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A life dedicated to teaching children

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Sheila Johnson believes in disciplining the old-fashioned way — the strap.

“I was strict,” the 81-year-old laughed.

“I don't think I could be a teacher today. You can't discipline children anymore and I've heard that parents aren't supportive of teachers the way they once were.”

She started teaching in 1958 at Elliot Primary School. The following year she moved to West Pembroke School, staying there for 17 years before she became principal of East End Primary School in 1974.

She retired in 1994 after 20 years, the school's longest serving principal.

“I've probably taught hundreds of children over the years. I can't go anywhere without seeing one of them,” Mrs Johnson laughed.

“They always say ‘hi' and come up and give me a hug. I find it easier to recognise the boys than the girls. I think men's facial features change less. They always say I haven't changed a bit,”

The Corporation of St George recognised Mrs Johnson's many years as an educator in the East End as part of Unesco World Teachers Day.

She was presented with a plaque by Quinell Francis, the mayor of St George and a former student.

Reneé Ming, the PLP MP for St George's North, and Jennifer Smith, the former PLP premier, were both in attendance — Mrs Johnson taught them as well.

“I felt blessed to receive the plaque,” she said.

“I didn't know all those people were going to be there. I felt very proud seeing how well some of my students have done in life.”

As principal she pushed students to aim high. The school motto became “Seek to do your best” and she encouraged students and teachers to share their talents.

“One of our teachers, Rose Douglas, loved gardening, so I had her build a butterfly garden at East End Primary,” said Mrs Johnson.

“Dr Stanley James was a student of the school. He now has a medical business. He spoke at one of our graduations.”

CedarBridge Academy honoured her on Friday for helping to promote reading within the school.

“The literacy garden was two years in the making,” said Mrs Johnson.

“It came about because my granddaughter, Marjorie Caines, was helping the reading teacher there.

“I'm not sure whose idea the literacy garden was, but Marjorie got involved. Her friend, Carlita Burgess, helped to design the garden. I offered to help organise it. I called contractors and that sort of thing and helped to fund it.

“When I was growing up I don't remember having a lot of books in the house. I read more as a student at the Berkeley Institute, but I always preferred reading short, informative articles than long books.”

She was raised by her grandparents May and Hamley Simons, her mother Gladys Simons Hodgson and her stepfather Robert Hodgson. She spent the first seven years of her life on Southcote Road in Paget, then moved to Bailey's Bay in Hamilton Parish.

When she was a teenager, a friend at church encouraged her grandmother to send her to Berkeley.

“It was a shilling a week,” said Mrs Johnson. “That was a lot of money in those days.”

Mrs Johnson loved it. Teachers such as Eva Hodgson and Neville Tatem inspired her to join the profession herself.

“In those days, there weren't many careers open to you as a woman,” she said.

“You could be a teacher, a nurse or a secretary. I chose to be a teacher.”

At 21, she went to Toronto Teachers' Training College.

“It was my first time abroad,” she said. “But I spent some time at a friend's aunt's house on Long Island, New York before going to Canada, so it wasn't a complete culture shock. I didn't mind the cold, although I remember once it was -5F.”

She returned home in 1958 to start her teaching career.

In 1973, she went back to school to pursue a bachelor's degree at Temple University in Pennsylvania. In the 1980s she earned a master's degree from Indiana University.

She met Perry Johnson in 1975. “He was an immigration officer,” she said. “At the time, my grandmother was getting older and was starting to wander.

“One day a neighbour called me and said my grandmother was sitting on the wall outside Devonshire Christ Church. We were living on Upland Lane at the time. So I had to go and get her. After that we hired a lady to keep an eye on her.”

Mrs Johnson didn't know it, but the West Indian woman wasn't permitted to work.

“Perry came to the school,” Mrs Johnson said. “Someone said ‘Uh oh, the boss man's coming'. He had his briefcase with him. I wasn't afraid of him. He said I'd been naughty and I wanted to know how.”

A few weeks later, he called and asked her out.

“He'd asked the ladies in the Immigration Department about me,” she said.

“They told him he'd have to quit smoking to go out with me. I was always grateful to them and remain friends with them to this day.”

She invited Mr Johnson to church where he “gave his heart to the Lord”.

The couple married in Cobbs Hill Methodist Church in Warwick on July 31, 1976. She was 40 and he was 52.

“I'd never thought much before about getting married,” she said. “I'd always been more focused on my studies.”

Mr Johnson died in 1999.

“We had no children, but he had children and they are friendly with me to this day,” said Mrs Johnson.

She spends her time gardening and travelling. She has been to Israel three times and is planning a trip to Hawaii.

“My career was dedicated to young children,” she said. “Now I prefer to focus on people my age. I belong to five different seniors' clubs. I am very active with that.

“In my life, I feel most proud that I gave my heart to the Lord at age 12. He helped me go from strength to strength. I am also proud of my work as principal at East End Primary. It is wonderful to see how well some of the children turned out.”

Sheila Johnson seated in the new literacy garden at CedarBridge Academy surrounded by students, staff and members of the Ministry of Education (Photograph by Akil Simmons)
Sheila Johnson, second from the left, with staff and students at CedarBridge Academy (Photograph by Akil Simmons)
Veteran teacher Sheila Johnson (Photograph by Jessie Moniz Hardy)
Veteran teacher Sheila Johnson in the classroom (Photograph supplied)
Veteran teacher Sheila Johnson (Photograph by Jessie Moniz Hardy)

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Published November 28, 2017 at 8:00 am (Updated November 27, 2017 at 11:19 pm)

A life dedicated to teaching children

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