Christy, Founder & CEO @ Artemis Connection, WA
Christy Johnson is an entrepreneur and educator. She is currently building her third start-up, Artemis Connection and facilitating a course on designing organizations for Creativity/Innovation at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. She has seven years of experience working in corporate strategy, including 3.5 years at McKinsey & Co. Before this, Christy was an award winning economics and mathematics teacher. In 2005, Junior Achievement recognized Christy as its National Teacher of the Year. Christy was interviewed by one of our Catalysts and team members, Helen.
Take a moment and think about a child you care about. When you’re ready, tell me about that child. How are you related to them? What makes them unique?
I have three kids, so I’ll pick my daughter. She’s a first grader and she just transitioned into public school this year. She is just a lovely, creative, smart kid. And also super girly [laughs]. So it’s just fun watching all of this play out. I’m not super girly.
What’s her name?
Her name is Ellie. She just turned 7. She’s my oldest.
What types of things does she enjoy on a day-to-day basis?
She’s very into her clothes. She likes getting dressed and picking out her outfits. She also likes to dress her little brother. So, that’s the girly part. And then, from there, it varies from day to day. She’s a creative kid so she enjoys her Legos and building things with Legos. I mean, she’ll spend hours playing with her Legos. Sometimes there are arts and crafts things she wants to do – so she wants to make cards for people or she loves planning birthdays or parties we could have. And then the girly part – sometimes she tries talking me into makeup – and I’m just like, “What? You’re only 7. What is this about?” [laughs]
What do you hope for this child for their childhood? What’s a good childhood?
Oh my goodness. I think for her… so many things. One, what’s really important to me is that she’s compassionate, that she’s tolerant, that she can be respectful of different people. That she’s really comfortable in her own skin and willing to take risks and try different things. And that she has every opportunity that she wants open up to her – so like being literate, and numerate, and curious.
The whole concept of having grit too. Being able to bounce back up if there’s a failure, which there will be. Feeling like she has support but also confidence in herself. I think public schools can do a lot of that.
Now, imagine that child is now in their 30s – out of school and starting into adult life. What do you hope for them about their life? What would make it a ‘good’ or ‘successful’ life?
Well I still hope that she’s as curious as she is right now. I would want her to feel that she can do anything and take care of herself and supported. I have no idea what she would do in terms of a job – that will be interesting to watch. She says she wants to be a veterinarian right now, but is that her dream? I don’t think she’s sure yet. I’m realistic that it will probably change over time. So I think it’s more about having a dream for her life and feeling like she can achieve it while feeling hopeful and optimistic about the world. That’s what I would hope for her.
Is there anything you worry about getting in the way of them achieving that? Anything that keeps you up at night?
Oh my gosh, so many things. You ask a mom what she worries about? I mean, I always worry about drugs, alcohol, car accidents, any of those sorts of things. Suicide, depression. I worry about that a lot. I also worry about peer influence, which will become increasingly important, and being able to stay true to herself. I know she’ll go through lots of phases and identities so just being able to support and love her through all of that. And I do think there’s a piece around skills. Like, how do you know if they’re succeeding or if they’re behind? So learning how to learn is important.
Can you talk more about “learn how to learn”?
Yeah. Like, she’ll sometimes encounter things where she’s like “well, I can’t do that” or “that’s too hard” so we [my husband and I] spend a lot of time talking about how we don’t know how to do all things and this is how we learned. So the whole concept of you can break it down into little tasks or you could take a class. There are lots of different ways and you have your own preferences but figuring out how to own that and persist.
"Another big role of education reform is just exposure to people really different from you. Different backgrounds, different views. Learning how to deal with that is really important."
Ideally, what role do you think schooling should play in achieving that ideal good life?
[Deep breath, haha] School can support her in giving exposure to a lot of different experiences and people and learning how to deal and adapt with that. I think schools can also provide wonderful teachers who know how to bring out the best in kids. We’re really lucky that she has an amazing first grade teacher this year. I just watch her with my kid and she knows her and adapts to her and is really great. So I think school can play a role in … let me structure my thoughts a bit more.
One, inspire a love of learning.
Second, teaching people how to learn. Giving them tools and techniques like researching and writing and knowing math and those kids of skills that are important.
Third, piece around confidence which worries me. We’re picking public schools and I know that there are some teachers that can be challenging and I cross my fingers that she doesn’t get them but overall that’s a learning experience too. That’s life. I just think that really seeing the individual and personalizing to the individual is important.
