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Teacher Returns to Where She Discovered Love of Art

Naomi JohnsonWhen new art teacher Naomi Johnson walked into her classroom at Northeastern Elementary School, she glanced up and saw a familiar image: A ceiling tile that she painted as a young Northeastern student. 

“It’s still hanging in the room where I’m going to be teaching,” she said. “It’s like a full circle moment.” 

Johnson, 24, attended Northeastern and Linden Grove Middle School and graduated from Kalamazoo Central High School in 2017. 

She double majored in professional writing and graphic design from Michigan State University in 2021. She is working with Michigan Teachers of Tomorrow to earn her teaching certification. Johnson earned 100 percent of The Kalamazoo Promise. That gift was essential to her ability to attend college. 

“If it wasn’t for The Kalamazoo Promise, I wouldn’t have gone to college. I don’t come from a family that has trust funds and savings accounts,” she said. “Without the Promise, all of my academic success would not be a thing. “I wanted to come back and be a part of the movement to help kids make something of themselves.” 

She’s been working as a communications coordinator for Western Michigan University’s Seita Scholars program, which provides supports for students coming out of the foster care system. She had always thought about working for a large graphic design firm and living in a big city “with a lot of hustle and bustle.” 

But, after she had her daughter Luna in 2022, her goals shifted. 

“I wanted a job serving a strong purpose,” Johnson said. “I still love making art and I want a job that will allow me to create, but I don’t want to work for a big company and focus on making them money. I’d rather work a job where it’s more purposeful and it’s helping people. 

“I’d rather work at a job helping kids and working in the same community that I grew up in.” 

She will be dividing her teaching time between Northeastern and Lincoln International Studies School, which is down the street from where she grew up. 

No one is more thrilled that she will be teaching at Northeastern than Al Harris, the longtime Northeastern art teacher, who calls Johnson one of the most talented students out of the 4,000 he worked with. 

“She’s probably in the Top 20 as far as art talent,” said Harris, who still lives and paints in Kalamazoo. He has a show up at Soul Artistry in downtown Kalamazoo through September. “She’s on her own course. She’s in a neighborhood that she grew up in. She’ll probably see kids or nieces and nephews of people that she knows. I think it’s going to be fun for her.”

Johnson said that Harris was one of her most memorable teachers and definitely inspired her art career. As for her teaching career, she cites another teacher who had an influence, her favorite middle school teacher Steve Leland, who is now the KPS administrative personnel officer and interviewed Johnson for her teaching position. 

“When he called me, it was just another sign that I made the right choice coming back home and being a teacher,” she said. “I had no idea I’d end up being placed at the school I used to go to.” 

As an artist, she said she loves the freedom of expression that comes with exploring your creativity. 

“With art there is no right or wrong answer. I love being able to express myself the way that I want. It’s always something different.