Mark Johnson understands that retiring from his role as superintendent of Nooksack Valley Schools, a post he’s held since 1993, won’t be easy when the final days come at the end of June. “I have mixed emotions,” he says. “When you’re in one place so long and you take some level of ownership, it is not easy to leave. But it is time.”
Johnson moved to Nooksack Valley in 1987 to become a high school administrator and boys basketball coach. Just two years later he was the assistant superintendent and in 1993 took over the top spot. He’s had ample opportunities to pursue something else, but his pursuit always remained the students at Nooksack Valley.
“I guess the bottom line is you end up staying to a degree because you are so committed to the place and the kids and you know a revolving door of leadership is not good for them,” he says. Johnson says he’s never enjoyed people staying just long enough in rural districts to build a resume and move on, and he witnessed his father, a longtime Cashmere superintendent, move to the larger Wenatchee district in his later years and be “absolutely miserable.” That wasn’t going to be for Johnson. “That stuck out in my brain that the idea of bigger is better didn’t resonate.”
Along the way, Nooksack Valley has had success in teaching students and Johnson credits the system. “It wasn’t just me focused on the why, we had a collective focus on the why,” he says about the teaching. “It was a moral commitment.” That continued focus on the “instructional core as the key variable” has meant there was always work to be done, always a next step and always a pursue to fuel further growth. He learned along the way that the results and relationships were not mutually exclusive, but both necessary to support students.
Johnson will miss the “relationships formed through collaboratively striving to realize our shared mission and vision,” and the results that come from the collaborative work, but with so many professionals focused on the same goals, he believes this culture has the opportunity to continue growing at NV Schools.
“It drives me nuts when people talk about culture in isolation of the work, the work is the glue,” he says. “The commitment to the kids. We are adults working on getting better for kids and if that sustains that would be a beautiful thing. It might look different years from now and that is probably the way it should be as you are learning something new, you should apply it, but that would be a huge thing. And it certainly would not be about me.”
If nothing else stands from his 30-plus years at the district, Johnson says he hopes the system has proven it is fully and collectively committed to a culture that ensure the success of every student and an organization where new learning is applied to the mission at every step. “Nooksack Valley is a place where head and heart are visible in our work,” Johnson says.
He credits the great people around him, starting with the district’s board of directors, and his faith and family for ongoing guidance and support. With retirement coming, Johnson isn’t sure what next steps looks like. “I really have no idea,” he says. “I’ll see how long it takes me to get bored.” Johnson knows he’ll spend time with family and hopefully travel, but he’s open to whatever happens, all the time remaining thankful for the Nooksack Valley community that has always put students first.
“It is not just the levies and bonds, but showing up for senior projects, asking tough questions and all the stuff communities do on behalf of kids,” he says. “This place has consistently put kids first and I am appreciative of that. That is a sustainable thing and I would hope and pray that would continue on no matter who is in this office.”