vital to our growth”  Do you agree with this?

Appropriate Broadband access is important for our community without a doubt. In education, the mindset has shifted from preparing students for tomorrow to preparing students for jobs that don’t exist yet. The demands of 21st Century Learning Skills require students to be able to oscillate between face to face and online communication while developing skills to navigate in ways online that will keep them competitive with their peers around the world. We are working on the critical balance of an education using tech tools, and if students are unable to access that when they leave our walls, that makes the learning less authentic. In addition, our world is entrenched in online commerce, communication, and development. Yes, our community does need appropriate broadband services. I am proud to work with Hugh Miller, who has been working hard with community partners to expand access.

What do you do find a balance between work life and home life?

Balance is an important and often elusive topic for many educators and is a quest I have been pursuing with passion since I became a building administrator. The main reason I came to Spooner High School was to seek more time with my two young daughters. However, balance is more than just being physically present at work and with my family. In order to be the best version of myself for others, I need to be able to seek space for myself, and I do that through running. Our staff and a lot of students know that I am on a running streak, which actually started the day I clicked to submit my application to Spooner Area School District on July 11, 2014. When this column is published, I will have run 1138 days in a row. I was never a runner prior to this chapter in my life, but I needed to find a corner of the universe where I didn’t have to be a mom, wife, principal, friend, sister, daughter, etc. Some days, it is only a mile, and two times in the last year, it has been 26.2 miles. Running has become essential for my mental, physical, and spiritual well-being, and I am so thankful to have come to it.

Balance, in general, is a topic about which I have become highly passionate. In fact, this topic is so important to me that I am writing a book about it with two of my principal colleagues that have become personal friends over the course of the past few years.

1138 days!!!??  And hold up ... you are also writing a book?

The book we are writing is in its infant stages, and we are in the process of discussing it with publishers. The topic will be focused on tips for finding a balance for educators. Between the three of us, we have developed several strategies and mindsets that we feel will help educators stay in education rather than burn out. We hope our message resonates with enough people to keep great educators in the calling to which they belong even in the midst of an era in education that is more challenging than ever.

When is it coming out and where can people get it?

There is no date at this time, but you can have an exclusive on it for its drop date if you want. :) We are hoping within the next year it will be in the hands of people who may need its message.

Yes, please!  Last question. What are three things about you that most people don’t know?

It is humorous that I am struggling coming up with an answer because I am pretty open and have covered ground here with running, writing, and influences.

  1. I am the youngest of seven children, have been an aunt since I was nine, and I am the proud aunt of 16 nieces and nephews on my side and four nephews on my husband’s side.
  2. The theater is in my blood, and I have performed in about 20 productions both in school and community theater. My most recent performance onstage was at Northern Star Theater in Rice Lake as Ms. Malloy in Hello Dolly! In 2008. I fully intend to get back into community theater when the girls are old enough to be in it with me. We are getting close!
  3. In my youth, and as recent as 2008, I was a wedding singer, but not a cool one like Adam Sandler. Singing publicly is something I love doing, and I have been working on my guitar skills for two years so that I don’t need an accompanist. In the meantime, I am prone to random bursts of singing and both staff and students are fully aware of this quirk.

Thanks for the chat!

The Dock Talk is an every-other Tuesday segment on DrydenWire.com.  If you are interested in doing a Dock Talk with DrydenWire, let us know by emailing drydenwire@gmail.com.

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