By Ameera Steward
For the Birmingham Times
Natalie C. Johnson, a product of the Birmingham City Schools (BCS), was recently presented the highest award given by the U. S. government to K-12 teachers of mathematics and science, including computer science—the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching (PAEMST).
“I was very surprised because I had actually been nominated for that [award] in 2017, so when they made the announcement [in October 2019], I was totally caught off guard,” said Johnson, 55, who currently lives in Aurora, Ill. “There are so many benefits to having won, and I’m so excited about the work that is in front of me because it will make life a little bit easier in terms of credibility to be able to continue the work.”
With the award in hand, Johnson said she can better understand what role the U.S. Department of Education and the National Science Foundation play in education at all levels, from preschool to postdoctoral.
“Just understanding the role that all those agencies play in trying to create some synergy with all of those different groups has been amazing, [especially when] looking at [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM)] education across the U.S. and trying to find what niche I really want to fall under—Will it be policy? Will it be continuing the work I do with [my business], Read It, but on a much larger scale?”
Read It is a program through which Johnson works with underserved or underrepresented students, including blacks and Latinos; those who have physical, mental, developmental, or intellectual disabilities; and those who live in rural areas.
Becoming a Mathematician
Growing up in East Birmingham, Johnson knew she wanted to be a teacher because she enjoyed helping others and always found herself tutoring her friends and playing school with her brother and two sisters.
“The people I knew in the professional sector, as opposed to blue-collar jobs, were all teachers. So, that was kind of the only thing I knew about,” said Johnson, a graduate of Alberta Shields Elementary School and Carol W. Hayes High School.
Johnson’s interest in math grew while she was attending Hayes, where she took a graphing and drawing class and a teacher, Bennie Bonner, told her she had a niche for mathematics.
“At the time, I was kind of bent on ‘I’m going to be an elementary education teacher.’ That was it. That’s all I thought I wanted to be, but the more I started doing calculations and taking the architecture class, the more I really enjoyed it,” said Johnson, adding that an algebra teacher, Barbara Pryor, also had an impact.
“I liked the way she taught. I liked the way she presented the material,” Johnson remembered. “I understood it and said, ‘This is what it’s really about—breaking [things] down in a way that people can get it, even if it means you have to slow it down a little bit.’”
After graduating from high school in 1982, Johnson was accepted at Spelman College in Atlanta but her Sunday school teacher, Gwendolyn Wilson, told her parents about a summer program at Talladega College in Talladega, Ala.
“I’m not a person who likes a whole lot of change, especially when it comes to trying to build something,” said Johnson. “When I got there, I liked it, and it’s one of the best decisions I made.”
Johnson graduated from Talladega College in 1986 with a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and went on to earn master’s degrees in applied mathematics and secondary education. In 2019, she received a doctorate in industrial and organizational psychology.
Inspired to Inspire
Many of her teachers inspired her to teach—“to open windows of knowledge,” Johnson said.
“Getting people to master things and having them not be afraid to try really excited me,” she said. “It opened a whole new world for me to know that it was OK to ask questions and it’s OK not to know.”
Of all the inspirational people in her life, though, her greatest inspiration came from her parents.
Her father, John Carter, used to work for Connors Steel in Birmingham and “was a hard worker,” she said. “He would say, ‘I didn’t go to college, but I want you guys to go because I know that you guys can change the world. I know that things can be better for you if you just get an education.’ He was drafted into the military, so he wasn’t able to finish his schooling, … so he always wanted that for us.”
Her mother, Hattie Carter, was a stay-at-home mom who began working at Baptist Medical Center Princeton East after Johnson went off to college.
“[There are people] who work toward their best potential, try to put their best foot forward, and sometimes make sacrifices for others in order for them to be able to excel—that’s what our parents did for us,” she said.
Based on the example set by her parents and other relatives, especially during the Civil Rights Movement, Johnson felt it was her responsibility to help others, so she started Read It LLC in 2010 to inspire students to be lifelong learners.
“When I say students, I mean anyone that comes to my program,” she said. “I work with schools, churches, … adults who are doing workforce education, veterans who are trying to get back into the workforce. I work with them to build the skill sets they need from a mathematical standpoint or from a test-taking standpoint to secure whatever job they are seeking.”
Through Read It, Johnson also teaches etiquette classes so students build social skills and understand that there are proper protocols in terms of how a person should behave in different settings.
Johnson said she plans to grow Read It “until I have no more breath in me.”
“I have a growth business model, so I employ people based on the needs people have because I can’t be everywhere. My goal is to have former students working in my company because my thing is, I want to be just like McDonald’s—I want to be wherever people are.”
More than a Mathematician
In addition to teaching math skills, one of Johnson’s math teachers taught her how to play several instruments: piano, bassoon, clarinet, flute, saxophone, bells, bass clarinet, alto saxophone, and the xylophone—all of which she still plays. She and her husband of 30 years, Thayer Johnson, have two adult sons, Jelani and Jakobi, who both play the saxophone and piano.
“Math is music, and music is math,” said Johnson, “I love music of [many] different genres, but gospel is my favorite.”
Johnson directs the church choir at DuPage African Methodist Episcopal Church in Lisle, Ill., and said playing the piano is one way she relaxes. Her other relaxing activities include volleyball, a sport she has been playing since fourth grade, and reading a good book, especially biographies about mathematicians, people like Sir Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein who didn’t just do math but studied multiple curriculums.
“They were mathematicians, but they were also psychologists, they were also … dibbling and dabbling in the medical fields,” Johnson said. “That’s fascinating to me because they don’t fit the stereotypical ‘You’re just a geek,’ somebody who just likes numbers. … They had depth to them.”
As for a particular book, Johnson said, “The last book I read had everything to do with my dissertation. I’ve been reading a lot of journal articles. … I’m also reading a lot that has to do with vocational and technical education … because, in terms of paying things forward, I’m trying to leave a curriculum as I retire from my current school district this year to say, ‘Manufacturing is where the world is going, and we need to make sure we’re offering those things for our students.’”
Johnson can never forget what was done for her, and the work she does helps her realize that she is walking in her purpose.
“People poured into me, and it allows me to pour into other people,” Johnson said.