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“I’ll do whatever I need to do”: A Driven Educator Reflects

Pandemics, like sports, may do more to reveal character than to build it, to paraphrase sportscaster Heywood Hale Broun. Lavance Johnson both reveals his character and forms that of his students as a physical education teacher at St. Mark the Evangelist in Harlem. Only in his second year as a full-time teacher, Mr. J, as he is known at the school, is, according to principal Dominic Fanelli, “everything we want in the people who educate our children. He loves the students and they love him. He is always thinking about how he can engage all of his students.”

In this post, Mr. J shares what it means to him to teach in this extraordinary year:

I take pride in knowing that if I miss a day, it has an impact on everyone else. I can’t let down those people who believe in me—my mom, my son, the ones who gave me the opportunity to be a teacher, and these kids at St. Mark’s. I need to be here. At the start of the school year, when we announced we were coming back in person, I didn’t think twice about coming back in. I’ll take that risk, I’ll get vaccinated, I’ll do whatever I need to do.

Originally, I didn’t see myself being a teacher. I liked working with kids, and I fell in love with it working at a sleep-away camp. I was working as a coach with King Hoops and as a paraprofessional with Ms. Brown, the first grade teacher here, when she and others encouraged me to be a teacher.

I live by the idea that you never know who is watching. These Pre-K3 students are watching me, these nine and ten-year-olds, these 13-year-olds, and so I wake up every day glad to come in. Every day I’m figuring out: how am I going to mold lives today? What am I going to bring in new today? I don’t want to be an example of laziness.

Mr. J teaches a student to make a healthy snack pre-pandemic.

But I was dealing with a lot of uncertainty this year—how am I going to make P.E. work, particularly for remote learners? I don’t just want to be doing jumping jacks through the screen; I want to capture their imaginations. How do I help these kids at home to be active?

As a physical education teacher, I don’t get a curriculum; I have to do research. You are in charge of what you are teaching, and you’ve got to know what you’re doing. So this year, I looked everywhere. I was on Pinterest, PBS’s KidVision, The PE Specialist on YouTube; I took a class on play around the world; and I was thinking hard about what I know works. I also want to keep the playing field fair, so I have to think about what all the students have in their homes.

Scavenger hunts, for example, have been a source of fun and movement; I’ve got to think, OK—everyone has a towel, everyone has something blue. And when we were working on hand-eye coordination, we needed to do separate work with fast-moving objects and slow ones. So I had them ball up socks and toss them up and catch them with one hand—I joked with them, no stinky socks!—and then with a plastic bag, which is slower coming down, like a parachute, having the early elementary kids working on reaction time. Don’t have a plastic bag? Some of them tried Ziploc bags, tissue paper, tissues.

The pandemic is definitely teaching us all perseverance and resourcefulness.

We always do a big project at the end of a quarter, and now I’ve got to think of things we can do without contact and safely in person and remote. In the fall, we did bowling; for remote learners, we got empty plastic water bottles and filled them with white paint, shook them, and it dried, so those were bowling pins. We used socks for balls, or parents went to the dollar store for a ball.

To teach hand-eye coordination, I found the idea of make-your-own foosball. I knew it could be fun and said, let’s all take the risk. I didn’t want parents of remote learners to be hassled, but it was a way for them to get involved; it became a family-oriented project. Nikki Woods in the main office helped get all the materials together for all of us—we wanted wooden dowels but made it work with shish kabob sticks and taped over sharp edges. We had all the materials together, and then the one day this winter when we were all set to do it, there was a COVID case and we had to go all-remote. So we threw together starter kits, gave them to all the kids to take home and did it all online, with second through eighth grade.

Make-your-own foosball.

In some classes, I may only have two students online, but I have to bring the same intensity, build the same classroom culture. It’s a lot to teach every grade, to teach in person and then hop behind the computer. [Principal] Mr. Fanelli helped out all the special teachers by having us teach half the school for four weeks, and then switch. I try out ideas during the first half of the quarter and then am better equipped to teach them the second half.

As a P.E. teacher, I teach three-year-olds to 14-year-olds, so I think all day about how I differentiate audiences, and I use a lot of what I learned in a diversity class from undergrad at SUNY-Cortland. That’s something I know I have to turn on quickly. I don’t want the little ones to feel belittled, or like babies. I also want the eighth graders to be aware of how they are talking; the little brothers and sisters are watching, and you have a responsibility to them. You have to prepare them all to turn the next age.

So my checking for understanding goes deeper than the lesson. Are they able to live what I am saying? Am I too harsh, am I not harsh enough? Because when I teach P.E., there are so many aspects to what I teach. I teach with love, and I teach them to love. I teach happiness and activeness; I teach cooperation and teamwork and relationships. I teach being independent. I teach having a sense of competitiveness, and also learning how to tame your competitiveness. I tell my student all the time that “gym is bigger than free play.”

Lavance Johnson, David Ellis, and some of their St. Mark students.

When I started last year, David Ellis, the librarian, came to me and said, you don’t understand the importance of the job you are doing. He asked: how many male teachers did you have growing up? We both agreed; not many. The responsibility of being a male role model is humbling, sometimes uncomfortable. The men I teach with—Mr. Ellis, Mr. Fanelli, Mr. Farmer, Mr. Marchan, Mr. Dooley, Mr. Martin and Mr. Frazer—all show me that you don’t let your flaws or differences determine how hard you push for our kids.

That’s all part of my calling.