Remembering T Michele Johnson

I would like to honor the life and professional work of my colleague T. Michele Johnson in the field of American Sign Language (ASL).  I observed Ms. Johnson teach for many years and witnessed her dedication to students and passion for educating the Deaf as well as future teachers with special education interests. I met Michele 23 years ago when I arrived in Oneonta. Then, she was a non-traditional undergraduate student completing her bachelor’s degree in elementary education.  Beyond being our ASL instructor, Michele was consistently involved with the Deaf Community.  Her work covered a variety of interpreting settings such as kindergarten through post-secondary, professional concerts, plays, weddings, funerals, medical appointments and surgeries, religious ceremonies, college graduations and our own “Kente” cultural graduation ceremony, just to name a few. 

I remember the day that Michele graduated from our college in 2001.  It was my first graduation ceremony participating as faculty, and we were all very proud of our colleague wearing her cap and gown. Immediately after graduation Michele enrolled in the City University of New York-Hunter College and pursued a master’s degree in Special Education, Teacher of the Deaf.  During her two years at Hunter College, Michele commuted six hours round-trip four days a week into the city while continuing to teach three courses each semester at Oneonta.  Michele revealed an outstanding dedication to her students in Oneonta and to her own professional development.  I witnessed an extremely hardworking instructor who never ceased learning and teaching others how to understand and educate the Deaf. Although she is not deaf herself, she had various Deaf as close friends for as long as 30 years, making her part of their community.  She deeply cared about this community; therefore, she prepared our Oneonta students to understand and care as well.   

Michele was engaged with the Deaf Community at all levels. Ms. Johnson was awarded by the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (ODEI) with the grant Explorations in Diversity & Academic Excellence”.  Her proposal consisted of a trifold plan to bridge cultures, and on March 27, 2015, Michele hosted a show entitled, “Understanding Cultures Through Comedy”.  She invited two comedians who are CODAs (Child of Deaf Adults) to perform for Deaf Community members from various areas (including Rochester, Syracuse, Norwich, and Binghamton, in addition to others), past and current ASL students, SUNY Morrisville ASL students, and hearing guests from various communities around Oneonta. The focus of this grant was to provide an opportunity for entertainment for a severely underserved community, while allowing SUNY Oneonta and SUNY Morrisville students the opportunity to interact with each other and with the Deaf while using their ASL skills.  With this project, she was also educating hearing guests who were unfamiliar with the Deaf Community and Deaf Culture. 

In her own words this is how she understood her work: 

In my opinion, teaching is more than just standing in front of a classroom and lecturing to my students every week.  Those of us who teach have the great honor and opportunity to impart knowledge about a subject we have a passion for.   As an instructor of American Sign Language for 18 years, my love for the language, respect for its users and commitment to my students has driven me to continually learn all I can about the Deaf Community and their cherished language and to pass that knowledge along. (Michele Johnson, April 13, 2014) 

Every semester, during the first day of classes, I came into the language lab where Ms. Johnson was teaching, and I found complete silence. She was teaching; students were greeting each other in signs and enjoying a class by exploring another way to communicate and to connect.  Later in the semester, I could hear songs from various genres playing; it made me stop my daily routine just to come and observe students through the glass window of the language lab, signing to their favorite song. People laughed and applauded in sign, and I observed interaction and enjoyment without verbal expression.  It was amazing how through the semester students just forgot they could talk verbally, and they walked into a classroom that was full of smiles, hands, laughter and expressive eyes.  This was just a confirmation that students have understood how to communicate in other ways and have learned to care about the Deaf Community, all by the outstanding work that Ms. Johnson did in her classroom here at Oneonta. 

Ms. Johnson had one of the most positive student evaluations in our department.  Students learned from her and expressed it openly.  Her student perception of instruction (SPI) evaluations revealed great dedication to a practice that is not easily achieved, and students always accepted the challenges presented by their instructor.  A few years ago, Ms. Johnson even took on a very difficult task when a visually impaired student was seeking to learn ASL.  She created a two-level course in ASL using tactile/non-tactile methodology to teach this student, addressing the student’s special education need.  Ms. Johnson successfully demonstrated that a student with a sensory disability can inspire a good teacher to create a new way to teach while also creating an inclusive environment where all can participate.   

Colleagues respected Ms. Johnson and had seen her teaching for years; her teaching was a “public performance” for all of us in the department of Foreign Languages and Literatures because her classes were held in the language lab which is open to all.  Students spent hours with her signing, video recording and talking about their professional aspirations. Michele had her office next to mine, and I constantly heard and observed her dedication and inspiration to students that, like her, love special education, music, and interpreting for the Deaf.  Ms. Johnson’ dedication made her deserve the 2018 Simphiwe Hlatshwayo Award for Outstanding Part-Time Instructor for all her contributions to the Deaf Community and for being the only instructor on our campus knowledgeable and dedicated to this field that often passes without notice among other academic disciplines. It is for me an honor, and imperative, to celebrate her today even beyond her life for having touch many lives until the last days of her presence. T. Michele Johnson will be with us always in our hearts. 

The following is a statement from an international visitor we had from Japan, and who audit her class just for one day, during the same week she passed away: 

I did not have any knowledge of sign language even in Japanese before taking her class, but I was somehow fairly attracted by the title of the lecture when I first looked at it. The lecture lasted for 3 hours, but it was literally in the blink of an eye. She was so generous and warm-hearted that I did not feel that I had butterflies in my stomach even a bit. She had a knack for teaching. Despite my English proficiency and lack of knowledge in the field, I did not struggle with catching up with the class and was capable of partaking in all the activities thanks to her sophisticated fashion of demonstration and personality. Right after the end of the class, I went to talk to her in order to convey my appreciation, and she kindly mentioned to me that she was welcome to receive an email from me after I go back to Japan. She was the only teacher I visited to say thank you after class. I cannot put my finger on why I did this, but I guess that was attributed to my full of gratitude toward professor T. Michele Johnson. 

A woman smiling at the camera.

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