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At the crossroads of early learning

Robert Johnson knows what it’s like to stand at the crossroads in public education. Thirty years ago, when the Washington, D.C., teacher and member of the Washington Teachers’ Union entered the profession as one of the few males working with prekindergarten children, the barriers were huge—but the need was enormous.

Robert Johnson video

“I must have done it for 12 or 13 years by myself,” the prekindergarten teacher at Lafayette Elementary School says of the early 1980s, when he was the district’s only male teacher in early childhood education. “We were missing a golden opportunity for men to be working with young children, especially those who didn’t have any positive male role models in their lives to help nurture them.”

Over the decades, he has become a strong presence in the lives of the youngest students and also a leading voice in recruiting other talented male professionals into the field. “When I grew up, I don’t think I saw a male teacher until sixth grade. That really doesn’t work.”

Johnson’s interest in the field developed early. In high school, he spent afternoons helping tutor a neighbor with special needs—teaching her letters of the alphabet, numbers, shapes and colors—while many of his friends were on the courts or neighborhood playing fields.  Even at this young age, he knew just how important the early years are in a child's education.

Today, generations of students have enjoyed Johnson’s classroom and the creative, fun and learning-driven activities it offers. The veteran teacher also has put his stamp on school enrichment by serving as head coach of the boys’ and girls’ basketball teams at the school.

Robert Johnson with kids

On a typical morning in Johnson’s colorful, inviting space at Lafayette, children take their seats in circle time, joined by their teacher who sits cross-legged near the wall. A boisterous song and a student-generated weather report help round out the start of the day. In the back of the room, parents stop by frequently to visit—something that Johnson never fails to encourage. Along with manageable class size, the teacher points to parent involvement as one of his biggest classroom strengths. “This is the type of school where you could teach forever. The parents are so supportive.”

And if you’re guessing that this 30-year veteran’s thoughts are focused on retirement these days, you guessed wrong. “The new school year is up and running. Everyone is excited and energized,” says Johnson. “I want to be in here until I don’t have any energy to work with little people—and right now I’m great. I’ll be here for the long haul.”