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Q&A: AIU Professor Jerrod Johnson, Named Teacher of the Year

AIU Professor Jerrod JohnsonProfessor Jerrod Johnson, who teaches at American InterContinental University’s (AIU) Houston campus and AIU Online, was named Teacher of Year for Post-Secondary education by The Houston West Chamber of Commerce in Houston, Texas.

We spoke with Johnson about his teaching style and what drives him to push forward after facing numerous challenges of his own. He currently is pursuing a doctorate of management in Organization Change and Development at Colorado Technical University and also holds both an M.A. in History and M.Ed. in Curriculum and Instruction from Sam Houston University.

Tell us about your background.

I was born in Ireland and adopted by an American soldier. My [birth] parents were killed in the wars in Ireland, and my adoptive father was a soldier on embassy duty returning from Vietnam. The only job he could find in the States was at the Texas Department of Corrections. I remember growing up in a poor, lower-middle class family. Many times as a child I would want for things I saw other kids had and knew that I could never obtain. The nature of my development in retrospect takes on different forms and all of it leads to education as the emphasis to my breaking out of the class of my birth.

I left my parents’ home at the age of 16 and moved into an apartment with my brother’s friends who were in their mid-twenties. In doing so I learned quickly the financial responsibilities of an adult. I was still in high school and maintained my top 10% [ranking in my class] while working nights at Taco Bell.

Through education I knew I would create a better life for myself. In 2000 a drunk driver hit my fiancée and me. I lived with minor back injuries that added to the major ones I had from my service in the U.S. Army. My fiancée passed away never realizing what had happened. I was a freshman in college and could have tossed away my future. However, I endured.

What did winning the Teacher of the Year award mean to you?

It was important to me because the award was really a culmination of events. It was making my father proud, representing my school, representing the six years of students I had worked with and showing the community that for-profit schools have great teachers.

Why do you think you were selected as a winner?

When I went to the interview, I told them what I thought about education and the story of one of my students, who was in her late 40s and had multiple learning disorders. The student didn’t like me at first, but she finally opened up, and last year she graduated with like a 3.7 [GPA]. She went on to do really great things. She works with the city and helps children who need direction. That’s what makes me proud as a teacher.

Does your teaching style differ from standard techniques?

I want to change education standards to help the students who may not normally succeed. We get some students who [face various challenges]. They may be coming with learning disabilities or are in their 50s. Maybe they did not make it in other schools. So we work with the students one on one. I like teaching at AIU where I can sit down with them and work on what they may have missed in middle school and high school.

I formulate my lessons by asking questions of the students. You have a dialog with your students and you are actively involved in helping them apply the lesson to real life. Sometimes it’s called the Socratic method. Instead of spoon-feeding them, we’re helping them with critical thinking. We have content and then we have applicability. If you don’t know how to apply that content to a situation, what good does it do? It’s brain filler.

Why and how did you learn to teach that way?

I’m a product of a state school. It was one of those big schools where I was a number rather than a name. I left school with a lot of knowledge and street smarts, but without the ability to apply it. I would say that over time and through my own experiences I delivered that ability to critically think and the need to apply it. If I can help students do that earlier, it gives them a leg up in the real world.

Can you give an example of one of your typical classes?

To break the ice on the first day of class I tell my story. I tell them about where I was born and how I came to the U.S. and how I got in trouble as a kid. I say I learned at an early age to always be truthful. I tell them about being young and going into the military and how that changed me. I walk the students through those experiences. And that it was those life-changing events that really changed my future. After losing my fiancé and being hurt, I could have said no to education.

But I did not let them dissuade my goal, which was to get an education more than anyone in my family had ever gotten. And so that’s what I do. I share with the students and I connect with them. I want them to know that life happens. It’s through telling them my story that they start to realize that maybe they can trust this guy. It works. I’ve had good success so far.

What does the future look like for teaching?

I think it’s online. When we see schools like Harvard and high schools for special-needs kids developing online [programs], it’s moving in that direction. Honestly, I like to be on the cutting edge of that because I want to see it grow in a good way. I guess I want to put in my two cents and my love of education for the betterment of future generations. It’s keeping the rigor and relevance of that education high through curriculum review, through accreditation standards and through real-life applicability.

Speaking of real life, how do you fit in teaching live, online and studying yourself?

It’s time management. That’s an essential skill. I wouldn’t say I’m the best at that, because I procrastinate like everyone. But I have this affinity about education. I get excited about it, and when I have a paper to write, it just flows. It’s all about preparation, and it’s taking those few moments here and there between meetings and things that we lose the most time.

Interview conducted May 2013