Former Mitchell teacher Sharon Johnson inducted into South Dakota Honored Women Educators – Mitchell Republic

WAUBAY, SD — As the only sixth grader in a rural school in Willow Lake, South Dakota, Sharon Johnson entered the teaching profession before most career teachers.

“I went to rural school and I was the only sixth grader,” Johnson told the Mitchell Republic in a recent interview. “The teacher would put instructions on the board and say Sharon, you do this homework, and then he would give the first graders his flashcards. So it was”.

It was his first contact with teaching in the classroom, but it would not be the last. That entry point led to a 50-year career in teaching that took her to classrooms at Mitchell, DeSmet, Waubay, Webster, and an Air Force base in Alaska, as well as stops at regional universities, where she studied as a student and taught art.

Johnson was inducted into the South Dakota Honored Women Educators in June. The organization honors women who have excelled in the field of education and have provided distinctive service. Educators are invited to join through a nomination process of current members.

“It was (a surprise), Johnson said. “I was very, very pleased.”

In addition to a spark for teaching, his school days in the country were also when he discovered a love for art. Growing up long before cell phones and streaming services, she would entertain herself carrying a sketchbook and a pack of crayons, ready to create a new drawing.

“When you go to rural school and live in the country, there is not much to do. She always had colored pencils and a drawing pad, and she carried it with her. That was fun for me,” Johnson said.

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He began teaching right out of high school before earning his bachelor’s degree from Northern State University in 1970. He graduated from college at age 20 and signed his first official teaching contract that same year. She attended high school and college in the 1960s, and although art and teaching were two of his loves, she was a little concerned that she might not be able to pursue his passion as a career.

“It was the sixties when I went to Northern, and I thought who would let their students take art in the sixties?” Johnson said.

The 1960s was an era known for social upheaval and drug use. But Johnson said she was one of the “outsiders” who avoided the dangers and controversies of the day and instead focused on instilling a love of creativity in her students. She taught in schools throughout the region, starting with DeSmet before spending a stint at Elmendorf Air Force Base in Alaska, where her husband was stationed during the Vietnam War.

They eventually moved to Mitchell, where Johnson earned his master’s degree from Dakota Wesleyan University, where he also taught education, in 1991 and taught art at Mitchell High School from 1989 until 2016, when he retired. He has also taught at Northern State University and has served in a number of professional trade organizations, including the Mitchell Education Association, the South Dakota Education Association, the National Education Association, the South Dakota Arts Association, and the National Association of Arts.

Although retired, she recently resumed teaching part-time at Webster and Waubay.

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“During the pandemic, Webster lost his art teacher and the superintendent wanted to know if he would consider it,” Johnson said.

He considered it, and after negotiating a bit of an arrangement that saw his time split with another part-time teacher, he took up his old position at the head of the classroom, passing on his love of art to his students. He focuses on the fundamentals of the art, comparing the approach to the method of building a house.

“I like to instill creativity and stimulate their individuality. I give them the address. It’s like building a house, you have to have steps and foundations,” Johnson said. “I like to draw and paint and I love ceramics. I really love all the arts. One thing leads to another, and children like to be creative, they like to work with their hands”.

The emphasis on individuality and fundamentals can be applied to many areas of life, Johnson said. Just being able to walk into a museum and understand some of the design principles and elements behind the work on display can be an enriching experience that not everyone has studied.

Even a simple element like color has a much deeper impact on art and its perception than it may seem at first glance.

“I always tell them, especially when I do the color unit: Color influences a room and the clothes you wear and a lot of other different things. (It’s rewarding) just to make them aware of their world and appreciate the art that’s in this world,” Johnson said.

Over the years, his students’ work also extended beyond the classroom. While teaching at Mitchell, his advanced painting class was doing projects for Avera Queen of Peace and Wild Oaks Golf Course. She and her students never charged for the work, but recipients of the art often made a donation to the class to help with the cost of supplies.

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“(The students) loved showing off their work and it was great for them to have that experience,” Johnson said.

Johnson has fond memories of his students, teachers, and classmates. He still runs into alumni from time to time, and he attended his 55th high school class reunion last weekend. He still maintains strong connections to Northern State University, as well as all the other schools where he has taught or studied.

Although her husband passed away several years ago, Johnson, 73, is still active. She likes to play golf and travels to see her children in Brandon and Florida. And she continues to appreciate her half-century of influencing generations of budding artists, whether they take her lessons and become professional artists or just well-rounded citizens who can appreciate sculpture with a discerning eye.

She is enjoying her semi-retirement, but at the moment she doesn’t see herself anywhere other than dedicating at least part of her days to nurturing the artistic side of students.

“I totally enjoy what I’m doing. I totally enjoy it. It picks me up and gets me going, and I love children and sharing what I have,” Johnson said. “It’s fun for me to see them improve and be interested in learning.”