Passionate, innovative Maryland math teacher, 85, shows no signs of stopping

mary johnson
Math teacher Mary Johnson, 85, continues to innovate and pursue her passions. (WTOP/Michelle Basch)

A superstar math teacher who has been changing lives for decades in the D.C. area is still going strong at 85 years young.

“I have not met a student who could not learn math. I have not. I’ll say it again because people don’t believe it,” Mary Johnson, of Clinton, Maryland, said with a laugh.

“Many of my students have gone to Harvard, Yale, top schools. They got motivated, realized they could learn. They went beyond my expectations many times, but they went on because they realized they could get it,” she said.

Johnson, who is originally from Norfolk, Virginia, graduated valedictorian of her high school class at age 15.

She earned a doctorate in mathematics education and went on to a long teaching and administrative career that included co-founding the Washington Mathematics Science Technology Public Charter High School, which opened in 1998 and closed in 2018.

In the late 1970s, she came up with a teaching and assessment method she calls the Success in Learning Math Approach or SILMA, and she has been using and tweaking it ever since.

SILMA simplifies mathematical definitions, formulas and theorems into what Johnson calls the “math laws.”

“To me it’s not revolutionary; it’s just simplifying everything so that there’s no question,” she said.

The technique involves unique diagnostic tests that hone in on exactly where a particular student is having trouble. Johnson has copyrighted tests for grades 1 through 9.

Now she is looking for a company to computerize her test for third-graders so it can be taken and scored online. From there, the plan is to pilot the test in several area elementary schools.

Johnson also founded a math tutoring business, and she continues to work relentlessly with students from kindergarten to college to help them understand.

“That’s what the students need. And … you should see how some of them come in. Really sour faces. ‘My mother sent me here.'”

She takes time to learn what students enjoy doing, so she can draw on that during her lessons.

For instance, Johnson told a football player who said he was stumped by math, “You’ve got to know the laws of math, just like you know the laws of football. And that was all he needed,” she said.

Johnson spoke of another student who suddenly walked out of a tutoring class. When the student returned, Johnson said the girl told her that she walked out because she could not contain herself, saying to Johnson, “For years I didn’t know what was going on. Now, I know!”

One parent came to Johnson for help, saying that her son had been taught what he called “gozinta” math. Turns out the teacher had been trying to teach division, but the boy misunderstood. “She said ‘goes into,’ and he was saying ‘gozinta'” Johnson said.

Johnson has an idea on why she has been successful at teaching.

“I think it’s my openness, my concern. My care about people comes through to the person that I’m directing it to, and somehow motivates them to the next level. I don’t understand it all myself,” she said.

On top of everything else, Johnson has made time to write several books, and she’s working on four more. One of them, her autobiography, which will be titled “The Miracles in My Life.”

Like WTOP on Facebook and follow @WTOP on Twitter to engage in conversation about this article and others.

© 2019 WTOP. All Rights Reserved. This website is not intended for users located within the European Economic Area.

More from WTOP

Log in to your WTOP account for notifications and alerts customized for you.

Sign up