Johnson brings international flair to students

Published 12:38 am Sunday, May 22, 2011

Washington High School Spanish teacher Phedora Johnson remembers the exact moment she fell in love with foreign language and international travel.

Washington High School Spanish teacher Phedora Johnson leads her Spanish II class in a review of neighborhood vocabulary in preparation for a chapter test held recently at the school. (WDN Photo/Betty Mitchell Gray)

When Johnson was in the fourth grade, she and her family traveled to Disney World in Florida, and while she was waiting outside of the Country Bear Jamboree in Frontierland, she turned to the woman sitting next to her to strike up a conversation.

But she was surprised to discover that the woman did not speak English.

“It was my first reckoning with how important it is to learn another language,” Johnson said in a recent interview. “That’s when I decided to pursue languages and all things international.”

She was inspired to pursue this dream by her parents, Gladys and Charles Johnson.
Her mother, a teacher in the Beaufort County Schools, would speak French around the house to her daughter. And her father, who had served in the military, would speak German.
“I grew up playing language games as a child,” she said.

Johnson, a Washington High School graduate, also was inspired by her high school Spanish teacher, Nila Wehrenberg.

Today, Johnson speaks four languages — French, Japanese and Spanish as well as English — and has traveled to 20 countries throughout the world.

In July she will have the opportunity to use her French language skills and add one more country to her travel list.

Johnson was recently chosen as one of 12 people across the state to go to Senegal, Africa, as part of the Fulbright-Hays Group Projects Abroad Program through Appalachian State University.

The program is intended to give teachers a window into French-speaking Africa through intensive seminar studies, tours on location in metropolitan and rural Senegal and a six-day home stay in Ndondol.

Johnson and the other participants will participate in the daily life of the country, talk with villagers and gather ideas and resources for teaching projects that they can use with students back home.

To prepare for the trip, Johnson and the other teachers have been participating in videoconferences, conducted in French. She has also gone through a series of vaccinations in recent weeks.

While in Senegal, she and the others will be filming a documentary focusing on the aspects of Senegalese culture.

Johnson, who was working in New York on Sept. 11, 2001 when the World Trade Center was attacked, said she most looks forward to “being able to dispel stereotypes” particularly about the Muslim religion, which is widely practiced in Senegal.

“People still have a very fixed idea of who Muslims are,” she said. “News needs to be spread about who people really are.”

Johnson is currently pursuing a master’s degree in school administration from Cambridge College.

But she did not initially dream of becoming a teacher or pursuing a career in education.
After graduating from high school in 1989, she entered Columbia University and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in French language in literature in 1993. During her junior year at Columbia, she spent a semester in Paris improving her French language skills and developing a love of the country.

While in New York she was employed by Zurich, Switzerland-based Credit Suisse, an international financial services company and by ABC News Radio as a news assistant before returning to Washington.

It was after she returned home that Johnson discovered a love of teaching.

She taught a weekly French language group at the George and Laura Brown Library in Washington and taught English as a second language and high school equivalency courses at Beaufort County Community College.

She returned to the classroom herself at East Carolina University to study education courses through a program that allows professionals who hold bachelors degrees to become teachers — a process known as lateral entry.

In January 2006, Johnson joined the faculty at Washington High School.

Since then, she has been chosen president of the School Improvement Team, advisor for the school’s freshman class and serves on the school’s discipline team, among other activities.
Johnson said she most enjoys watching her students “grow into young adults” while sharing with them her enthusiasm for all things international.

“I love seeing them blossom,” she said.