Pequenakonck Elementary School principal Mary Johnson announces retirement, reflects on four decades in education
After almost forty years in public education, Mary Johnson is ready for a new adventure.
The Pequenakonck Elementary School principal will retire this August, ending a 38-year career in education, the last ten of which have been spent in North Salem. Johnson, who began her career in a first grade classroom in Peoria, Illinois, recently sat down with the North Salem Post to reflect on her life as an educator.
“I can’t believe the things that have happened in my ten years here,” Johnson said one recent morning from her office at PQ Elementary. The principal’s office at PQ is tucked inside the main office, a bustling hive of activity in which kids, parents and staff stream in and out, and school secretaries patiently answer phones, relay messages to teachers, issue announcements over the loudspeaker and generally try to control the chaos of a building that houses over four hundred energetic children between the ages of 5 and 12.
Leading through trauma
Johnson started at PQ in August of 2012. Two months later, Hurricane Sandy struck the east coast of the United States, the deadliest, most destructive and strongest hurricane of the 2012 season. The storm killed 233 people in eight countries, including the son of one of the secretaries who worked in PQ’s main office. Two months after that, a 20-year-old gunman walked into Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, a school that Johnson had worked at for several years early in her career, and killed 26 people, including 20 children.
While Johnson insists that coping with trauma is not how she defines her career, it cannot be overlooked that her decade at PQ has been bookended by elementary school massacres–first Sandy Hook and most recently Uvalde, Texas. These tragedies, previously unfathomable, have required Johnson to comfort and lead the several hundred people she’s responsible for each day, including faculty, parents and students.
Johnson’s biggest takeaway from the myriad tragedies that occurred during her time at PQ–school shootings, natural disasters, a global pandemic, the loss of her husband–is, “people can’t….we all can’t move on.” She added, “we cannot assume that everybody is okay every day. In COVID that was very clear; everyone was not okay.”
When tragedies happened, Johnson’s position required that she keep herself centered so that she could be there for everybody else. “I learned a lot about what I needed to keep myself okay so that I could be a resource to the community in finding all of the different ways we needed to help one another,” she said. For Johnson, self care meant leaning on her colleagues, and in particular the North Salem school district administrative team. “We talked daily for two years, including weekends. We were always there for each other,” she said. Self care also meant activities such as reading, playing golf, connecting with family, cooking and taking walks.
“Those things that get you out of your own head are the things I think we all need to do to stay healthy,” Johnson said.
At PQ, regardless of what was going on in the outside world, Johnson said she focused on ensuring that the school remained a positive environment. “Our days needed to be happy here at school,” she said.
The day after the Uvalde, TX massacre happened to be the day that PQ was scheduled to host its “One Cub & PQ Celebrate You” day, a school-wide kindness initiative in which students celebrate the things that make them uniquely special.
“It was so coincidental that our One Cub You day was happening that day,” Johnson said. “But our kids got off the bus and they were happy. And that makes all of us smile and know that we’ll be able to get through our day. It was about all those things we have to do to take care of ourselves to then be able to take care of all of the people we are responsible for.”
Defining a legacy
In elementary school, students learn about the ‘main idea,’ or the most important idea in a passage of text. In Johnson’s view, the main idea of elementary school is creating good people. “We can all learn math and reading, we’re always going to be reading books. But to make good citizens - people who are kind and empathic and can think,” that, Johnson said, is the point.
To that end, Johnson is most proud of bringing the Ben’s Bells program to PQ. Ben’s Bells is a nonprofit whose mission is to teach individuals and communities about the positive impacts of intentional kindness.
“Many years ago, Michelle Grossman (PQ 4th grade teacher) and I said before I leave we’ll have a Be Kind mural from Ben’s Bells,” Johnson recalled. At the time, the impetus was the Sandy Hook, CT school massacre. “It was really about helping kids (and adults) see that kindness is really what it’s all about,” Johnson said. “If we can’t be kind to one another, then I’m not sure what we’re doing.”
At the end of the 2020-2021 school year, a Ben’s Bells mural was erected on the exterior wall of the PQ gym. Students and faculty members had helped to complete the mural by painting individual mosaic pieces that made up the whole. Today, the mural is a frequent site for pictures and students often stop to touch it as they walk in and out of the building.
The joy of discipline
A child sent to Johnson's office after misbehavior at school must start by explaining what happened. Johnson works with the student to figure out what the problem was, why it happened, and how to make restitution. "And then you move on," she said. "It's about helping kids solve problems in a way that's not about yelling or screaming. I don't think we need to punish them nine times."
Discipline is not often a principal's favorite part of their job, but Johnson said she has always loved it. "Some of the funniest stories of my career have come out of some kid coming into my office and telling me what they did," she said. Putting plastic poop on a cafeteria seat, for example. "Kids still make the same mistakes. They still do the same silly things. It makes me chuckle."
Deciding it was time
“All of my colleagues and friends who have retired said you’ll just wake up one day and you’ll know,” Johnson said of retirement.
Johnson had originally planned to retire before the start of the 2021-2022 school year. Her husband had been ill and retirement, she thought, would give her time to help care for him. Sadly, he died sooner than either of them had anticipated, in March of 2021.
Johnson scrapped her retirement plans and threw herself into another COVID school year. By March of this year, she said, the idea of retirement popped back into her head.
“I decided that there are other things I want to do,” she said. “I do want to travel. I will stay in education in a part-time capacity; I may go work for a nonprofit. I want to do these things while I’m young and still able to do them.”
The day that Johnson decided she was going to retire, she said she felt at peace. “I knew I made a good decision for myself.”
As Johnson looks back on her career, the thing she says she’s proudest of is always making decisions in the best interest of children. “Sometimes the decisions were not popular with a parent or a teacher, but all of my decision making has been really focused on what is the best decision for the kids, even if it’s inconvenient for the adults. I like to think that that never changed for me.”
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