When Jodee Johnson was growing up her family moved from Africa to Australia to New York City. After college, she went backpacking through Central Europe. Johnson’s ability to navigate various cultures prepared her well for her current role at Park, where she teaches classes in English as a Second Language (ESL) and Music and is Assistant Coordinator for the School’s International Student Program.
Johnson was born in the former Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe.
“My father’s family is very British Colonial,” she said. “My grandmother has a fantastically British accent and drinks tea at all the right times of the day. My mother is Australian, and my dad foresaw political unrest in Africa before it happened in the ’70s. We were able to leave because my mother was an Australian citizen and we moved there when I was just a couple of years old.
“I was there until I was a teenager and grew up in a town of 3,500 people. My dad farmed cotton most of that time, so 5,000 or 6,000 acres was my backyard. Through a series of events, we ended up in New York City.”
Johnson was 14 when she arrived in New York. She finished high school “at a very small church school,” and then went to college at Concordia College in Bronxville, N.Y.
She says her experiences as an outsider coming to New York help her relate to the foreign students at Park.
“I never had a language barrier; I spoke English, but people congratulated me on how well I spoke the language,” not realizing that Australians also spoke English, she recalled.
“Coming from a small town in a rural area to New York City, there were plenty of cultural differences, so that helps me have a greater understanding of how some of our students made the choice to come to the United States because it’s educationally advantageous.”
Johnson graduated from college with a degree in music education at a time when budget constraints were forcing school districts to curtail or eliminate arts instruction. With jobs somewhat scarce, she took off on a backpacking trip through Central Europe.
“I fell in love with Prague,” she recalls. “While I was there, I found a girl who had just moved there, and she had taken an intensive course to teach ESL. She was beginning her job that week. It was one of those moments when you know, ‘That’s what I want to do.’”
Johnson returned to New York and earned her certification to teach English as a second language.
“I went back to the Czech Republic and got a job with a language school, and that’s how I got into language teaching. There were plenty of Westerners around, yet it was still a fantastic contrast to everything I’d ever experienced.”
She spent about 18 months in the Czech Republic, making side trips to Bosnia-Herzegovina, Poland, and Slovenia (“probably the most beautiful country in the world”). Before returning to New York and enrolling at City University of New York where she earned a master’s degree in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages.
Part of Johnson’s mission at Park is to support the students from overseas in their educational journey. She has been impressed with the progress made by many of the students who come to Park from other countries and cultures. She said three members of the 2014 graduating class – Jeremy Jiang, Sam Sun, and Eve Xia – started a club to help share the cultures of China and other countries with their American counterparts.
“Those students took an amazing amount of initiative” in making the club a success, she said. “They felt like they had something to share with our American students and they really ran with it.”
Johnson is married to Matt Johnson, a history teacher at Park. Before coming to the School, both taught at international schools in Shanghai, China.
Having taught students in such varied settings, Johnson said she has a real appreciation for the family atmosphere that she sees at Park.
“From prekindergarten through grade 12, I love that Park is a real community, and that we develop ways for the students to overlap, so that older students have the experience of being models for younger students.