Dr. Robert Johnson: Cycle breaking and life changing
September 14, 2018
“What a lot of kids don’t get is that education is the umbilical cord to a good life,” says Dr. Robert Russa Johnson Jr., the new director of the Piedmont Governor’s School for Mathematics, Science, and Technology. Most don’t understand that school is the “Pole-vault into a better life,” but Dr. Johnson has learned this quickly. To him, education was not only his way out, but the true way out for all the poverty-stricken kids he grew up with and eventually taught. He’s a humble man at heart, and humble people, more often than not, come from humble beginnings.
Dr. Robert Russa Johnson grew up as a relatively poor African-American boy on Melrose Avenue in Roanoke. He was born to a poor, but determined couple whose goal, like most in their position, was to provide the often forgotten luxury of a good life for their children.
His parents, however, also meant it more than most. His mother was from Mayberry, West Virginia, and his father was born in Farmville, Virginia. As they both grew up on farms, they tirelessly worked multiple jobs for years in order to provide their daughter, Lori Johnson, with the access to college that no one in the history of their family was granted. She became a proud student of the University of Virginia, as well as the catalyst for her brother Robert’s epiphany.
Upon arriving at UVA with his entire family to help move his sister in, he looked out of the Gooch dorm to the university football field and said to everyone, “I would really like to be somewhere like this.”
Hearing this, his father replied, “Boy, with those C’s and B’s you would never get into a place like this.”
“That was the moment drove a fire into me,” said Dr. Johnson. “From then on out, I picked up my grades and knew what to do.”
Although their education was limited to high school, Johnson’s parents instilled in him the fire to succeed to college.
At William Fleming High School, his drive helped to push him forward past his hopes of sports success and into an accomplishable dream, but success is never accomplished alone. Throughout his days as a student, he was constantly elevated by his teachers, who also taught him his most important lesson.
“The most important profession in life is to be an educator; and the most important thing about being an educator is to build solid relationships with your students and build them up for a great future,” he advised.
Taking a $20,000 scholarship to attend Virginia Tech on the condition he become a teacher, Johnson found himself exactly where he planned.
Closer to his passion than ever, he pledged a fraternity of like-minded individuals named Alpha Phi Alpha Inc. in 1992. This organization is filled with politicians, doctors, teachers, lawyers, and many other professions dedicated to serving the people of tomorrow. Meeting once a month for discussions and planning, they’ve organized mentor programs, highway adoptions, and big-brother programs (just to name a few) in order to give back to the communities that birthed them.
After college, he found himself exactly where he started, in a way. He had been offered a job teaching at William Ruffner Middle School, where he attended earlier in his youth. Strangely enough, it was eighth grade at that school in which his path in education was born.
He taught for nine years, from 1994 to 2003.
After his tenure as a teacher, a new path began to open up in his career. The superintendent, who was a family friend and mentor to Dr. Johnson, asked him if he was interested in going into administration. This fittingly took him back to the start of his journey at UVA, where he finished their program in 2003 to become a school administrator. He was then the Assistant Principal and, subsequently, Principal of Lucy Addison Middle School from 2003 to 2018.
At Lucy Addison, he remembers four students that he formed a close bond with over their careers; all four of which were granted full scholarships to Duke University. The relationships between teachers and their pupils is a bond that Dr. Johnson has seen the effects of first-hand. “There’s no greater joy to me than when I see kids being successful; whether it’s the work-force or college,” he told me. I believe him.
Hoping to expand his horizons to a greater challenge, he gained his doctorate from his original home, Virginia Tech, in 2015. Three years later, on July 3, 2018, he was interviewed and eventually approved as the director of Piedmont’s Governor’s School. It was initially intimidating for him, as the Institute’s reputation is very high, but he could not be more ecstatic to add to the legacy of learning the building holds. From a middle school teacher to the director of a regional advanced learning center, he has remained mostly the same inside. He is, after all, a humble man with a thirst for educating the youth.
Dr. Johnson is also vehement about the importance of family in life. Whether it be his wife and three sons he takes care of and inspires, or his parents that did the same for him, he’s grown to know why education is important. Education is important to him because people are important to him.
Of all the things he told me, however, the thing I keep coming back to is his name. “My grandparents named my father, Robert Russa Johnson Sr., after Robert Russa Moton High School. That school was really important in deciding the Brown vs. The Board of Education case.” The former high school in Farmville, Virginia, was turned into a museum and national landmark, often being cited as the “student birthplace of the American Civil Rights Movement.” Robert Moton himself was the African-American leader of the Tuskegee Institute.
“That’s really cool how, like, you were almost destined to go into education with that name in mind,” I said. “Yeah,” he says after a brief laugh, “My grandmother wanted to name her sons after powerful men.” Her goal was to instill her family with the power of a name whose legacy could be turned into their own.