Another big role of education reform is just exposure to people really different from you. Different backgrounds, different views. Learning how to deal with that is really important.
And fifth, breaking down the pathway and showing what the next steps are . And how to craft that over time.
Do/will schools play the role you think they should for your child?"? Why or why not?
I think I’m kind of skeptical. I think schools can definitely play some roles. It’s based on luck. The luck of the teacher you get, the others students in the class. There will be people who don’t like you. I just hope that you never have to deal with bullying and that may happen and that’s just life. So I know that there is a component of teaching her about the uncertainty of life and school will do that.
Now the support piece, I’m not sure. Some of the skills, I’m not sure. So that’s where my husband and I try to keep an eye on things and we try to pay attention to subjects where she seems disengaged or uninterested. If we notice that, we’ll try to reengage her on our own time.
What does “reengaging” look like?
Trying to make it interesting and trying to connect it to something that will motivate her. What we wrestle with the most is her thinking something is too hard and that she can’t do it and that she’ll never learn it. So that’s where we’ll really persist a lot with her her and push her and share times that we didn’t know how to do things. That’s been the biggest struggle so far.
For example, teaching her to read. She didn’t read until the middle of kindergarten which is a little bit later than all of our friends’ kids so we would just try to make reading a super special time and something that we did. We never compared her to any of the kids, which did happen a bit at school. That was something we did at home to reengage her to make sure that she wasn’t getting turned off. Now she loves to read.
Will schools play the role you think it should for all children? If not, why not?
I don’t think schools can play that role for all kids. You have all these ideals, and then you have a child, and you’re like “I want the best for them!”. But I think the problem with schools right now is engaged parents are able to navigate what they need for their kids and kids that don’t have as engaged parents end up with the leftovers – whether that be a bad teacher or they don’t get into a class or they don’t know how to apply. Whatever it is, they basically get dropped or fall through a crack.
So I don’t think it works for all kids. I think there are a couple of reasons for that. I used to be a public high school teacher. Leadership of the principal and vice principal varies widely. I was so grateful for who my first boss was, my first principal. He was in the classroom, was a total servant leader, knew what teachers needed, supported us in helping the kids, and was just a great resource and hired wonderful vice principals.
But he had challenges too. Like he had teachers, whom he knew, were constantly late to school so he would walk in and turn on the TV. But he was like, “my hands are tied, there’s only so much I can do” because of the union and politics and all of those things. So I think leadership is definitely an issue and there are some challenges with unions that can make it a little bit more difficult.
I think the other thing is teachers. I get frustrated because we have this smaller class size requirement so I’ll see the legislature say, “well maybe we don’t require certification anymore or we take people without degrees because we need more teachers”. And I’m like, “Don’t lower the bar on this. This is so important – the role of a teacher”. Teaching is hard and just preparing teachers for what the job really is. My teacher cert really did not prepare me enough. I mean, I had one practicum for an hour a week for ten weeks and then I had my own classroom. It’s a hard job. I mean there’s a lot more to be done to prepare teachers for the reality of the classroom to make sure teachers are well-qualified with the skills they need to be successful teachers and the leadership to make sure that all that is happening.
And then there’s other things. Like silly policy things where policy is way behind. Like for example, computer science in some states doesn’t count for math and science credit. That is so disconnected from the real world and the skills that people need for jobs. It’s just hard as a voter to figure out what things matter. Yeah, it’s just really confusing.
"I don’t think schools can play that role for all kids. You have all these ideals, and then you have a child, and you’re like “I want the best for them!”. But I think the problem with schools right now is engaged parents are able to navigate what they need for their kids and kids that don’t have as engaged parents end up with the leftovers – whether that be a bad teacher or they don’t get into a class or they don’t know how to apply."
Why do you think we have schools as a society?
This is a good question. It’s a public good. It benefits all of society yet not everybody will pay for it. And so, from an economics standpoint, it’s a chance to be more productive as a society from a civic engagement standpoint. A chance to catch everybody and put our taxes to good work from a person standpoint. Education is a great thing. Learning how to socialize and having people trained in doing things. If we were at home all day long or just in the fields or whatever people used to do before school, I don’t think that’s good for society.
Do you think people agree with you on each of those levels?
