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Leaders to Learn From: James Johnson Jr., Physical Education and Health Teacher and Coach

UPrep Physical Education and Health Teacher James Johnson Jr. says coaching led to his teaching career.

Get to know a Middle School educator and UPrep coach

This school year marks James Johnson Jr.’s 4th year at UPrep. Currently, he teaches physical education and health to our Middle School students. He also coaches several teams, including the varsity boys’ basketball team.

What is your role at UPrep and what responsibilities go with that role?

I teach middle school Physical Education and Health classes. I am head coach of varsity boys’ basketball, and I also coach the Upper School volleyball junior varsity C team, and Middle School basketball, volleyball, and Ultimate. My role is to teach and advocate for our students, helping them to understand lifelong wellness and what it means to be fit, while engaging with them and making sure they have some fun, too.

What do you love about teaching and coaching Middle School students?

They come in as 11-year old’s, and they leave at age 14. So much changes in this timeframe—like how a caterpillar changes into a butterfly. I love to see them grow and become more confident as they search for their identities and start to become who they are.

What attracted you to UPrep?

I wanted to teach at a school where I could continue to learn. Not only does UPrep offer professional development, but they also really want teachers to pursue it. Second, the faculty in the PE department is amazing. Every person has so much knowledge and energy and loves working with kids. I wanted be part of a tight-knit team, and our department is a tight-knit team. Third: the lunches are pretty awesome.

What is unique about UPrep’s Middle School Health and Physical Education classes?

We thrive at promoting lifelong wellness. Our program encompasses health literacy as well as physical literacy. When our kids leave our Middle School, they have a true understanding of how to keep themselves fit. Health literacy is about having a true understanding of living a healthy lifestyle and getting in shape—while having fun. We want our students to understand how to read food labels; understand goal setting; and be informed about drug and alcohol abuse prevention. I tell my students and players that as long as you are improving your personal self every day—you are doing something physically active, whether its for ten minutes or an hour—you are putting in sweat equity and that adds up.

What do you love about coaching varsity boys’ basketball?

I’ve been playing basketball since the first grade, and coaching basketball is something I hope to do throughout my career in education. I love guiding athletes who are working together toward one common goal—there’s so much joy and so many life lessons learned in that process. It’s fun to see your team win, and it’s ok to see your team lose; it makes the athletes humble and it’s fun to get back up after being down. In my experience, students don’t remember the games as much as they remember the fun times with their teammates, the rides back and forth to the games, and the lifelong relationships forged in relation to having one common goal. I’ve fostered so many relationships through coaching. Once you are a player of mine, you are always a player of mine, and I will do anything for you.

When you say you wish students still hear your voice in their ear, pushing them on, what do they hear you say into their ears? 

Every kid needs something different. Some kids will respond well to, “Hey, you know you’re slacking.” For others, it’s “Hustle up, buttercup!” You’ll get a smile and then you see them push themselves a little more.

What lead you to being an educator?

Coaching. Once I was done with college, I spent a year not knowing what I was going to do. I started working in a bank with the goal of becoming a banker, and I hated that. I began coaching, and one of the parents said to me, “You are good with kids. You have a good demeanor. You could teach and coach.” The second person who encouraged me was an assistant coach of mine in college. He told our entire team that we should major in education. He told us that teaching is a profession that lacks Black men, and you will get a lot of rewards in this career. (Growing up in Federal Way, I had two black teachers. One was a coach, and one was UPrep’s Mark Smith (when I went to O’Dea for a year.) I recall [former Head of UPrep's Upper School] Ken Jaffe saying he was a coach who became a teacher. That resonates with me.  

What do you love about the UPrep community?

It’s such a tight knit community. One thing that I love is the collaboration. We have such wickedly smart teachers who don’t mind sharing their knowledge. Last summer during professional development, so many UPrep teachers offered workshops for their coworkers. And I learn all the time from the people in my department. Working with people who love to teach makes our culture rich in learning from each other.

What is your favorite sport to play and watch?

Basketball, by far. I’m still a Sonics fan and I can’t help but to follow the Portland Trailblazers. I enjoy watching the small-town city that’s thriving in the NBA.

What do you do to unwind?

I try to get a good workout in three or four days a week. Spending time with friends and family watching a game. I come from a family where we all play sports, so it’s food and fellowship and sports. I love to travel. I’m looking forward to getting back to the Dominican Republic. Being a kid who went to school in the south at Clark Atlanta University, during the summers, you’ll find me in Miami, San Diego, and Dallas a lot.

By Writer/Editor Nancy Schatz Alton

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