SMUS Teacher Feature: Mrs. Beth Johnston

Senior School chemistry teacher Mrs. Beth Johnston is one of the many teachers opening up their classrooms for the Fall Spark Open House next Friday (October 20). Visitors to campus who attend the hands-on session with Beth will learn how to make slime alongside her Grade 11 chemistry students.

Beth was born and raised in the small town of Fergus, Ontario. After graduating high school in Canada she spent a year attending high school in Svinninge, Denmark as a Rotary Club exchange student. She returned to Canada and joined the Coast Guard, spending two years based in Atlantic Canada. She left the Coast Guard intent on becoming a teacher and earned an honours degree in science from the University of Waterloo followed immediately by a bachelors of education from Queen’s University. She taught and worked as a houseparent at a school in Belleville, Ontario for three years before she and her husband, Robert, moved to Victoria. Beth has taught science and math at the Senior School since September 1998.

She and Robert have two children, Robbie and Meg.

Let’s get to know Beth better:

Why did you want to be a teacher?
When I was in high school I was a math tutor and helping a girl who found math tricky. One day I was in chemistry class and she came to the door and asked to see me. She had just written a math test and passed. She was so excited and gave me a huge hug. I remember coming back into class and I was on cloud nine and my chemistry teacher asked, “What was that about?” I told him, “Someone just decided they liked math.” Fast forward a few years and I had to leave the Coast Guard due to poor eyesight. As I was reevaluating what I was doing I looked upon my life and realized that I had always helped, taught and explained. Informally, I had always been a teacher, so I figured it would be a good fit for me.

What was the best class you took in school?
Machine shop at the Coast Guard College where I learned how to weld and to use a machine lathe to create metal parts like valve spindles.

What’s been the most interesting (or memorable) job you’ve held?
Out of all of the jobs I have done, working for the Coast Guard pushed me farthest from my comfort zone. It was challenging, both mentally and emotionally, being the only woman onboard a ship and being young. I chose the Coast Guard because I knew I didn’t want to work in a lab or sit behind a desk. I was good at problem-solving, I could troubleshoot, machinery interested me and I liked the idea of going to sea.

How do you spend a day off?
Our day off last Friday was perfect for me! I got to go out for coffee with my husband, I got to go for a run and I got to work on my knitting project.

Where do you most want to travel but have never been?
Glasgow, Scotland. We had a great family vacation to Scotland in 2016 but we didn’t make it to Glasgow. There’s so much more of that country that we all really want to see.

Who did you look up to as a kid?
I was a very avid Girl Guide and I always looked up to my leaders and teachers and some of the people I met through Guides. Their leadership styles and their personas were something I saw worth in and wanted to emulate.

If you could trade lives with one person for one day who would it be?
I would like to switch places with somebody who’s new to Canada because I want to be reminded of what this place looks like when it’s new. Through somebody else’s eyes I’d like to remind myself of what we have.

What one accomplishment are you most proud of?
I’m really proud of the fact that I was a Rotary exchange student. It was hard for me but I decided at a young age that it was something I was going to do. My dad was a Rotarian, and Rotarian kids weren’t eligible to do the exchange. So I just explained to him that he would quit, I would go and be an exchange student and he could rejoin the Rotary Club when I returned. I had to apply three times before I got it. I’m really proud of it because I didn’t let anyone deter me from my goal.

What’s been your most memorable teaching moment?
I love when grads email, text or come back to us and say, “You prepared us.” I always joke to students when they do labs with me: “When you’re in first year your TA will be breathing down your neck, but you’ll be ready because you had Mrs. Johnston.” I love when the kids say, “We did that lab you said we’d do and I aced it or I felt prepared.”

What’s the best concert you’ve been to?
Doug and the Slugs at Smooth Herman’s Nightclub in Sydney, Nova Scotia in 1989.

What’s the best purchase you’ve ever made?
Our family trips. We have great adventures together. My husband likes to plan and research our destinations. He seems to find places with interesting things for us to do that are usually off the beaten path.

What’s the most memorable gift you’ve received?
My kids. In the spring of 1999 I was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma and I had to take a year off teaching to go through treatment. It looked like my husband and I weren’t going to be able to have kids, but magically I became pregnant.

When have you felt your biggest adrenaline rush?
Snorkeling in Maui. I was totally absorbed in what was going on in the water as I was just following fish and sea turtles. It was mind-blowing!

What was your dream job growing up?
I never had a dream job as a kid. What I remember was people telling me I should have certain jobs, like a doctor, and me thinking, “I would never want to do that!” All I knew is I wouldn’t want to be sitting behind a desk all day.

If a teacher talent show was happening at SMUS today, what would be your talent?
I can do speed knots. I used to go to guiding regattas and would compete in speed knot tying.

What’s the best part of your job?
My colleagues. Specifically Pete Leggatt, Benson Young and I make a very good team teaching chemistry. It’s a pleasure to work with them, it’s positive, it’s fun and it’s very collegial and cooperative.

What are you currently reading?
Goodnight from London by Jennifer Robson

Where is your favourite place on Vancouver Island?
Tofino because I feel at peace there.

If you could time travel, when would be the first place you go?
I’d want to go forward, not back, and I would want to have a peak maybe 100 years into the future to get a glimpse at what’s important then. And then I could come back and know what to let go of and what to worry about.

What hobby would you pursue if money and time were no object?
Canal boating. There are places like Scotland and England that have old canals where they used to transport goods. Now you can rent canal boats and sail through all these canals in these long, narrow boats. We already have a list of all the different canals we want to go see.

How would your high school teachers describe you?
Given that I was from a small town, I was one of four kids in my family and everybody knew my dad and my mom, I was always known as “one of the Clarke kids.” But I would be described as “the different one”, since I didn’t always do what people expected. Many times I was told I broke the mould.

What are you passionate about?
I would like people not to hate or fear science. I would like them to embrace it and have an appreciation of science. I want people to be open to the wonders of science in lots of different places. I hope students in my classes find it fun, challenging and I hope they leave my class realizing they can do things they may have thought they couldn’t do. When I was in school all my science teachers were male. When I started teaching there were still not a lot of women teaching chemistry. I hope I can inspire more women to enjoy the sciences.

What one piece of advice would you give this year’s graduating class?
You have to listen to your heart and be true to yourself. Don’t ever try to be someone you’re not because if you’re doing something for somebody else it’s not going to be satisfying.

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Kyle Slavin
Kyle Slavin is the school's storyteller. Through words and photos, he shares with the community all the amazing things that happen on campus.

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