Next up: Olga Nunez-Johnson, a beloved first grade teacher who’s taught at Waters for, as she puts it, “eight amazing years!” She’s been with CPS for 26 years—23 as a teacher, and three as a paraprofessional.
Waters Today: You’re pretty famous—Waters famous, that is—for your love of reading aloud to your students. You have the best reading voice! What's your favorite book for first graders?
Mrs. Johnson: I have so many favorite children’s books and children’s authors and would never be able to pick just one! However, I can share a Thanksgiving tradition that does include a favorite story: Every year I make homemade butter with my students and we read Thanksgiving at the Tappletons’ by Eileen Spinelli. After we make our butter and read the story, we share what we are most grateful for. It is a very special tradition! As we speak, I am trying to figure out how I will weave this into virtual learning.
That’s the best! It sounds like you are definitely in the right profession. Did you ever want to be anything other than a teacher?
I knew I wanted to be a teacher since I was in Kindergarten and can’t imagine myself in any other profession. As a child, I would play school with my brothers and sister. They would always get mad at me because my dolls would get all the right answers and they would not.
Sounds about right! Where did you grow up?
I grew up just a few blocks from Waters in Lincoln Square. I always tell my students that this is the BEST neighborhood in all of Chicago. It still has all the wonderful things I remember from my childhood: Diverse neighbors, a rich history, Wells Park, Sulzer Library, great eats, and the list goes on.
[Fun fact: That adorable child in the picture is Mrs. Johnson in 1977 at McPherson school!]
Did you have a favorite teacher as a child?
My favorite teacher was my Kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Willis. She was strict but I loved her! I remember she was very fashionable, had a smile for everyone, and her laughter was infectious. For my first teaching job, I had the privilege of working with Mrs. Willis. Yes, my first teaching job was at my elementary school! That’s when I found out the truth: Teachers don’t actually live in the school… LOL! Working with her made me realize that what made Mrs. Willis so special was the motto by which she taught: If we, as educators, set the bar high, there is no child who cannot reach his or her full potential.
That’s so lovely. If you could be a student in any Waters teacher's class for the day, who would you choose?
Mrs. Vecchioni’s art class! She is such an incredible artist. If you look up the word “art teacher” in the dictionary, you will see a picture of Mrs. Vecchioni. Every time I see her, she has a smudge of paint or ink somewhere on her. That tells you she doesn’t just teach art to her students, she lives art.
She really does. [Editor’s note: Mrs. Vecchioni, we’re coming for you!] What do you like to do for fun?
My family and I love to take long drives. It's a great way to connect and catch up on what’s going on in our lives and in the world. Recently we drove the entire Northshore admiring the fall colors. It was spectacular! We also LOVE trying new restaurants. With the recent pandemic, we have learned to create dishes from around the world in our own kitchen. When I say WE I am referring to my husband Jerry, and my daughter Athena, they are the true chefs in the Johnson household. Love and laughter are the key ingredient in any recipe. That is why our family motto is; “Our kitchen is made for dancing”!
We’ll be right over! Kidding, but only because of the pandemic. Does your family have any pets?
We don’t—I am allergic to almost everything! I am also quite scared of animals. If a dog gets too close to me I immediately lose all senses and start running and screaming. It’s an awful sight. I can’t believe I just shared that.
Oh no! Ok, we’ll distract you with a random one: Would you rather live in a house made of cheese or a house made of cookie dough?
I would rather live in a house made of cheese—Gouda cheese, please. I love cheese and I often tell my daughter the stinkier the cheese, the better!
Us, too! What about your superpower? If you could have one—besides teaching, that is—what would it be?
To have everyone get along! It has been my lifelong wish since I was a little girl. Is it foolish? Perhaps it is. But it is my superpower and I am the superhero so anything is possible.
Yep: If everyone got along and shared stinky cheese, the world would indeed be a better place. What’s the bravest thing you've ever done?
The bravest thing I have ever done was volunteer to be a week-long counselor at camp Timberlee in East Troy, Wisconsin. The reason I volunteered was because my daughter, who was in 1st grade at the time, could attend the camp if I volunteered. Now, if you know anything about me, you know that I am the least outdoorsy person you will ever meet. I love taking long walks and low-intensity hikes, but that's about it.
There were so many activities each day: horseback riding, canoeing, archery, crafts, and something called blobbing. You are probably wondering, What is blobbing? Well, blobbing is an outdoor water activity in which a participant sits on the end of a partially inflated airbag and is launched into the water when another participant jumps onto the airbag from a platform on the opposite side.
I thought, why not? You start off in a curled up position, and as you ascend into the air you need to straighten up. I failed to follow the directions and ended up doing a somersault and landed headfirst into the water. Thank goodness I was wearing a life vest. Risky? Yes! Worth it? Absolutely!
Ok, so you’re not an outdoors person…what else would your students be surprised to learn about you?
I think my students would be surprised to learn that school did not come easy to me. I struggled a lot in elementary school, and being a bilingual student—I spoke both Spanish and English—in a monolingual class was difficult at times. I always knew I wanted to be a teacher, and so I had to work that much harder to achieve my goals. I truly believe that my struggles in school are what helped me get through not just my academic career, but life in general.
Words to live by. Thank you so much, Mrs. Johnson!