Art of teaching: Lars Johnson is this year’s APS Teacher of the Year

Published 12:08 pm Tuesday, November 14, 2023

Ellis Middle School art and digital art teacher Lars Johnson was standing hunched over his desk while his students were working at their computers when the people started filing into his room.

Thinking it was just Principal Dewey Schara coming to talk with him, the realization slowly started to dawn as Austin Public Schools administration and family followed.

Johnson was about to be named Austin Public Schools Teacher of the Year.

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“I saw everybody funnel in and it was pretty incredible,” Johnson said afterward.

Johnson was among 21 people within the district to be nominated for the annual award. A teacher at Ellis for seven years, Johnson said while being named Teacher of the Year is an honor, it’s an honor that reflects on all the teachers in the district.

“There’s a lot of really, really incredible teachers in the district so it’s great to be honored, but I share it with all the staff here in the district,” Johnson said. “We have hard jobs and I think that’s always something that’s important.”

Described by Schara as someone who is the first to jump in when needed, Johnson was lauded not just for his dedication, but his caring attitude toward the students.

“When work needs to get done he’s the first one to roll up his sleeves and get involved and lead by doing not by preaching,” Schara said. “Every initiative that we are doing, he is involved in and modeling how to be a professional. He does truly care about the kids.”

However, Schara takes it one step further in describing Johnson as a teacher who works as a bridge between the younger and older educators of the district.

“Lars is the next generation of great leaders and educators for us,” he said. “He’s kind of an interpreter for me.”

Johnson’s honor is also notable in that he’s an art teacher, something both Schara and Austin Teacher of the Year Committee Chair Dave Brown reflected on.

Both pointed out the virtues of the emerging importance of art and digital arts in today’s curriculum standards.

“Art teachers by nature are so creative and he’s found a way to tap into the skills of the students and the students are passionate and excited,” Brown said. “He’s passionate and excited about what he does.”

Brown also added to the idea of Johnson being a model for the district.

“His positivity shines out,” Brown said. “He just embodies what we want our teachers to be.”

For Johnson, the honor is an indicator of the work that all educators put into a very difficult job.

“It’s one of those things that I feel very lucky to be able to teach, especially in Austin,” Johnson said. “I think we have an amazing group of kids and clientele here, but it means putting in the hard work. Mr. Schara said you have to love kids; work hard, care about what we do and that’s what I try to do every day.”

Johnson is now in the running for the Minnesota Teacher of Year. Nominees for the state award must go through a portfolio process and be selected to move forward. Over the more than 20-year life of the program, Austin has had two nominees make it to the semifinalist stage and one make it to the final 10.