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Omaha Magazine

The Schoolgirl Finally Graduates: Beth Johnson's Special Education Passion

Oct 01, 2021 01:35PM ● By Sara Locke
woman with red hair sits in patio chair

Photo by Bill Sitzmann    

Beth Johnson started school at age 5, and, at age 60, she still hasn’t finished school. 

“I planned to become a social studies teacher and was about to start student teaching,” Johnson said. “But at school there was this job board. I saw an opening for work at Martin Luther Home, looking for a residential manager to work overnights with people with intellectual disabilities.”

Johnson recalled this as her lightbulb moment, and considers herself lucky it happened at the age of 23 while finishing her studies at University of Nebraska at Omaha. 

“I was so close to student teaching; my first post was coming up in the fall. I knew I had to tell my parents I’d changed my mind. One day they were taking me to have my wisdom teeth removed and I’d been given some ‘calm down’ medicine.” Uninhibited, she finally broke the news. “I popped up between them and just shouted—‘I want to be a special ed teacher!’ And of course, they’d never seen me so happy. We returned my books right away.”

After two years serving at Martin Luther Home, Johnson started grad school. She continued her studies while working on-call for MLH over the next three years. She studied at Drake University, continued taking additional classes, and earned her master’s degree (plus 42 hours) from UNO. 

“I ended up student teaching at Burke for my Gen. Ed.,” Johnson continued, “then moved that spring to Millard North. It was 1985 and I was absolutely loving my experience there. They were adding a special education teacher to the staff and wanted someone to work with students with intellectual disabilities. I laugh that I student-taught there and then I just never left. I didn’t leave Millard North until I retired in 2017.”

Her dedication earned her a Friedman Award from Knights of Aksarben, a Secondary Teacher of the Year Award from Millard Public Schools, and the hearts of every family her work has touched. 

After decades of award-winning service to the education community, Johnson found her calling to retire was just as clear as her calling to the work she’s always loved, saying, “Retiring wasn’t a difficult decision. I became eligible and knew it was the right time. But what it’s allowed me to do—I feel like my world is a lot bigger.

“I’ve met more people, more kids, more caring teachers,” she said of her subbing. “My world has grown a lot. It’s so fun, so incredible to see what teachers have created, what tech they’re using to reach students of all abilities. I’ll think, ‘If I’d had this teacher, I would have understood math better. I would have loved it.’ And I’m still learning new ways people have found to reach more people, and I love that I still get to implement that with students.”

She continued, “I’ve been helping out with ACP summer school at Millard. I’m subbing in Millard and Elkhorn, mainly in special education. When I’m subbing for a special ed teacher and I get to tell them I’m trained and qualified, you can see the physical reaction; you can see the relief they feel.”

Johnson’s joy for what she does and her compassion for other teachers in the profession is evident. “Special education teachers don’t take that privilege lightly; working with unique learners. The trust parents have in us, it’s such an honor,” she said.

Terry Houlton, Ph.D., director of special education with Millard Public Schools, always enjoys when Johnson’s name crosses his desk, saying, “She has an energy for this work. You can be a positive person, have the qualifying education and training, and still not be right for it. Beth is someone who, when you meet her, when you hear about the impact she’s having, you know she’s exactly where she is meant to be. She loves her students, even when she’s subbing and won’t have the time to build the relationships through the year, she is making sure to have an impact with each student, each day.

“This is a field with a high rate of burnout. You see it in even really new teachers.” Houlton reflected, “It’s demanding work, and learning how to do it never ends. But with Beth, there’s just an energy for it. There’s a real sense of natural capacity and genuine love for the work and the families.”

While retiring hasn’t curbed Johnson’s love of teaching, or learning, it’s given her more space to explore her other passion, travel. “I went to Sydney, and I got to hold a koala. I went to Mexico, I went on a cruise. I’m going to Hawaii again in February, and I just got back from Santa Fe and Colorado Springs. I loved my career,” Johnson said, “and I love subbing. And I love being retired. I think it’s important to love every part of the life you’re choosing. And I hope that when people get to that point, when they get to retirement, that they still find those reasons to love every day. That they don’t lose their giddiness.” 

Johnson may have retired, but the vivacious, loving, and impactful woman will always be a school girl at heart. 

This article originally appeared in the 60+ Section of the October 2021 issue of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.  

Photo by Bill Sitzmann