Iron Horse Middle School – 2003 Winner

Rich Johnson was an elementary and middle school teacher in the Tri-Valley area for 30 years.  He taught middle-school math at Iron Horse Middle School in San Ramon.  Rich had always enjoyed playing chess but didn’t consider himself to be much of a player. Then he read about some of the benefits that chess offers to kids:  It helps them learn logical thinking, problem solving and develops their spatial reasoning; and they learn life lessons as well:  sportsmanship, accepting defeat gracefully, living with the consequences of your own decisions and, most importantly, self-confidence.

So Rich decided to turn himself into a chess teacher. He initially se up a chess club after school and during the lunch hour. Later, he started an elective chess class during the school day. The kids who showed up for the club and the class weren’t necessarily the ones who were the best students or the most popular or the most athletic, but they found a new way to have fun and challenge themselves at the same time. One resource student who wasn’t a very good student discovered he was good in chess. Through Rich’s encouragement, he found skills and abilities inside himself that gave him confidence, to the point where that boy played the whole class at the same time in chess.

In teaching math as in teaching chess, Rich’s approach is to respect his students. He tells them that it’s good to look at things in a new or different way. And he teaches them that instead of saying, “I made a mistake” when they get a different answer than the math book or the teacher, they should say, “I challenge that answer.” And whenever a student says that, the whole class will go over the problem. Rich loves it when the student proves that his way of doing the problem is just as good as, or even better than, the answer in the book. On another occasion, Rich noticed that a shy girl in his class appeared to be afraid to participate in class. Rich worked with her individually, all the time assuring her that he would not call on her until she told him she was ready. By the end of the year, that girl was participating just like the other students.

One of the creative things Rich did as an elementary school teacher was to help his students create a student-run court system in the classroom. Based on a bill of rights provided by their teacher, they made their own laws democratically. And when someone broke one of them, the students would serve as police, judges, juries and witnesses – and there were also prosecutors and defense attorneys.  Through this process, the students not only learned to make fair laws and enforce them in an impartial way but they also learned that sometimes it is necessary to be flexible and to show mercy. And they grew to understand and appreciate the experience of self-government.