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Belonging at Lowell: New principal hopes to inspire happy kids

After nine years as principal at Staples-Motley Elementary School, Kathy Johnson is excited to be back in her home district as the new principal at Lowell Elementary School in Brainerd.

Kathy Johnson holds the book "The 7 Habits of Happy Kids"
Kathy Johnson shows off the book "The 7 Habits of Happy Kids" in her office Tuesday, Aug. 23, 2022, at Lowell Elementary School. She plans to use the book to help inspire her students throughout the school year as she takes the reins as Lowell's new principal.
Theresa Bourke / Brainerd Dispatch
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BRAINERD — Kathy Johnson has two goals for the students who walk through the halls of Lowell Elementary School this year — to be happy and to feel like they belong.

As the school’s new principal, she plans to draw on her 20 years of experience in the education field as she leads the staff and students to their full potential in the district where she started her career 30 years ago.

“It’s been a great welcome back,” Johnson said during an interview Tuesday, Aug. 23, in her office at Lowell.

After growing up in Baxter and graduating from Brainerd High School, Johnson attended Central Lakes College and Bemidji State University to earn her teaching degree and start doing what she loved.

That love of learning cropped up at a young age, as Johnson recalls a childhood of playing school with her sister and reading books with her aunts, who were also teachers. She knew then she was destined to be a teacher.

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A one-year internship in a first grade classroom in Red Lake Falls propelled her into the profession. She then landed her first solo position as a first grade teacher at Brainerd’s former Whittier Elementary School. From there Johnson jumped to first and second grade at Lincoln Elementary School, fifth grade at Forestview Middle School and second grade at Baxter Elementary School.

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As her career progressed, various leadership opportunities with curriculum committees and the local teacher’s union prompted Johnson to make the leap from teaching to administration.

“I liked working with the adults as well as working with the kids because I just love professional development; I love learning,” she said. “I think that’s my biggest thing is I’m always looking for ways that I can learn and how I can help inspire others to be the best.”

After 20 years in Brainerd and Baxter schools, Johnson became principal at Staples-Motley Elementary School, where she served for nine years. That position brought her opportunities to work closely with Sourcewell and the Region Five Development Commission and to go through the MInnesota Principals Academy with leaders from both Staples-Motley and Brainerd.

“I’ve never stopped learning,” she said. “And I love to coach my new teachers. That’s what I love about being a principal is collaborating and coaching with new teachers.”

Johnson enjoys being able to see the classroom from a different perspective than the teachers do and show them the effect they can have on their students.

“It’s so fun now for me to be in classrooms, going in and giving feedback to the teacher and having conversations about helping them improve their practice and watching those lightbulbs go off for kids,” she said. “... When you’re teaching, you don’t always notice all the little things. When I’m in classrooms, I get to see so many things, and it’s so fun to share with the teachers how they’ve inspired kids.”

One way Johnson hopes she and her teachers can inspire their students this year is through a book called “The 7 Habits of Happy Kids” by Sean Covey. The plan is to break down each of the seven habits throughout the year and sum it all up before students leave for the summer.

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“I hope kids are excited about that,” she said. “And together, we’ll build those habits.”

The book includes stories and characters students can relate to, with lessons they can apply to their own lives. It’s one tool Johnson and the Lowell teachers plan to use to help build up student literacy, math enrichment and social/emotional learning — all areas where students suffered learning loss over the past couple school years during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The social/emotional piece, Johnson said, is an especially important piece to address after everything students have been through. She is drawing on the district’s new tagline — “A Place to Belong” to ensure Lowell students feel connected to their peers, their teachers and their school.

“We have a community here (at Lowell), and we’re all part of this big community,” she said. “Every one of our elementaries is a place to belong, and then put it together in that bigger picture, and we’re all in this together.”

As she works to make her students feel at home at Lowell, Johnson is looking forward to meeting all the new faces and watching as they learn throughout the year.

“I am excited to work with the teachers on how they are really providing instruction to meet the needs — to take the kids from where they’re at to make a year’s worth of growth or more,” she said. “... The meetings that I’ve gotten to have with the teachers, I’m just so impressed with everything they’re doing, and I’m excited to be a part of their team and help continue down that path.”

Johnson knows she has big shoes to fill after Principal Todd Sauer’s retirement but hopes she can do the job justice.

“I’m just looking forward to a great year,” she said. “And I feel like we’re already off to a great start.”

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THERESA BOURKE may be reached at theresa.bourke@brainerddispatch.com or 218-855-5860. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/DispatchTheresa .

Theresa Bourke started working at the Dispatch in July 2018, covering Brainerd city government and area education, including Brainerd Public Schools and Central Lakes College.
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