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There was one thing Lost Creek Elementary School Special Education Teacher Megan Johnson knew without a doubt she didn’t want to do when she grew up: Teach.

“I always laugh about it now because I had this plan where I was going to go to Bolivia for a whole year before going to college because I really didn’t want to go to college,” she said, noting she desired to go to what is one of the poorest countries in South America and help those in need. “But it wasn’t working out with the paperwork and it was unstable politically there.

“God just had different plans for me.”

Johnson is in the midst of what is now her eighth year as a Columbus Public Schools special education teacher based out of Lost Creek, where she works with elementary-aged students across the district who are significantly affected by autism. ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder) refers to a broad range of conditions characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech and nonverbal communication, according to autismspeaks.org. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) says autism affects an estimated one in 59 children in the United States today.

Johnson on a recent morning was sitting alongside a young student who was enjoying some time with an iPad. She talked to him about the program he was using and they shared a few laughs. Each one of her many students is different and requires her and her team to give specific focus to on a daily basis.

“People often say it takes a special person to teach special education, but I just think that’s full of baloney because I don’t feel like a special person. I am just a person who said yes,” Johnson said. “I think teaching special education makes you a special person. It changes how you think, it changes your patience and it helps you learn to celebrate small things and look for small growth. You don’t take for granted small things people can do because you see some kids don’t have that.”

Johnson never imagined she would be where she is today – she thought she would be happy doing something completely different professionally and be a mom. Today, she’s a mom of five, wife and, ironically, happily teaching. She’s appreciative of her journey and that her plans changed, as she calls it an important plan - “God’s plan.” Going down that road, though challenging at times, is what shaped her.

STARTED UP NORTH

Johnson grew up the youngest in a house with her parents, sister and two brothers in the small town of Worthington, Minnesota, a community nestled in the southwest corner of the state at the intersection of Interstate 90 and Minnesota State Highway 60.

“There’s not much of a difference except there are lakes everywhere,” she said of her hometown when compared to Columbus.

Growing up, she and most kids in town spent almost every Friday night at the ice skating rink. But, she was also involved in many other things throughout the years. Her mother taught violin, so she, of course, started at an early age. She played in the orchestra and on the tennis team while in high school in addition to being active in her family’s church.

Actually, that’s how the idea of Bolivia came into play. Her pastor was a missionary from there and arranged for her youth group to go to his native country for two weeks while she was in high school. She and the group spent one week running a bible school in Cochabamba, a city in central Bolivia in a valley in the Andes mountain range. Then they spent another week running a Christian camp and doing manual labor projects in different parts of the country.

That visit had a profound impact on the young Minnesota teen.

“It was just a completely different environment, a lot of poverty,” Johnson recalled. “The kids there were pretty amazing – they don’t see the poverty. Their smiles are still so bright and big even though the life around them is not so good. Being part of those big smiles on their faces instilled a passion that I still have.”

Johnson was convinced by her senior year of high school that she was going to take a year off from school before going to college and spend it in Bolivia, but when it didn’t work out, a new opportunity presented itself. 

COMING TO NEBRASKA

After graduating in 2005, the Minnesota teen decided to go to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, noting her grandparents lived in the Nebraska city and she felt comfortable being there when she had visited throughout the years. Johnson had a plan: She was going to major in Spanish.

“I was dead set against teaching, but I don’t know why,” she said. “I just knew I wanted to do something different and stand out.”

She completed her freshman year of college and was set to still major in Spanish when she had a realization of not knowing what it would do for her when she graduated.

“I started Spanish class and quickly realized I didn’t want to be a translator. My thought was, ‘If I didn’t want to translate it or teach it, why was it my major?’"

As she pondered it over, Johnson said she knew she loved being around children. Teaching started to feel like the logical fit. So she decided to switch over to studying elementary teaching and added in special education her sophomore year at UNL.

“I just knew I wanted to work with kids,” she stressed. “I added the special education endorsement for selfish reasons because I thought it would make me more marketable to an employer. I just really wanted to be in a classroom.”

FINDING HER WAY

While at UNL, Johnson met the man who would become her husband, Jimmy. They were married in December 2008 and moved to Columbus when he got a job teaching at the high school and coaching baseball, a job he remains in today. She spent a semester finishing up school commuting back and forth between Columbus and Lincoln.

