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Hastings middle school teacher set to retire after nearly 33-year career

Spencer Johnson helps a student make a fishing lure. David Clarey / RiverTown Multimedia

For 30 years Hastings Middle School social studies teacher Spencer Johnson worked at Fort Snelling doing historic interpretation during the summer. Most days that meant giving presentations from a certain role like a blacksmith, fur trader or soldier.

But one summer morning a Minnesota Department of Natural Resources officer arrived with a black bear that had been hit by a car, said Tom Lalim, the program manager at Historic Fort Snelling. Johnson told the officer that they wanted to keep the bear — he planned to use it for his presentations.

So he skinned, processed and dried the bear's hide for his temporary, summer job. On the day after the skin was dried, he insisted he acted as a fur trader so he could use it, Lalim said.

"He saw the opportunity for a teachable moment," Lalim said. "It's one of those things you couldn't plan."

The philosophy behind Johnson's use of the fur extended beyond the summers in Fort Snelling to his work at Hastings Middle School, where he is retiring after almost 33 years teaching. He is known for bringing historical items into class that entice the students to engage with the subject matter — the items range from a cannon to costumes from different eras.

"(History) is part of (the students), I'm trying to get them to connect with history," Johnson said. "As a teacher, I'm trying to get kids excited about history.

Family of teachers

As a child, Johnson loved to explore on his bike for hours, said his mother Joanna Bergman.

"He would ride for miles just exploring, looking at other things," she said. "He just liked to investigate things. He wanted to know the background of everything."

Bergman, also a teacher, said that Johnson did not perform well at school initially and she wondered what her son would do in college.

Johnson said he enjoyed working at summer camps with children and that prompted him to pursue teaching at St. John's University in Collegeville, Minn. After college, he initially worked at two catholic junior high schools, one in Coon Rapids, Minn., and another in Owatonna, Minn., before he was hired in Hastings in 1986.

His Hastings application was initially denied, but then he was called and asked to come in for an interview.

"I remember coming out of the interview and thinking 'Yeah, I didn't get that job,'" Johnson said.

Two days later, though, he received a call with a job offer.

Since being hired, Johnson has developed a reputation for his unique style of teaching. He's assembled a collection of artifacts — some from historical re-enactments he does — and often utilizes them in class, in addition to having kids try to engage with their own family's history through presentations on household items.

"There's a story associated with everything ... the cookbook that is all stained and greasy (in your house)? There's a story to that," Johnson said. "A lot of the kids really hooked into that."

Sarah Bremer's classroom is across the hall and every school year her class hears a loud thud that startles them. It's a Civil War-era cannonball that Johnson drops every year to grab his students' attention and help teach them.

"He is definitely one of those people who wants kids to experience history," Bremer, one of his former students, said. "He has a real wealth of knowledge."

'He's like a little kid'

Johnson's usage of different artifacts, costumes and approach to teaching stand out in the district, said Jim Hanson, another social studies teacher in the middle school. Hanson said he pairs that with an "encyclopedic" knowledge of the items and their subject matter.

"He's definitely unique in our district," Hanson said. "He's like a little kid ... he has that childlike enthusiasm for anything he's talking about."

As a teacher, Johnson's role often extends beyond just the classroom. He's active in leading the after-school outdoors club and often took students on different field trips, he said.

In late March, he was teaching roughly 20 students how to build fishing lures and calmly helped each student that asked. Afterwards, Johnson helped another student that had stayed after on an individual project.

"He has that non-stop energy," Hanson said.

Johnson said that he isn't sure what prompted him to retire, but that he's looking forward to spending more time with grandchildren and being outdoors.

His final year hasn't been emotionally difficult, but he said he expects to feel nostalgic at the start of next year's school year.

"For so many years, on (that) day I've started school," Johnson said. "When it gets to be fall, I'll be thinking a lot."