They come from contrasting backgrounds and work in very different environments.
Candy Michener is a kindergarten teacher at Helen Baller Elementary School, and Eric Johnson is a language arts and Title I teacher at Jemtegaard Middle School who works with struggling students.
However, in one area they are very similar, and that is in their passion to help students become successful learners, and seeing the potential in each and every one.
Now, they share something else in common. Michener and Johnson were recently named teacher of the year for their respective school districts by the Camas-Washougal Chamber of Commerce.
They will be honored, along with the businesses of the year and citizen of the year, at the annual chamber banquet at The Fairgate Inn on Tuesday, June 4.
Johnson took the road less traveled to become a teacher. After a tumultuous childhood which included poverty, foster homes, frequent moves and the death of his father, he found himself a high school dropout, working at the Jantzen Beach Kmart.
“Although I had good grades, I simply could not sit around in Woodland and go back another quarter (to graduate) after finding out a class I had taken at an alternative school wouldn’t transfer,” he said. “But after a year of pushing carts around, and seeing the fate laid out before me, I went to Clark College, took the GED and enrolled.”
Johnson had nurtured a love of writing since he was a small child, using it to escape a stormy home life. In college, he enrolled in creative writing classes and with the help of Clark College instructor Sheila Simonson, polished his skills and won a scholarship to Lewis & Clark College in Portland.
After earning a bachelor’s degree in language arts with a minor in physiology, Johnson planned to be a teacher and coach.
But fate intervened. During a post-college trip to Germany, he was asked to leave the country because he bought a one-way ticket.
“It was during the Gulf War and security was very strict,” he said. “Also, it was during the terrorist bombings of the subways in London, so suspicion was high.”
Embarrassed to tell his family what had happened, and nearly broke, he sold poetry and lived in hostels on the East Coast for several months. During a road trip to Florida, Johnson used his degree to get a job as a personal trainer at the Fountain Blue Hilton on Miami Beach.
He would continue in the field for 20 years, visiting Europe and living in Switzerland during part of that time.
However, Johnson always felt like he needed to do more.
“I was successful and good at what I did, but I wanted to give back,” he said. “I’m a high school dropout and if not for teachers who encouraged me along the way, I wouldn’t have gone to college.”
After earning a master’s from City University, he began working for the Washougal School District four years ago. Now, Johnson teaches a language arts intervention program at JMS, advocating for struggling students. His theme is to “show them success,” by pointing out what students are good at and working with them to improve other areas.
“One of my favorite things about being a teacher is when kids realize that they are smarter than they think,” Johnson said. “At the beginning of the year, I ask how many of them hate to read. Almost every hand goes up. At the end of the year, the difference is astounding. The kids, knowing they can be successful, take great pride in raising their hands and talking about how they used to be.”
Johnson learned he’d been named teacher of the year when Washougal Superintendent Dawn Tarzian walked into his classroom and announced it.
“I’m very honored and humbled,” he said. “My personal philosophy, ‘show them success,’ was not studied or researched, it was shown to me, given as a gift to a struggling student who needed something and someone to believe in.”
Tarzian said Johnson has “a knack,” for motivating students who are struggling academically.
“Eric has the ability to cause students to realize that they are capable of learning difficult concepts, even if they have not been successful in school before,” she said. “They enter his classroom knowing that this environment will allow them to be successful, grow, and develop self confidence to continue to improve their academic skills.”
After a year of riding to and from school with well-known local teacher Dorothy Fox, Candy Michener knew what she wanted to do with her life.
“It was then I decided to be a teacher,” the lifelong Camas resident said. “There wasn’t anything in particular about our conversations that stands out other than I knew I wanted to be like her.”
Dorothy Fox Elementary School is named for Michener’s early teaching role model.
Another influence in her early years was Jim Guard, the Camas parks program director and high school teacher.
“He was instrumental in securing a summer job for me between my junior and senior year, working as an parks program assistant,” she said. “I remember how much I enjoyed working and being around kids.”
After earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees in teaching from then Central Washington State College, Michener began teaching first grade at Helen Baller Elementary in 1972. She has been there ever since, and now serves the youngest students in the district as a kindergarten teacher.
“I love the newness of my job because every day is always different,” she said. “The kids are like sponges and just love school. They want to be here.”
As an educator, Michener uses the examples of service she was taught at home: Her father, Ted Morris, served on the Camas School Board for 24 years in addition to serving his country in both the Navy and the Air Force. Her mother, Maxine, balanced a busy professional life as an instructor and co-owner of the Vancouver School of Beauty with volunteer work.
“My parents, through their living example, taught me a strong work ethic,” she said. “They taught me to see the best in people, to never hold myself in higher regard than ‘the other guy,’ and to willingly give my time to our community and those in need.”
When Michener learned she’d been named teacher of the year, she felt ‘surprised and humbled.’
“It’s really a team effort,” she said. “In Camas, we are not isolated. We support each other and work together.”
Camas Superintendent Mike Nerland said that Michener embodies the very best in teaching.
“She sees the potential in every learner,” he said. “She illuminates concepts and new ideas, and teaches our very youngest children how to be active learners and kind, responsible citizens in their school community. She has a gift of instilling the love of learning in her kindergarten students.”