Upon graduating, she did some student teaching in CPS and then became a substitute for a semester. She was hoping to lock up a full-time opportunity in the district, and though she wasn’t hired, Johnson noted district leaders said they wanted her as part of their team.

The summer of 2011 ended up being a little chaotic. Johnson to this day jokes about how she had three jobs in a matter of weeks without having stepped foot in the classroom. During that summer, CPS hired her as a reading teacher at West Park Elementary. That quickly changed to her being a fourth-grade teacher until the special education position opened up unexpectedly. When she was offered the job, she admittedly had to step back and think about it.

“I don’t know what made me think I could do it because they don’t teach you a lot about autism in college,” she said. “They teach you a lot of general things, but I had no experience working with students who have autism.”

Johnson said she decided to make a go of it, citing a federal program which provides more loan forgiveness on student debt to those who teach in special education.

“I thought, ‘I’ll just teach it for five years for the loan forgiveness and go to the regular classroom,” she said. “That’s what I thought I always wanted.”

 DESTINED TO BE

The first couple of years in the role were admittedly tough for Johnson.

“They were very hard, I didn’t know what I was getting into,” she said. “It was just a really big learning experience, but right away, I just fell in love with the kids.”

Johnson and her team work with a variety of kids, who all have different needs when it comes to learning. A consistent area of focus is language and communication, as it’s often considered the biggest weakness among those who are autistic. Some of her students are non-verbal.

She and her co-educators also teach a lot of life skills, such as brushing your teeth, potty training, brushing your hair and learning how to be OK going to the dentist. They’ve also had the chance to teach a couple of kids how to ride a bike.

“I’m not trapped at a desk. It’s not about certain scores,” she said of her career. “We have to battle a lot of hard battles, but we also get to celebrate a lot of big celebrations I wouldn’t get to experience if I were in a regular classroom.”

That’s something she keeps in mind all of the time. She said once she received a letter from a mother who applauded and thanked her for working with her fifth-grade daughter who had joined the district only a year earlier. That mother was elated sharing how for the first time she got to sit down with her little girl, read a book with her and watch as she listened.

“It’s the little things, and if you don’t know the world of special education, you take that for granted as a parent,” Johnson said. “It was incredible to that mom her daughter would do that. That meant a lot.”

Lost Creek Principal John Holys called Johnson a great leader, noting she brings an abundance of positive energy to the school that exudes throughout the building. He also noted how she’s very patient and persistent working with students, which ultimately makes parents feel good.

“She’s a great asset to the team and a great team player,” he said. “She’s very flexible and always willing to go above and beyond what it takes to make all students successful.”

Johnson is also the proud mom of five children, but like her career, motherhood didn’t go as she planned. Her husband has cystic fibrosis, a hereditary and often life-threatening disease that causes constant lung infections and also impacts other organs in the body where mucus builds up. They found out those with the illness are less likely to be able to have children of their own, but they weren’t going to give up.

They initially looked at overseas adoption but found out it was too expensive and a long process. It was around that time her sister, who worked in the foster care world, recommended they go that route. It ended up working out as they’ve adopted three children (one girl and two boys), are in the process of adopting a fourth child and have hopes to adopt a fifth who they consider part of the family already.

“God’s given us these beautiful kids. It’s like making beauty out of ashes – that is truly our story,” she said, noting them not being able to birth children but having the ability to parent children who needed them has worked out. “We’re just so grateful and lucky. We’ve seen again and again God’s faithfulness and provision. He planted that dream when I was little. All I ever wanted to be was a mom.

“It didn’t turn out the way I thought it was going to be but our story is so much better, different and beautiful than what I envisioned.”

The Johnsons love Columbus, as she noted it’s not the flashy place everyone wants to go but is amazing if you choose to plant roots, seek friendships and make it your own. She likes to run in marathons when she can, noting her faith remains a very special part of her life.

“What He planned for me is so much better than what I could have dreamed up myself,” she said of God.

She said none if it would be possible without the love and support of her husband and children, as well as her classroom team that works every bit as hard to love the students.

“I pray so often that I will live life in such a way that God can use it to his glory and am humbled and honored to get to share the story He is writing for me,” she said. “I would never trade any of this for the world. I’ll teach in this program as long as I can. I’m not going anywhere.”

Matt Lindberg is the managing editor of The Columbus Telegram. Reach him via email at matt.lindberg@lee.net.

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