A Calling Leads to Commissioner of Education

June 30, 2016

CIU alumnus takes top leadership role in Alaska

By Bob Holmes

Every child looks forward to a “snow day,” when school is cancelled because of heavy snowfall or a blizzard. But veteran Alaska educator and Columbia International University alumnus Dr. Michael Johnson says a snow day in Alaska has nothing to do with snow.

“We cancel school if it gets to 50 below zero,” Johnson wrote in an email exchange.

The Alaska weather is a comparatively small challenge in the days ahead for Johnson who was named Alaska’s new commissioner of education in June. The commissioner is appointed by Alaska’s state school board and serves in the governor’s cabinet. Johnson, who earned both his bachelor’s degree in Bible (’94), and master’s degree in elementary education (’97) at CIU, has worked in Alaska as a principal, district superintendent, elementary teacher, and special education program assistant.

God’s Call to Education

Johnson grew up in Rossville, Georgia, just south of Chattanooga, Tennessee. He was introduced to Alaska as a CIU student when he participated in a short-term summer missions program, and began to ponder the opportunities for village ministry in Alaska through education.

“In his wisdom, (the late) Professor Cliff Bedell assured me that serving as an educator was entirely in keeping with God’s call to serve Him in ministry,” Johnson wrote for a CIU publication in 2013. “Over a meal in the cafeteria, Professor Bedell graciously encouraged me to pray and follow God’s leading.”

In an email in June, Johnson said the calling is no more, nor less important than the calling of other CIU alumni.

“It shouldn’t be more notable than those serving faithfully and anonymously in closed countries (it should be less notable),” Johnson wrote.

“My calling is not more influential than the CIU graduate stay-at-home mom, faithfully training and equipping the next generation. There are many faithful CIU graduates serving obediently in small churches, large cities, poor countries, and in terrifying settings who are an incredible source of encouragement and inspiration for me,” Johnson continued.

Alaska’s Education Challenges

Johnson says God's sovereignty as seen in the lives of fellow alumni is a great comfort as he tackles the challenges of overseeing education in Alaska.

“Alaska is going through a very challenging adjustment in its economy,” Johnson wrote. “For the past few decades, we have enjoyed a government almost entirely funded from oil revenue. The dramatic drop in the price of oil and the declining amount of oil flowing through the pipeline have combined to create a budget crisis. At a time when Alaskans are thinking about what they are losing, I hope to encourage them by all they are gaining when children learn.”

There are also daily education challenges unique to life in Alaska. For example, many of the schools are only accessible by air or sea.

“We have students that actually fly to school each day,” Johnson wrote. “Their bus stop is the local landing strip. We have schools above the Arctic Circle. We have a school on an island in the Bering Sea.”   

Johnson also notes that the Anchorage school district is one of the most diverse in the United States with over 90 languages spoken there. 

“The diversity in setting and culture will be a challenge but is also very exciting,” Johnson added. “In many ways, being the commissioner of education in Alaska will be a real-life reality show as opposed to the make-believe kind of reality show.”

Moose on the Playground

In 1999, Johnson married Beth Ressler who was in Alaska serving as a medical missionary. They have two children, 10-year-old Noah and eight-year-old Katelyn. Some of life that we may think unusual is quite normal for them. That includes the time that Johnson excused a student for being tardy because there was a bear between the student’s house and the family car. Or the time Johnson chased a moose off a playground. And then there’s the weather.

“We have recess unless is gets below 20 below zero,” Johnson wrote. “When it warms up to zero or above, the kids start asking to pull off their heavy coats because they get too hot running around.”

CIU Impact

Johnson says every area of his life and career has been impacted by his time at CIU.

“Every professor I had positively impacted my spiritual development,” Johnson wrote. “Where I have failed and repented, is where I neglected to apply the biblical lessons and admonishments of my professors.”   

So, Johnson makes sure he does not forget his professional roots. In 1997, Johnson student-taught at Columbia’s Harbison West Elementary School under the guidance of cooperating teacher Joyce Hamilton, the wife of CIU seminary professor emeritus Dr. Don Hamilton.

“I still wear a tie her class gave me at the end of my student teaching experience,” Johnson wrote.