After 24 Years, a Return to the Classroom
Much has changed in the 24 years since Gretchen Johnson first taught at Milton, but some things never do
Story by Sarah Abrams
Gretchen Johnson remembers her first days as a fifth-grade teacher in Milton’s Lower School. After spending several years just out of college working in marketing for the Boston Celtics and Bruins, she was ready and eager in 1995 to put her training in early education into practice.
“I dove right in,” Johnson says, about those early years coteaching fifth grade with longtime Milton faculty member Scott Ford. “I don’t think I realized how much I would love it until I really was in it. I found the students to be just so refreshing and straightforward. In the corporate world, everyone is very careful about what they say. Engaging with fifth-graders is so uplifting. That was the first ‘wow’ for me and it ran throughout the year.”
Johnson taught for several years, until in 1998, her passion for writing took her into the magazine world where she worked for Inc. and Boston Magazine. She also expanded a tutoring business she had begun in the summers while teaching at Milton. Miller Academy (Miller was her last name at the time) was a thriving business for many years as she married and raised a daughter. It also helped keep her up to date as theories and practices around education evolved.
Having returned to Milton two years ago, first as a Middle School learning specialist and then, in 2022, as a fourth-grade reading and writing teacher, Johnson is delighted to be back in the classroom. “I had been on my own as a tutor for a long time,” she says.” After a while it can get a little lonely. When I learned after all these years that I would be teaching fourth-grade reading and writing, it was like a dream. The fourth and fifth grades were always my sweet spot.”
Twenty-four years after leaving Milton, Johnson marvels at the preponderance of teaching and learning options now available to teachers and students. The internet, which was just becoming mainstream in the 1990s, has opened up a wealth of new avenues. Through Google Classroom, students can access homework assignments, correspond with her, and find supplementary resources (videos, articles, etc.) that support their classwork.
Johnson makes certain, however, to incorporate balance in each day. “You have to be mindful, like with anything, to make sure that you’re not overdoing it with technology,” she says, “and that you’re weaving into the day traditional books and artwork with crayons and markers and actual paper. Instead of ‘I can do that on Adobe,’ I will often say, ‘No, let’s close the iPads, I’m going to read a story to you while you listen or draw.’ They love that. They actually do love to unplug.”
Johnson is also pleased to see that as greater sensitivity to learning differences has emerged over the past several decades, these differences have become very much a part of the conversation. “If a student has been diagnosed with dyslexia, or they need extra time, we have a team of specialists who work with the homeroom teachers and parents,” she says. “That’s an amazing difference. We’ll teach kids the way they learn best, whether it’s visually or auditorily or kinesthetically.”
And students have become advocates for themselves, she says. “They know those resources are there for them and they’re not afraid to speak up. There’s no stigma attached, which is empowering for the students. They come to school excited because they know that if they sense a roadblock at all, we’re going to figure out a way to make things work for them so they can flourish, move forward, and feel empowered.”
The increased focus on cultural sensitivities—on diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice (DEIJ)—has also been wonderful to see, Johnson says. “All of last summer’s reading books had themes woven in throughout about standing up against bias, about standing together, and about teamwork and solidarity. All these messages that are so positive and are woven through the DEIJ curriculum across the campus—starting as young as kindergarten—are huge.”
Advances in awareness of learning and cultural differences—as well as the emergence of new teaching methods and tools over the past several decades—are not all that has changed, says Johnson. “Twenty-four years later, having all those years as a teacher and tutor working one-on-one with kids, I’m a very different person. Also, now being a mom, I’m often looking at my students through the lens of a mom. I have that hat on all the time as I teach.”
What hasn’t changed is her enthusiasm for the work and the curiosity and exuberance of her students. “I have a lot of energy, but teaching is energizing me even more than I thought it would,” she says. “When I come in in the morning, the kids are so sweet. It’s a lot of give and take. You know you’re helping to make their day and they are making your day. It just puts a smile on my face.”