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He helped a West Hall student get into Yale, then she nominated him for a prestigious award - and he won
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West Hall High teacher Adam Johnson discusses the book "The Kite Runner" Friday, Sept. 14, 2018, with a group of juniors. Johnson is recognized as 2018 Yale Educator Awardee. - photo by Scott Rogers

Adam Johnson admits to being surprised, even confused, when he recently learned that he’d been selected for the 2018 Yale Educator Award.

Yes, that Yale.

“We didn’t actually talk about the nomination process,” said Johnson, a literature teacher at West Hall High. “I didn’t even know the award existed.”

He was only contacted at the end of the selection process when award recipients were announced and an engraved desk set arrived bearing his name.

That’s not to say it doesn’t mean a lot to Johnson.

He said it’s a kind of validation, not just in his own work, but also in seeing students think and reach beyond the class and into the world.

“To me, having this on my desk is the symbol of the fruit of a ton of labor,” Johnson added. “I’m just very deeply honored.”

Nominations for the award are made by incoming freshman at Yale University, located in New Haven, Conn., who chose a high school educator that had a positive influence on them.

West Hall’s 2018 valedictorian, Katie Burchfield, submitted Johnson’s name for consideration to a committee of admissions officials, who then chose the recipients.

There were 371 nominees this year, with 59 teachers and 28 counselors awarded.

Burchfield, who was profiled in The Times in May for her outstanding scholastic achievements, said that her parents are educators that instilled in her a love of learning and curiosity about the world.

She planned to enroll as a pre-med student.

The application process for Yale, one of the most prestigious Ivy League schools, included submitting standardized testing scores, classroom grades and supplemental essays.

A visit and an interview were also required. And, of course, recommendations.

Johnson said he didn’t hesitate when asked by Burchfield to vouch for her.

“You have to have faith in the idea that what you’re doing to teach juniors and seniors really will prepare them,” he said. “I kept it simple and told the truth.”

Johnson taught Burchfield in literature courses all four years of her high school education.

He said literature “brings worlds of thinking together,” and the freedom and wide variety of books students absorb under his tutelage speaks to this end.

“She was in a very bright group but stood out because there’s so much reading she had already done,” he said. “Not only was she very bright and very hard-working, but she was incredibly humble in her approach to becoming better — and that really stood out to me.”

Having the qualities of intelligence and humility combined with hard work is rare, Johnson said.

He likened it this way: Though Bob Dylan could unquestionably write music and lyrics, his singing is a matter of taste.

Johnson comes from a family of educators. His mother retired an elementary school principal and his father was a library director.

“I guess I split the difference between their careers,” he said.

Johnson knows teaching can be a thankless job, at times. It’s work that requires passion as much as anything.

So praise from colleagues or the boss is always nice.

West Hall High Principal Ley Hathcock said he taught Burchfield himself, and Johnson taught his own daughter.

“It really comes as no surprise that we have both students and teachers coming from the Hall County School District that garner awards,” he said. “I’m as proud as I could possibly be to have been associated with Katie and Adam.”

For Johnson, the best reward comes from seeing students flourish wherever life leads them.  

“Students are the people who see you day in and day out,” Johnson said. “They see you at your best and at your worst. It’s just very special for (Burchfield) to have nominated me for this. It’s just really nice to know that when students could do nothing, instead they decide to do something and give back in that kind of way.”