It’s Wednesday, and for 46 minutes the sixth-grade classroom is void of sixth graders.
The sliver of time between first and third period would seem like a break for Ardmore middle school teacher Mary Johnson. But for the social studies teacher more commonly known as “The Fox” there are no breaks when it comes to readying students for the future.
The classroom, filled with colorful cubbies, maps, and posters is inhabited by Johnson and a pair of high schoolers — one from Ardmore and the other from Plainview — hanging on The Fox’s every word.
“So you run track – that’s good, that’s good – do you play any instruments?” Johnson asked.
“I mean, I played tuba in the sixth grade,” the Plainview student said.
“Hmm, okay, that might just work,” Johnson said. “I’ll call my people at Langston, see if we can get you a scholarship. I’ll hook you up.”
The bell rings and soon the class is full of bright-eyed sixth graders.
“You all listen to Mrs. Johnson,” the student said as he left to return to his school and his class. “I listened. She finds you a way.”
The social studies teacher, after 46 minutes of moonlighting as a college advisor, doesn’t waste a second shifting gears.
She starts the class on Wednesday with her usual ‘good morning class,’ ‘good morning Mrs. Johnson’ call and response, initiating a theatrical geography lesson on South America.
She teaches with her mouth, eyes, arms and hands, disguising vocabulary lessons with drama and laughter.
“In the classroom, it’s my stage,” she said. “I’m a teacher, but I’m also an entertainer.”
But it’s not all fun and games. After 38 years, The Fox still runs a tight ship. She’s both old school and new school, and it just takes a look to settle everyone down.
Teaching is a full-time job in every respect for Johnson. She’s dedicated 38 years to the craft, and nearly as many years to the cycle of seeing young pupils return for her tough love and sage advice on college, careers and life.
“School goes nine months, but teaching is a 12-month job,” Johnson said. “When you care and love your students like I do, it’s your life. They’re my life and the reason I’ve never been burned out. Us teachers, we don’t stop finding ways to reach and teach kids. It doesn’t stop.”
In addition to her well-documented service and work in the community, she stays at the school well past the final bell every night, She’s helped create a STEM program. She visits other schools to help advance her craft and pick up new methods.
And that’s just for her current students. High school students return to her classroom for advice — The Fox knows the way.
Through the years Johnson has accrued hundreds of anecdotes about the lengths she’s gone to ensure her students’ success.
The one that came to mind last Wednesday was an example of how she called up the police chief at a college campus to scare a former student who didn’t follow Johnson’s advice to get a job on campus and attend every class.
She’d put in the work and money on her end, writing recommendation letters and footing the bill for the enrollment fee. She wasn’t about to let that work and her student’s future go to waste.
“I tell you what, it worked,” Johnson said, laughing. “He got a ride around campus in front of everybody with the police chief. The next day he got a job and he graduated in four years. Nothing gets past The Fox.”
It’s just one example of the lengths Johnson has gone to ensure her students discover their full potential. And this week, Johnson will travel to Oklahoma City and stand side by side with teachers from across that state to give legislators a piece of her mind.
She said in her years teaching she’s never seen teachers as galvanized and united behind an issue.
“All the teachers, we have the same direction about what we want and what we want to see done in our state,” Johnson said. “We all are one. We are one team of people trying to express ourselves to our state government about the needs of our community and the needs of our students and teachers. We hope this information and our testimony will impress them enough to make a change.”