Darren Johnson is interview while he works in the adult learning area on Brenau University's Gainesville campus.

Back on the Bike

Nontraditional student Darren Johnson spent more than a decade figuring out what he really needed to do to help kids who were not as fortunate.

Growing up in Augusta, Ga., Darren Johnson had no shortage of positive male role modelshis own dad, teachers, and other community members. Always some near him helped guide him in the right direction. Somewhere along the way, however, that changed. The 36-year-old Johnson, who now lives in Gainesville, says the dissipation of influencers in his own life as he grew older motivated him to become a model for kids who will come along after him. In 2009, he went back to school at Brenau’s Gainesville campus to pursue a Master of Arts in Teaching degree, focusing on middle grades education, which he anticipates completing in the fall of 2013.

“Many kids see a direct correlation with school life and home life – not a lot of males at home and not a lot of male leaders in school,” says Johnson. “I’m looking to fill that gap. I want to give something back because I remember how it was when I was growing up, back then there was a plethora of men around that I could rely on.”

It is not news that in modern times there has always been a dearth of male teachers in pre-high school grades. Recent studies by the National Education Association and others indicate, however, that the problem has grown more pronounced for a variety of reasons including the lure of more lucrative occupations, cutbacks in salaries, fear of harassment charges and even parent bias against them.  The higher Education Statistics Agency reports that less than 1/4th of those qualifying to be teachers are men.

Many of the studies focus on the important of the male role model in the classroom for boys. Take the work of Thomas S. Dee, a Swarthmore College economics professor and a faculty research fellow of the National Bureau of Economic Research, for example. He points to research, which indicates boys learn some better from male teachers and girls learn better from females. However, the male role model in the classroom is important got girls, too, the experts say. The gender gap in the classroom widens as we see huge increases in the number of single-parent households headed by women – close to 85 percent, according to recent census data. That mean, according to one report, more than 20 million kids in the United States are growing up in fatherless homes.

Johnson, who is on the advisory board of the Brenau Adult Student Association, earned a Bachelor of Arts in English from Paine College in 1999. However, he encountered his epiphany on the subject of the need for more male role models in the classroom not from statistics but from experience as he worked in the field of youth recreation. “One day I just realized that I didn’t want to work on the back end of helping kids,” he says. “I wanted to be on the front lines.”

First, he had to figure out how to balance his regular obligations – including his parental duties to a daughter as a single father and how to balance a job with preparing for a different career. Luckily, he says, he has a good support system at his disposal that, among other things, helps him take care of his daughter when he is away from home. Then, there is that whole back-to-school thing for someone who has been out of the classroom for more than a decade.

“Trying to re-acclimate yourself to the student process can be a challenge,” he says, “but’s like riding a bicycle. Once you get the first couple of classes under your belt, it just starts clicking again.”

Although he had fewer responsibilities after he finished his undergraduate degree, Johnson says now that he is glad he waited for graduate school.

“Many people who went straight through from undergrad to graduate-level programs are working in careers that have nothing to do with their undergraduate or graduate degrees,” says Johnson. With the time lapse between degrees, “I had time to get some life experience. I had time to be sure that this is what I want to do.”

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