No, I don’t think so. I mean, I have some friends who see school as a free babysitter. They ask, “why do schools need half days? Why do teachers need training?”. I mean, I’m curious. I bet there’s a range of opinions and I bet it’s influenced by a person’s own experiences in education and how often they’ve touched it. And I think from the outside, it’s kind of like healthcare. It’s more complex and it’s hard to know quality but everybody thinks that because they’ve experienced it, they know what it is.
What have been some of your most empowering educational experiences? This doesn’t have to be in school – it could be outside of school or after you finished.
That’s such a good question. I’m an applied girl. So whenever things are applied. In elementary school, we had a pullout program where we were doing seminars and teaching our parents. Whenever we had choice made a difference. There was a lesson on the brain, and we got to pick what was most interesting to you, and then we would teach that to the parents and community members. That was pretty cool. I was a third grader and getting to pick my topic, practice my public speaking, manage my time – that was a really good learning at a young age.
In high school, there were other opportunities like that also happened. I like competition. So math Olympiad. Some kids get that through sports; I didn’t do sports. But Math competitions? I loved those! I thought they were so fun. Like practicing with your classmates, getting your donuts. Competing with a team on math problems. That was really fun. There were lots of times I didn’t know the questions but then afterwards I really wanted to know. And for me, the team aspect was huge. Standing on a stage by myself – that was no fun. And I tried track for a little bit which was also individual. But when I got to a team, that’s what made it really fun.
How does that impact you today?
Yes. I definitely still like the team element and I do not like individual public competition. And I do have a bias towards applied things. So like math classes in college – I took the applied math classes rather than the pure theory. So it definitely still plays a role. I chose to go to Stanford for an MBA program because it’s really collaborative. There were other schools I could have gone to but I just didn’t like how competitive they felt with each other.
Tell me about your favorite teacher when you were in school. Why were they your favorite?
I had a couple. I can probably think of three different ones. I’ll do one for each grade. One in elementary school, Mrs. P. She gave us a ton of autonomy at an early age. I think she might have been working as a consultant or something but it was great because she gave us a lot of choice. She kept us accountable, she had really high standards. She really focused on the lessons we needed but she also exposed us to things that we hadn’t been exposed to. She would say things like, to me, “You seem to really like puzzles. Here are some logic set of things that you can do.” And I’d be like, “that’s pretty cool!”. And for a classmate, she was like, “You’re really into drawing. Here are art things you can do.” I felt like she really saw individual students and was constantly pushing us but it was more not in your face kind of thing.
In middle school, we had this super tough teacher called Ms. M. She’s a total feminist, totally political, and she was super tough. I think I learned more from her in middle school than I did my whole four years of high school, which was good. If I turned in work that wasn’t good enough, she would just send it back. She was really tough but also just really caring and would break the skills down. And she’s super quirky.
And in high school, I had Mr. C. He was my freshman history teacher and my high school senior year econ teacher. I’m super grateful that he taught me economics because I fell in love with it and I probably never would have been exposed to it if I hadn’t had him as a teacher and wanted to take him again my senior year. I had a hard time my senior year and he would just ask if I was all right. And I would be like, “Oh, thank you”. That kind of stuff was just good with him. And he was funny. Humor was good.
Was there anything I didn’t ask that I should have? Or anything you’ve been thinking about recently related to schooling that you wish you could have talked about?
I think education needs to be more broadly defined especially as we move to a knowledge economy. I feel bad when I see so much art, music, PE, and recess getting cut from schools and focused on rote memorization. It’s pure memorization and skills that people are focused on and that bugs me.
The second thing is access to extracurriculars. We don’t actually spend that much time in class and then we have long summers and you see the summer slide. It’s tough as a mom to find quality childcare. I’m really, really picky and it takes a lot of time and is expensive so I can see why there is a summer slide. There are gaps after school, or among breaks, and that’s just too bad. I wish education could be more connected than it currently is. Connected to outside resources, or extra childcare, or educational opportunities like Math Olympiad that isn’t dependent on the actual parent navigating the system for their kids.
"I think education needs to be more broadly defined especially as we move to a knowledge economy. I feel bad when I see so much art, music, PE, and recess getting cut from schools and focused on rote memorization. It’s pure memorization and skills that people are focused on and that bugs me."
Are there schools you feel like do this well?
I’ve seen some of the private schools do this well. There’s one in Seattle, another that my sister teaches at. I think it’s so amazing, what they’re doing. They have maker studios or bring in tech stars to work with the kids. They’re getting a breadth of exposure that the school is coordinating for the parents and students. It’s pretty incredible.
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