With magnets, a miniature sandbox and numerous stress balls taking residence on her desk, Sue Johnson creates an open and welcoming space in her office for students to open up to her. Her colleagues have taken note of her dedication to award her a distinctive title.
January has been off to a great start for Johnson as she received formal word she is Seneca High School’s Educational Service Provider of the Year for 2020-2021. In her role as a guidance counselor, Johnson meets with all students in the 1,000-plus population high school whose last names begin with “S” through “Z” as they move through high school.
“What I love about it is that it’s different every day,” Johnson noted. “Sometimes we’re going to classrooms to talk to kids, sometimes it’s one on one, then it’s college and career planning. Then it’s also talking with kids and working through some of the personal stuff.”
Sixteen years into her job, Johnson knows how to interact with students and ways to get them to open up when they are unsure about conversation. One of those ways involves objects she has housed on her desk for students to fidget or fumble with while talking.
“Usually, kids who are hurting want to talk,” she explained. “After the tears, they’re happy to get anything off of their chest.”
Prior to becoming a guidance counselor, Johnson was a special education teacher at Paulsboro High School for nine years. But she knew her calling was to interact with all students in a school and learn more about them and what they go through.
Students and families with the same last name are assigned to a counselor for their entire high school career at Seneca, which Johnson admitted puts her at an advantage as she gets to know students and sees their growth first hand.
“Sometimes schools do that where grades ninth and 10th have a counselor, and then they switch out,” she explained. “I think that’s a disadvantage. For me, I can write letters of recommendation because I’ve known the kids since ninth grade.”
A counselor’s job, as Johnson stated, changes on a daily basis. As she puts it, there are times when she’s “putting out fires” and times when she is working with students to solidify high school schedules.
Outside of her duties as a guidance counselor, Johnson coaches boys and girls tennis and girls swimming.
A former college and high school tennis player, Johnson has an admiration for the sport and called it a passion of hers. Swimming, on the other hand, was something “I fell into” and afforded her the opportunity to meet more students and collaborate with coaches.
Former and current students have given Johnson “thank you” cards through the years, a testament to how she is perceived as a positive person in and outside of the sports realm.
Counselors in the high school create groups where certain students are placed to provide an open space for discussion of problems or solutions with their peers. Johnson has previously run groups for new students and those who come from divorced or restructured families, enabling her to meet students outside of her alphabet restrictions.
In the newcomers group, a conversation is facilitated by Johnson and students coordinate with one another on lunch seating arrangements to alleviate the stress and fear of being “the new kid.”
As the education award occupies Johnson’s mind, she said she feels honored her peers thought she deserved the same recognition as those before her.
“When I look at the people who’ve come before me and won the award, I’m impressed by them,” Johnson admitted.
“I consider it an honor and to me — it’s the sixth year they’ve given (the award) out — you look at the wall and see ‘She does an awesome job! She’s an awesome person.’
“And everyone has been great.”