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Horace Mann award winner shares how she helps bridge divides

Horace Mann Award finalist Natalie Johnson-Berry has an extensive background that allows her to build bridges to diversity and inclusion.

12 min read

EducationEducational Leadership

Girl with laptop in foreground sitting on steps of school with other students for article on Horace Mann Award

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The NEA Foundation and the Horace Mann Educators Foundation recognize stellar education professionals each year through the Horace Mann Award for Teaching Excellence. This year’s winners are Stephanie Ballard of South Dakota, Kevin Gallagher of Pennsylvania, Theresa Maughan of New Jersey, Lee Perez of Nebraska and Natalie Johnson-Berry of Kansas.  Friday, one of them will be selected for the NEA Member Benefits Award for Teaching Excellence.

SmartBrief connected with Johnson-Berry, the dean of students and restorative justice facilitator at Wyandotte High School to talk about inclusivity, bridging communication divides between teachers and students and navigating cultural norms. 

This Q&A is edited for length and clarity.

headshot of Natalie Johnson-Berry for article on Horace Mann Award finalist
Johnson-Berry (Photo courtesy of The NEA Foundation)

Natalie Johnson-Berry, a National Board Certified Teacher has bachelor’s and master degrees as well as an education specialist degree and is working on her doctorate in educational leadership. She describes her job at the 1,700-student Kansas high school as a culture and community builder. 

Johnson-Berry has populated her resume with 23 years of teaching English, reading intervention classes and honors English classes for seventh and ninth through 12th grades. She’s co-taught special-education classes with students who have been identified as gifted and those with exceptional needs. She’s worked in rural schools (with farm animals occasionally getting inside the school, she says) and suburban and urban schools with students of pretty much every background and demographic. “That’s all helped me really be able to teach whoever’s in front of me,” she says. 

Despite her workload, she doesn’t sound tired at all and comes across with excitement and enthusiasm rather than ego when talking about the school, teachers, students and her accomplishments.

SmartBrief: Your job title is dean of students and restorative justice facilitator, and you say you’re an equity practitioner. What exactly do you do? 

Johnson-Berry: Our school is very interesting in that we have five academies, which are like schools within schools for various disciplines like, for instance, human public service, health and computer science. There are five administrators who maintain the school discipline part, but they also all work with me. 

I collaborate on two ends. I work with them on academic interventions, because typically when there are behaviors in the classroom, we have to get to the root issue of why students maybe are not able to learn to the best of their abilities. With my teaching experience, I’m instructionally sound and can look at the academics, and my [previous work in] intervention behavior and equity and inclusion [provide me with] various lenses to be able to meet with teachers and mentor them and offer them simple [tips]. For instance, the pacing of how somebody’s delivering a lesson or whether it needs to be more hands-on. Or they may need me to really sit down and work through designing a unit or a lesson that’s going to best serve the students.

Then, other times, I’m working with other behavior interventionists, like our social workers and our counselors, with wraparound meetings because we see students who may have trauma. 

Then, sometimes, I’m a culture and community builder. I am really big on boosting culture and bringing people together and improving climate because of everything teachers have been through. So I do a lot of things that aren’t necessarily exclusive to what people might consider restorative justice. But if you think about it, all the dots connect, because you people need to be recognized and valued and have dignity and respect. Part of that is making sure your culture and climate is responsive to those needs, such as  [helping with] normalized celebrations with students and staff. 

I’m also on things like the building leadership team, where we look at our goals and look at our policies and practices. And then I started working with the safety team for some of them who wanted to know more about restorative justice.

SmartBrief: Tell me more about how you assist teachers.

Johnson-Berry: I work at the beginning of the year to get into as many classrooms as possible and develop relationships. [As the year goes on,] they’ll tell me what they’re struggling with, and I’ll work with them behind the scenes, sitting down and helping to plan out everything. Or I’ll come in the classroom and literally co-teach with them. 

Sometimes teachers come to me and say, “I’m really having trouble with this student. Can you help mediate this?” Or a teacher might come to me and say, “I’m really having a problem with someone in my department. I don’t want to make a big deal with the principal or the administrator, but is there a way maybe you can get us together because I really am not comfortable with this.” So I do mediations.

I have had teachers say, “There’s language in the classroom I’m not comfortable with. The N-word may be a word of endearment to the students among themselves, but I don’t feel comfortable responding to African American students about why they should not use that word, with me being a white person.” Or they want to know what to do when they come to certain culturally sensitive words or situations in books like “Of Mice and Men” and “To Kill a Mockingbird.” They want help with broaching those conversations. 

We also talk about unconscious biases and micro-invalidations in the way some might approach different students and situations. I encourage teachers to have high expectations of a student and not to look at them through a deficit lens.

Sometimes new teachers will ask for some things that they need to do [to improve]. I always start off with, “What went well? What are you proud about? What do you feel strong about? Let’s focus on one thing I can help you with.” That way, it’s not overwhelming. 

And the principal will refer teachers to me if they need an instructional coach or a mentor.

I’ve also worked with a colleague to put on a series of diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging professional development courses throughout the year, which I was told may be used as a model for other high schools. 

I work with families too. Sometimes teachers find particular parents challenging to work with, and I’ll meet the parents and work with parents and teacher. 

SmartBrief: What’s your work with students like, especially in terms of behavior?

