Malia Johnston was living in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina when she found a spark that would later lead her to teaching.
She had been helping people with substance abuse disorders and with HIV/AIDS when she recognized another need in the community.
“In New Orleans, a lot of people were lonely, coming from other countries,” Johnston said. “I wanted to interact with my neighbors and help Americans who are non-Spanish to connect.”
At age 30, she switched careers and became a Spanish teacher. Although she was not a native Spanish speaker, she had “a heart for the people.” Johnston had a foundation with the language from high school and started attending a church with a Spanish-speaking congregation.
During the 2009-2010 school year, she worked at Crescent City Christian in Louisiana, serving as a high school Spanish teacher while also being a Bible teacher, preschool music educator, co-director of the theater department and Key Club advisor.
A Chesapeake High School graduate, Johnston returned home to Maryland and continued that effort. In 2015, she spent a year at Brooklyn Park Middle before joining Magothy River Middle School.
Now, she is the school’s nominee for Anne Arundel County Public Schools Teacher of the Year. She was “floored” to learn of the recognition.
Her teaching style was on display for the entire school this fall in celebration of National Hispanic Heritage Month, which runs from September 15 through October 15. Using Google Meet, she engaged students in a game called la lotería.
“It’s kind of like bingo but with pictures instead of numbers,” Johnston explained. “… once got them all, they would yell it out and say the word in Spanish. I also gave them the history behind it.”
That game illustrated her philosophy.
“To learn a language, you have to interact,” she said. “I try to vary my activities.”
Regardless of the activity, Johnston tries to connect with every student, according to fellow Magothy River Middle School Spanish teacher Beth Gephart.
“Malia goes above and beyond to make sure that everyone is included. That is her gift,” Gephart said. “She seems to have a sixth sense: knowing where the people who need a bit of extra TLC are.”
Johnston also has had that effect on Gephart, serving as a “wonderful mentor and invaluable team member.”
After a teaching hiatus, where she worked as a social worker and then managed virtual kindergarten with her son from 2020-2021, Gephart began teaching again. This was her first time educating middle school students and her first time teaching in Maryland since she is from Illinois.
“She not only helped me navigate teaching the Anne Arundel County curriculum, but also helped me learn new software, shared lesson plans, and even offered to babysit my son when I caught the flu and needed to rest,” Gephart said of Johnston. “It is no exaggeration to say that she was what got me through my transition back into teaching, nor is it an exaggeration to say that I could not have done it without her. Everyone should be so fortunate to have a team leader like her.”
Not only is Magothy River Middle School fortunate to have Johnston. She has volunteered in Honduras since 2017, writing curriculum for summer programs for 10 rural schools, training American volunteers, organizing a book drive to install classroom libraries and more.
Johnston is a leader at Lighthouse Church in Glen Burnie, and she assists two groups — The Well and its employment program, Hon’s Honey — fostering community among the women of Curtis Bay in Baltimore, supporting women who are survivors of trauma, and planning an annual Christmas dinner for women.
“She plans events for our mentees, those in our life and workforce development programs,” said Mandy Memmel, founder and executive director of The Well. “She is a ray of sunshine and makes it her goal to bring joy and laughter to every woman who walks through the door, including our staff.”
All this work makes Johnston proud of how far she has come since 2005, and grateful for everyone who encouraged her as both a volunteer and as an educator.
“Regardless of the strategies, the games and interaction, the most important thing is showing kids that you care,” she said. “Many of the students I had in New Orleans have reached out and said thank you, and I didn’t do anything special at that time. I cared about them. I’m thankful to Anne Arundel County Public Schools for the opportunity and to my colleagues. It takes a village.”
Cafe Mezzanotte is a proud sponsor of Educator of the Month. To nominate a teacher, guidance counselor, principal or other educator, email email@example.com.