"Eau Claire needs strong leadership, and my thought was 'Why not me?'" says Mike Johnson, the new superintendent of the Eau Claire Area School District.
Blugold alumnus Mike Johnson has never shied away from hard work, not long ago as a college athlete or as an educator over his 27 year career — and not even facing down a global pandemic in his first position as a superintendent was going to deter him from the job.
"By my second interview in mid-April, we were dealing with the pandemic in my former district as well," Johnson says. "We knew it was going to impact every district in the country, so I never questioned whether I should accept the job should it be offered. It's a challenging job no matter what, and I view Eau Claire as home."
The road to leadership
Johnson, who earned a bachelor’s degree in secondary English education in 1993 and a master of education in professional development in 2003, has spent nearly three decades building the resume which made him the top candidate in the ECASD search last spring. After spending 10 years teaching middle and high school English throughout the Chippewa Valley (Eau Claire, Chippewa Falls, Abbotsford, Fall Creek and Rice Lake), Johnson began his administrative career in 2003, serving multiple roles in the River Falls School District.
"I was assistant principal at River Falls High School for three years, then principal at Meyer Middle School for four years, and moved to the district office as the director of academic services for another four years," he says. "I really enjoyed those years there, but there was the next step I wanted to take, to eventually become a superintendent."
That next step came in his position as assistant superintendent for six years in the South Washington County School District, serving the cities of Woodbury and Cottage Grove in Minnesota.
"That job gave me a flavor of what's it like to be a superintendent in a very large system," Johnson says. "It served me very well in becoming prepared to face the challenges that a district like Eau Claire faces with its size and the number of schools."
Jumping in mid-stream, and ready
When Johnson officially began as superintendent on July 1, he knew he was walking into well-established planning and preparation of COVID-19 adaptations for the school year, and he saw his most important initial steps in joining the work as one of establishing trust, transparency and strong communication patterns with all stakeholders.
"This is such a stressful time in our community, and my No. 1 priority will be to ensure the health and safety of students and staff throughout the district. This year will require that we all be very flexible at different times and in different ways, sometimes even from hour to hour," Johnson says. "Another important thing will be to learn to communicate in a variety of different ways."
That communication flow, which Johnson likens to the communication style Chancellor James Schmidt has adopted regarding the pandemic, will need to take on many forms, depending on the message and audience, and will continue to rely on steady feedback from faculty, staff, students and families.
"We realize that sometimes it will feel like a communication overload, but we will try to respond to all developments as quickly as we can, with clarity, consistency and transparency," he says. "It's a system we will work to improve upon throughout the school year."
Relying on his experts
A major factor in Johnson's decision to take the superintendent position in the ECASD was knowing that he would be working with a strong team of talented, passionate and highly motivated teachers and administrators, all of whom would continue to drive the climate of excellence and compassion the district is known for.
Laura Nicolet, assistant principal at Memorial High School and a member of the Reopening Schools Task Force, is excited to work alongside Johnson and all administrators to manage the pandemic while delivering the quality education area students deserve. The relatively high level of containment of COVID-19 in the district thus far shows that the hard work is paying off.
"Our priorities were always safety and academic excellence," Nicolet says. "It's been a pleasure to work with Mike Johnson in this new position. He is working hard to learn and understand all the various layers of this district and all the different needs. He really wants to get to know all aspects of the school system, the students, the faculty and the families — it's been a real benefit so far."
Johnson made it a point to visit all schools in the district on the first days of in-person classes, taking the time to see and be seen among students, teachers and families on those first days of reopening, rife with trepidation for many. Nicolet found that to be an excellent sign of what can be expected from this new superintendent.
"It's a tribute to the kind of administrator and superintendent Mr. Johnson wants to be," she says. "He wants to be a leader who knows the faculty, who knows families and students, who is present and approachable. Having him stop here on the first day was especially valuable to our teachers — knowing that we have all hands on deck in a year that is very uncertain was a great way to start. People were put at ease and felt very supported, and were reminded that we're all one team."
Another reassuring work style that Nicolet sees in Johnson so far is one of widespread collaboration efforts he has undertaken regarding the management of COVID-19. Knowing that he is looking for expertise and information from districts, agencies and individuals across the state helps to be certain of the best possible decisions for the district as the pandemic changes and new steps become necessary.
"He has taken the time to talk to many people in this district, in the county and across the state to find out what approaches are working. He knows we don't have to invent this all on our own here in the Eau Claire school district," she says. "He's done a great job of bringing many ideas to the table, and we can see that our plans are not just a shot in the dark. It's a very comprehensive planning approach he has instituted."
Through her work with the task force, Johnson and the MHS community, Nicolet does see a silver lining in all the turmoil and sudden change everyone is experiencing.
"Education hasn't changed a whole lot over the years, and what this all has shown us is that we can adapt to different needs and different circumstances," she says. "We've been forced to look and work outside the box, on things like schedules and meeting individual needs. We've found new ways to reach students and serve families. We will take from this the knowledge that is doesn't need to be a 'one-size-fits-all.' That will be the gift."
Turns out you can go home again
As excited as Johnson is for his work in the ECASD, it only takes a few minutes talking with him to understand that he is perhaps equally as thrilled to bring his family back to Eau Claire, a place he repeatedly refers to as home.
"Did I ever think I'd be back here? Probably not," he admits. "As a college student, never; the focus was always on leaving campus and starting a teaching career. We've always had strong connections in Eau Claire, but we were really enjoying living in River Falls for the last 17 years."
During that career, however, Johnson recalls that at nearly every professional turn or major career decision to be made, he relied heavily on the strong network of Blugold connections he had maintained, mentors and friends who kept his ties to the Eau Claire community in the forefront.
"First of all, the educators and leaders I was able to learn from at UW-Eau Claire I believe are second to none," he says. "I had an athletic background, played basketball through my time as a Blugold, so coach Ken Anderson was a tremendous influence. But excellent professors and staff like Dr. Elmer Winters, Tim Hirsch, Anne Klein, Dick Palm, Brady Foust — I could go on and on. I had phenomenal mentors, and when I graduated, those Blugold connections like Rick Foy, Jerry Berseth, and Tom Fiedler, stayed extremely important. It seemed that at every stage, whether personally or professionally, when there was a move to be made, there was always a Blugold that I leaned on. Plus, I married a Blugold."
That feeling of family among Blugolds is a two-way street. The campus community is grateful for Johnson's return to the Chippewa Valley, and looks forward to supporting his work on behalf of students, families and educators throughout the community. Dr. Carmen Manning, dean of the College of Education and Human Sciences, looks forward to continuing the strong spirit of collaboration between the UW-Eau Claire education studies programs and the Eau Claire Area School District under Johnson's leadership.
"We are so pleased to welcome Mike Johnson, one of our Blugold family, back to Eau Claire in this important role as superintendent of the Eau Claire Area School District," Manning says. "We are proud of his accomplishments and his service to school communities throughout Wisconsin and Minnesota. We are excited to welcome him home, to build on the strong relationship that we share with the ECASD as we work together to educate our future teachers and students throughout the Chippewa Valley."