Johnson-Berry: I do a whole lot of work with students — going into classrooms with teachers when the culture and climate is broken down. Maybe someone’s been harmed in some way, and I will do a restorative circle.

I work one-on-one also with students who are having issues from not being able to cope in a class. They may sit with me, even if it’s just playing Uno for 15 minutes. Or we really flesh out what’s happened, and they tell me, “I really can’t talk with this particular teacher yet. Can you help set something up so that I can tell them how I’m feeling in this class?” 

I’ve run into cases of a huge disconnect between students of color and a teacher, administrator or counselor where that person has this idea that the relationship is just roses, and they may not be aware that the student can’t articulate and talk to them about some issues of bias and microaggressions. I can serve as a bridge between that student and staff member. 

A lot of time the students don’t have the language for these things. They feel uncomfortable and invalidated. I validate what they are talking about and give them language, which is the real tool, because if you don’t know how to speak to someone, then you’re at a disadvantage. I tell them this is not going to be the first time this is going to happen. It will happen in college, your place of employment. Sometimes people are going to look at you as being aggressive or another stereotype. What are words you can use to approach these people in a manner that will best serve you?

We talk about other ways to do this, maybe doing it in written form, where we can still move them toward what they need. I am always there. I always follow up. I will go to battle for the student — but I will say this: Many of the teachers, I think, have no idea that that student felt that way. Many are initially surprised, maybe a little bit hurt. They may be a little fragile themselves. Then when they kind of move past that, they’re ready to talk about it and then do something better.

I do a lot of follow-ups week by week, and I help head up the student support team that includes students as well as administrators and interventionists such as social workers and counselors. 

SmartBrief: Do you use Positive Behavioral Interventions and Support or a similar method? 

Johnson-Berry: I use a collection of methods because I’ve found that just one thing doesn’t work. A school and its students don’t necessarily fit one model. 

Our population of students — about 60-something percent — their first language is Spanish. That is wonderful for some of our students that are bilingual; it’s a strength. For others, their English acquisition is not there yet. So a lot of the barriers are communication, and we have to do different things. 

Some of my work is focusing on culturally responsive teaching practices. Is the way that they’re implementing their materials and information something that honors the dignity and background of the students who are in front of them? Is it something that is going to engage students so that we are decreasing some of the behaviors for a given sample? Occasionally things that the students are reading are not going to be conducive to engaging students. I work with some ninth-grade students, and at their age, they need things that are going to connect to their background.

On the other hand, we have 80-minute classes. A lot of teachers mentioned that they weren’t trained to do 80 minutes of a lesson. And some students cannot sit for big, long periods of time. So even incorporating instructional strategies and research that says students have to move and be active every 10 to 12 minutes helps honor their dignity and respect for who they are as humans. 

One of the biggest issues that I see in various classrooms is just some Tier 1 things — for instance, relationships. Sometimes I have to help teachers take a step back because sometimes the climate and the culture are not there yet. Maybe 80% of the situations that come to me are because relationships haven’t been established yet.

So students come to class who are not regulated. And teachers are stressed and frustrated. Things begin to escalate when it was just a really simple situation. 

Some students don’t see the teacher in light of the adult who they feel like they can talk to. And sometimes building relationships with students falls to the side under the incredible strain of other demands.

So it’s not like a classic “Oh, these are all the restorative justice strategies.” It’s really a mix of, I’ve got to do some instructional work with the teacher. I’ve got to do some Tier 1. We’ve got to do a little bit of restorative justice over here for regulation or deregulating. We have to understand our diverse or ethnically diverse population, so we may need some time to talk about culturally responsive teaching practices. 

You can’t look at things purely through one lens. We’re not going to be able to address all the needs and serve all the students that we have.

SmartBrief: Among all that, what do you think stood out that earned you the Horace Mann Award? 

Johnson-Berry: I really think that it is the advocacy that I stand behind and champion for students. The equity work, I think, has been a huge part — providing students access and empowering them through various means. In spaces where students may not be the majority, I’m able to provide an opportunity for them to have their voices heard. We’re not saving students, but it’s about removing barriers and empowering them. 

Helping students behind the scenes with their applications and scholarships to college — some of them being first-generation college students. In my previous school, we started a Black student union, supporting a team of students. One of the students ended up winning the Princeton prize for race relations. We’ve hosted a Hispanic Heritage Program and the Black history programs, giving various ways for kids to champion themselves.

I’ve been someone like many of our students — I have not always had it easy. I’ve really lived it and had to overcome my own barriers. I’ve been helping take care of my husband, who is a brain cancer survivor, for 20 years, all the while doing things like going back to school, helping my own three daughters go to what people would consider top-level schools in New York. I just kind of model [overcoming struggles]. 

Students, whether white, Black or Latinx, who have challenges look at me, and they go, “Wow, you know, she is someone who has had struggles like me! And if she is able to continue to press forward, even with these really difficult challenges — who probably many days wants to cry herself, give up because it’s hard, or come to school after her husband has had a massive seizure and has to go to the hospital — and if she’s able to do it, I can do that too.” 

That relational aspect is huge. They know that my several degrees have been hard work, and I let them know that they can get there the same way. 


Diane Benson Harrington is an education writer at SmartBrief. Reach out to her via email, Twitter or LinkedIn

Opinions expressed by SmartBrief contributors are their own. 


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