'79, Liberal Studies
Decades ago, on her first day of kindergarten, Sue Johnson decided on a profession: She wanted to be a teacher.
That career choice has served her so well that Johnson, who heads up the 2,400-student Savanna School District in Anaheim, was recently named Orange County’s Superintendent of the Year. She calls the award “quite an honor,” noting that “having been nominated by those I work closely with meant quite a bit, and to be selected from a group of distinguished colleagues and fellow superintendents truly left me speechless.”
Johnson grew up in Pomona and Ontario, graduating from Chaffey High School. She earned a B.A. in liberal studies from Cal Poly Pomona in 1979, followed by an M.A. in education in 1982 from Cal State San Bernardino, and an Ed.D. in educational leadership from the University of Southern California in 1996.
“As the third oldest of seven children, I was the first in my family to go to college, and the first to graduate,” she says. “My lifelong dream of becoming a teacher was realized when I graduated from Cal Poly with my multiple-subject teaching credential and immediately began what has become an extremely fulfilling career path.”
Her first teaching job was in Wrightwood, where she taught both third and fifth grades. She also taught a variety of courses for teachers and substitute teachers through extended education programs at local universities for nearly 25 years, as well as teaching methods classes for student teachers at Cal State San Bernardino.
She’s been an administrator for more than two decades now and says she appreciates both roles.
“They are what you make them. With teaching I had the opportunity to influence the lives of many children, while as an administrator I feel I have the opportunity to impact the lives not only of children but of parents, staff, and the community as well,” she says. “As an administrator, I find that I’m continuing to teach. My ‘audience’ is a bit older and my ‘curriculum’ is somewhat different, but we all teach others every day. And every day I learn something new, whether it is from a colleague, a parent, a community member, a teacher, or a student.”
As a superintendent overseeing a $17.5 million budget, Johnson has had to make tough choices in the past few years as a result of reduced funding, including asking teachers to do more with less.
“The beauty of the education profession is that we all do whatever needs to be done,” she says. “Everyone has stepped up to fill in the gaps so the children are still receiving the same great instructional program. They are able to access the necessary services, and we’ve formed successful partnerships with community organizations to ensure student needs are met.”
Johnson notes there have been many positive experiences throughout her career.
“It’s extremely rewarding when I meet former students or their parents years later and hear how successful these students are as adults. It’s gratifying to see those I had in methods classes become successful teachers. I find great satisfaction in seeing programs that I helped to start continue to flourish,” Johnson says. “It’s very fulfilling to be able to give back to the Cal Poly community that provided so much to me as a first-generation college student, allowing me to give others the same chance that I was once given."
Through the years, Johnson, a married mother of two grown daughters, also has been involved with Girl Scouts, PTA, booster club and other organizations. She has been honored numerous times for her philanthropic and professional endeavors, and has served as a consultant and speaker on educational matters.
It’s fitting, with a decision made so long ago, that Johnson feels as she does about her career choice. She says that it still doesn’t feel like work to her even after all these years on the job.
“I’ve been fortunate to have chosen a career I love and have been able to do it since I graduated from Cal Poly,” she says. “I feel my career has embodied the quote by Confucius: ‘Choose a job you love and you will never have to work a day in your life.’ ”
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