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How an ‘authentic work coach’ is transforming one renewal district school

Anthony Johnson may well be the only educator in North Carolina with the job title, “Authentic Work Coach.”

A recent school, district, and regional teacher of the year, Johnson is also recognized as an Apple Distinguished Educator, a TED Innovative Educator, and a Lego Master Educator.

His innovative tactics in the classroom have led to invitations to speak in Mexico twice. Here in the United States, he has traveled to New York, New Jersey, Kentucky, Arkansas, Mississippi, and Tennessee to share his methods. Locally, he has been recognized with the Elizabeth Duncan Koontz Humanitarian Award, the Martin Luther King Humanitarian Award, and the NAACP Innovative Educator Award.

He’s visited Ireland and Germany for Apple and has traveled to Germany and China with Go Global North Carolina Teachers.  

Until recently, Johnson was the Mayor of Johnsonville, his fourth-grade classroom at Isenberg Elementary School in Rowan County. His students had to earn “dollars” to pay “rent” for their place in Johnsonville by accomplishing intellectual tasks. 

Anthony Johnson. Maggie Blackwell/EducationNC

When Rowan-Salisbury Schools was selected by the General Assembly to be the first renewal district, each school in the local district suddenly had charter-like flexibility, and could, with the approval of the school board, set out to specialize in forms of learning geared to their specific student population. As a result, each of the 36 schools in the district is identifying its own specialized brand of teaching for its students.

Some schools, because of their standings in test scores, were identified early on as “restart schools.” Restart schools were given charter-like flexibility a year before the district was granted renewal district status. North Rowan High School (NRHS) was the first restart school in the district. 

The school, built in 1958, has many at-risk students — 69% of students are economically disadvantaged. As recently as last December, the school was on the chopping block to save the district maintenance costs. Meanwhile, a teacher-led design team in the school studied the students’ needs and proposed that NRHS become a Center for Entrepreneurship and Design. 

Principal Meredith Williams remembers the year well.

“During the process, some things came into sharp focus. One of the things we realized was how powerful authentic learning is. Our students spoke powerfully. They spoke about design labs and the opportunity to create work that was meaningful to them and to the community. We realized we needed help with that,” she said.

“Soon after, I had an opportunity to chat with Anthony. I shared we’re not interested in changing things just for the kids who live in our assignment area; we are interested in changing education at large.”

Johnson was already well-known in the district for his innovation. A high school dropout, Johnson realized as an adult that he wanted to be the teacher he never had — one who inspires all students to learn, even those who may not be engaged in the educational process. He went back to college, got his degree, and went to work to accomplish his goal. His awards and trips to share his methods are common knowledge throughout the district. 

Williams invited Johnson to visit NRHS and see their design lab.

“When I saw it,” he said, “It was over. I was like, ‘OK, I want to be in this school.’ You have an idea of what you think a school is like and what education should be. When I walked in, it was just like everything I had thought it should be, from the design lab to the authentic work to the culture of the school.”

Johnson quickly accepted Williams’ job offer. He spent his summer soliciting equipment from the community, setting up GoFundMe pages, enhancing the school’s social media, and arranging the vast array of equipment in the school’s design lab.

There are now two design labs in the school, with everything from glassed-in pods for personal work, to sound equipment, to wooden cubes that can build giant towers or a stage for performance. Innovative furniture and color set the mood for creativity. 

Hannah Freeman and Malcom Wilson, interns at North Rowan High School, who help Anthony produce content and facilitate students. Maggie Blackwell/EducationNC

Williams said, “We don’t want you to give a report on how you would solve the problem; we want you to re-solve it. That’s authentic work. We don’t want to know what students will be in the future. We want them to be that person today — and they can grow from there.”

She said students were solving real-world problems last year, such as working with the local homeless shelter to identify the root causes of poverty. Then they sought solutions to those root causes. From a food pantry to fundraisers to money management classes, the students gained momentum and fire for the project.

Williams said she suddenly saw energy and enthusiasm from the students to be philanthropists and designers, not just receivers. They suddenly had the chance to contribute. Now, she said, “We want authentic work to occur in all our classrooms.”

According to Williams, the NRHS design teachers did a phenomenal job of creating authentic work for students last year. They had to learn how to guide students to the point of implementation rather than just handing them assignments.

“There was a lot of learning, lots of trial and error. It was very positive. When we thought about moving that out into the core classes, we needed help,” she said.

Johnson couldn’t be more enthusiastic. He’s acquired barber chairs — not to teach barbering, but to encourage real conversations. He’s brought in audio equipment, mixing boards, video equipment, and 3D printers. 

Hannah Freeman and Malcom Wilson, interns at North Rowan High School, who help Anthony produce content and facilitate students. Maggie Blackwell/EducationNC

“I’m looking forward to doing all the stuff we did in Johnsonville, but at a higher level,” he said. “The conversations are a lot different than with a 10-year-old, and it’s going to be an exciting year.”

Johnson will be teaching students in special sessions and helping teachers devise how to engage students with real projects. He will facilitate teachers in providing opportunities for authentic work. The goal, Williams said, is to create thinkers and creators.

Before school started this year, Johnson was already busy at work. He engaged the football coaches for a vlog — a video blog.

“I thought they would tell me, ‘Get out of here with these cameras,’ but when I mentioned it to them, they said, ‘Yeah! Come by tomorrow!’” he said. “They’ve been excited. They came by and had more ideas.”

Johnson has created a TedEd Club and hopes to have a TedX event at the school. Teachers are excited about the concept. 

NRHS has weathered its share of storms in its 50 years. It was the first school to integrate in the county. It’s been through numerous consolidation proposals prior to the one last winter.

“Our job is educating students. The school board has the job of making huge decisions. We just maintain our trajectory. During December and January (when the board considered consolidation) I was so proud of our students, staff, and parents in focusing on the day-to-day instruction,” said Williams. “Some of our best work happened during that time. Our ninth grade teachers worked on designing a marketing program. We started a YouTube channel. We started a robotics team — the only one in the county.”

Johnson invited 10 staff members to accompany him on a field trip to iFLY in Charlotte, where they studied STEM and experienced skydiving.

“More wanted to come,” he said. “They saw the value of STEM lessons. A lot of teachers say, ‘Science is not my thing.’ But that night, they were certainly into it.”

“I love learning and I feel the teachers here feel the same way,” Johnson said. 

Williams smiled.

“He is more than a tech guru. He is a phenomenal instructor,” she said.

Maggie Blackwell

Maggie Blackwell is a freelance writer and former City Councilwoman in Salisbury, North Carolina. She started writing on her Tom Thumb typewriter at age eight and now spends her retirement playing with her grandchildren.