Within a few months of arriving in Alabama on a short-term contract with Teach for America, a colleague joked that math educator Kenneth Johnson would be a teacher for life. Johnson, now assistant principal at Arthur Ashe Charter School, resisted that comment. However, within minutes, he admitted she was right: “I probably am going to do this the rest of my life,” he recalled saying.

And, so far, he has. Only 30, and a recent recipient of a New Orleans Excellence in Teaching Award, given by New Schools for New Orleans, Johnson is adjusting to the administrative role that followed.  

“One of his greatest gifts is his ability to build relationships with kids,” said Kamisha Gray, co-director of Arthur Ashe. “He’s like a kid at heart. He meets them where they are.”

When nominated for the teaching award by a supervisor, mentorship was a key point in Johnson’s qualifications. Johnson started a group called the Lunch Bunch, which focuses on steering African-American boys from the too-often deadly consequences of using violence to avenge “disrespect.”      

A native of Rochester, New York, Johnson says he became aware of this New Orleans street culture soon after arriving, and wanted to encourage a different kind of conflict resolution.  Ten boys joined the original group. Eight of those boys, now in high school, have gone on to mentor other boys. The group’s success surprised Johnson. “It’s become like a little brotherhood,” he said.  “I didn’t think they were listening at the time.”

Johnson’s ability to commune with the young started in his own youth. Orphaned in elementary school, his teachers were his family, he said, and “that is what I want to be to someone else.”

Another pivotal experience in his empathic development happened the first week he started teaching at a KIPP charter school in Gentilly. He was sent to the West Bank to await the school bus at sunrise. From there, he and the students he met there had an hour and a half ride to school each day. He found out quickly that that trip could take up to three hours, as it did once when he was aboard and the bus got delayed on the Crescent City Bridge. He describes that grueling day as a humbling experience.

“I feel like it turned me into the teacher I am today,” he said.  “You never know what kids have been through before they come to me.”    

That experience also drives his leadership style, according to Gray, who noted that Johnson encourages school leaders to reward students “for doing the right thing” and not focus on punishment.   

Nonetheless, he’s no softy. Wiry of frame, indicating the marathon runner he is on his own time, he’s prone to jumping up and calling out a terse, “No,” when seeing a child climbing a fence during recess.   

Even though Johnson plans to obtain a PhD in school administration, he never intended to be an adminisrator. He had mixed feelings about leaving the classroom. “I love dealing with content,” he said, “but now my impact can be in six different classrooms.” Clicking his fingers in KIPP’s sparking style, “I’m still activating lightbulbs.”