Celebrating Teachers Who Make an Impact in Central Texas Classrooms

For over 100 years, the College of Education has been preparing educators to respond to the most challenging issues in education and to inspire and lead in their schools and communities. Our students are following their hearts and callings and entering classrooms across the state prepared to change lives and make big impacts – and that is exactly what they are doing.

In addition to undergraduate and graduate degrees, the college is also home to many different teacher preparation and professional development programs. One example is the Heart of Texas Writing Project (HTWP), which is training and developing some of the most recognized teachers in the Austin area, and providing community and shared purpose among teachers of writing that can sometimes be hard to find. Many HTWP teachers go on to receive major accolades and awards, and in 2022 alone, seven HTWP alumni teachers were named Teachers of the Year on their Austin ISD campuses.

Another example is the Urban Teachers Preparation Program which equips students to become a middle or high school teacher who contributes, along with their students, to achieving greater educational and social justice in urban schools, communities and beyond.

We sat down with educators from across the Austin area who are inspiring their students and colleagues, serving as advocates and being recognized for their extraordinary work. They discuss their journeys as an educator, their challenges, hopes and dreams and how the College of Education helped shape their teaching today.

Kari Lynn Johnston

Kari Lynn Johnston

Fifth Grade Dual Language Teacher, Perez Elementary, Austin ISD
2022 Perez Elementary Teacher of the Year
2022 Austin ISD Elementary Teacher of the Year
2022 Region 13 Elementary Teacher of the Year
Finalist for 2023 Texas Teacher of the Year

Kari Lynn Johnston is a College of Education alumna, 5th grade dual language teacher in Austin ISD and current master’s student in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction. In 2022 she was recognized at the campus, district, regional and state levels for her outstanding teaching.

Tell us more about your educational background and what your position is now.

I am a proud alumna of UT Austin and the College of Education. I was a bilingual education major and graduated in 2017 with a bachelor’s degree in Applied Learning and Development. Currently, I am a master’s student in the College of Education set to graduate in May with a master’s degree in curriculum and instruction with a focus in bilingual/bicultural education.

In addition to being a student myself, I am a 5th grade dual language teacher at Perez Elementary (in my sixth-year teaching at the school). I did my first year in 4th grade and have been a 5th grade teacher for the past five years. I did my student teaching at Perez Elementary when I was in college and was hired after graduation. I knew while student teaching that I wanted to stay at Perez, and I continue to stay because I feel honored to be an ally and advocate for the Dove Springs community in Southeast Austin.

How did you get involved with the Heart of Texas Writing Project (HTWP) and what do you enjoy most about it?

I am currently a teacher consultant for the Heart of Texas Writing Project. I have participated in the Summer Institute twice, once as a classroom teacher and once as a part of my master’s program—and it has completely changed the way I teach all subjects but especially writing. It has given me permission to see my students with an asset-based lens, celebrating all that they bring to my classroom every day. It believes that students come full—full of language, culture, passions and ideas.

It positions teachers as teacher-researchers, learning beside their students. I love that I can think through complex questions alongside my students and my teacher community. I have inquired into topics like bilingual writing (how we are different writers in different languages) and how revision allows us to imagine a better world. I am most thankful for the community of outstanding writing teachers that it has brought me. The learning I did and the HTWP community have brought passion to my work and kept me grounded through the last few difficult years. I deeply encourage all teachers to participate in the Summer Institute.

What inspires you about the teaching profession, what keeps you going?

I walk into my classroom every day with an overwhelming sense of gratitude that I get to be a small part of a community that brings up our children. My students inspire me every day, and it is a privilege to work alongside the parents of my students, many immigrants from Latin America and Mexico, and be a part of their lives. They come with big dreams and high expectations for their children. I am accountable to the hopes and dreams families have for their children. I stay teaching because of the families I work with. I can’t leave, because I have siblings and cousins of previous students and we have been counting down the years until we could share a classroom together.

What are some of the challenges you have faced as an educator and how did you overcome those challenges?

The challenges I face are the same that all educators are facing right now—we are collectively enduring a challenging time. Every year wonderful, highly qualified teachers walk out of the profession and choose other careers and that is heartbreaking. I always saw myself as a lifelong educator and I do not want to burn out. The requirements on teachers have increased and the trust in teachers has decreased. Teachers are overburdened. I will continue to advocate for teachers to be paid their worth, especially as the cost-of-living increases. School safety is a priority to us, as we need our students to live long lives to make their big dreams come true. There is a siphoning of funds meant for public education to charter schools. There are efforts to silence voices and take culturally relevant books from our libraries. Book banning limits the voices that we are able to highlight in our classrooms and takes away a moment for a student to connect with school and say “that’s me.” Students must hear narratives that have been silenced over generations and know the beauty of their ancestors’ contributions to our society. Alternate narratives allow learners to think critically about our past and present to make a better society for all.

All that to say: I believe in our schools. I believe in public education. I believe in bilingual education.

In order to overcome these challenges, I speak up and advocate for my students and their families. I have had recent opportunities to speak to board members and legislators on the current teacher experience. I ensure that my classroom is filled with beautiful books and I look students in the eyes and tell them how brilliant they are. I advocate and hope for a better education system for all students and teachers. I just hope those who hold a position of power and influence are listening.

What advice do you have to new (first or second year) teachers and/or students about to graduate and enter the classroom for the first time?

Educators teach, but educators also dream. We dream of a space where students can soar. We take simple supplies; paper, pencils and we make magic. We look students in their eyes and tell them all they are capable of. We honor cultures, languages and backgrounds. We chose books that represent our students. We read them like poetry, or like a play, acting out the voices of characters. We plan lessons that build on all the brilliance that students bring, not what they are lacking. We learn TikTok dances at recess and we laugh, we laugh hard. We protect and stand up for our students, especially those who are culturally and linguistically diverse.

This is the promise that public education gives us and our world. Students who know their voices are what this world needs. Students who are unafraid to create change, innovate. They know that who they are, their ancestral strength, and the languages they speak, are their superpowers.

Let our rooms be spaces of joy. Let us teach what brings us joy and celebrate the brilliance of our students. Joy can be an act of resistance against burnout and can sustain public education. Let little laughter and smiles lift you up each day as you do this important work.

In 2022, you were the Teacher of the Year at Perez Elementary, Austin ISD Elementary Teacher of the Year, Region 13 Elementary Teacher of the Year and a state finalist for the 2023 Texas Teacher of the Year– all huge accomplishments and recognitions! How do you feel about all of it?

First, my students are so excited—they share the honor alongside me. What is particularly exciting is that the work we are doing at our campus and in our city was recognized through these awards. The essays I wrote in my application connected to the work I find so important: bilingual writing workshop (which directly connects to the work I’ve done with the Heart of Texas Writing Project) and our campus’ commitment to rewriting the canon of literature to include the languages and cultures at Perez. There are voices right now that discourage a curriculum that connects to our students and all of their identities, so to receive these recognitions brings me hope for the future of our classrooms.

What is next for you—what do you see in your future?

I am excited to graduate with my master’s degree this semester! I am staying open to new opportunities; however, I would be fine if I retired a teacher. I love my kids and I love our work. No matter what you can find me advocating for our culturally and linguistically diverse students!